Craft beer in South America isn’t anything new. When I was in Argentina in 2004 there were microbrews as far south as Ushuaia and I sampled some craft beer in Sucre, Bolivia back in 2007. But when I first passed through Peru there wasn’t much to get excited about.
Thankfully Peru is catching up to some of their South American neighbours, albeit on a small scale. The beer of dominance today is Pilsen, while Cristal is pretty much everywhere as well. Interestingly, the beer that was everywhere last time I visited (Cusquena) is still popular but has branched out offering more unique styles and seems positioned as a higher-end brew now.
As with my Craft Beers of Ecuador post, I’ll break things down for Peru in terms of mass-produced popular beers and the harder to find, locally brewed craft beers. While it isn’t so easy finding some of these brews the good news for beer lovers is that more craft, artesanal brewers are popping up in Peru. Lima, Cuzco and even Iquitos have some locally available (but still hard to find) beers. In time, hopefully craft beer will become more common in this South American country.
Popular Beers in Peru
These are the beers you’ll see on t-shirts or find in virtually any bar in Peru, they’re pretty much all pale looking lagers, with the exception of some of the more recent adventurous offerings from Cusquena. SABMiller owns a bunch of the most popular Peruvian breweries.
Pilsen Callao from Backus y Johnston (SABMiller)
Straw lager taste, a light flavourless brew. That’s about all you need to know. Apparently the most popular brew in Peru at the moment (although similar claims are made by Cristal), it’s also the watery-est and dullest of the bunch. Officially, it’s supposedly a maltier beer by style, by it fails in this regard. The 1.1L bottles that are popular for sharing are fun, but lower your expectations to appreciate this generic brew. If you somehow really like the taste of this, then you’ll love Cristal.
Cristal from Backus y Johnston (SABMiller)
Pale yellow, lifeless looking beer that has no head retention. At best it is an easy to drink grainy lager that is best served ice cold in the heat of the sun. Aroma is corn, soap, fermented something. Taste is light, mild sour, blandness. It’s just nothing really…flavoured water with some alcohol added. I’d say it is worse than Pilsen, hmm perhaps…hard to gauge the difference. They’re both painfully non-de-script lagers, the type of cheap beers most backpackers and travellers consume in vast quantities, then suffer the consequences for the next day. But hey…at less than half the price of a good beer, like Norton Porter, I can’t fault the budget beer drinkers.
Cusqueña Premium from Cervecera del sur del Peru (SABMiller)
Last time I was in Peru, this was ‘the’ beer. Things have changed and Cusquena isn’t the Everyman beer. The beer itself though hasn’t seemingly changed, so it seems that it’s just been a marketing shift in beer consumption in Peru. Insights aside, this beer is a decent brew for a pale yellow lager. Grainy? A bit. Flavour? A bit. Drink it cold…the one I had in the snow at home in Canada was better than the ones in warmer weather in Peru.
Franca from Ajeper S.A.
A non-SABMiller brew! Ajeper is a small multi-national beverage company and it seems their beers are a little better than some – on par with Cusquena anyways. This beer has an almost headless pour with a wafting smell of grainy wheat and sourness. Not promising. Pale yellow straw colour, this beer is unfortunately another generic brew. The especial/export label does nothing to help it. I had hoped for this to be a fine lager, but it tastes muted, a mild flavour of grains with little substance. Another forgettable Peruvian beer, but not as bad as Cristal or Pilsen Callao.
Tres Croces (Three Crosses) from Ajeper S.A.
Great looking bottle, first impression is promising. Damn! It’s a light grainy lager again! I don’t have to pour this one out of the bottle to know it is likely pale yellow in colour. It’s not ‘as’ grainy as some, and is decently drinkable. I wouldn’t say it is a ‘Cerveza premium’ as the bottle states but I’d put it closer to the top of widely available Peruvian beers. Overall aroma is sweet corn and grain, a bit sugary. Taste is also grains, but a bit sweet. Abrupt, dry finish leaves you craving more flavour, as there isn’t much of it here. I put this in the league of Heineken- an over marketed, under delivering brew. Rant aside, drink this before the other big beers of Peru if given a choice.
The Better Macro Brews in Peru
That covers the main ‘big’ beers I had in Peru. I didn’t sample everything the country has to offer, but it’s a solid run down of what to expect. Now, on to the more adventurous macro brews. In terms of South American offerings, you could almost call these craft beer. They all have distinct flavours and styles, beyond your pale lagers.
Cusqueña De Trigo from Cervecera del sur del Peru (SABMiller)
A wheat beer in Peru? This pleasant surprise wasn’t the easiest to find, but was worth the effort. Medium opaque-murkiness it’s a light orange colour. A local could mistake this for looking like chicha if it weren’t for the monstrous amount of foamy head you get while pouring. Aroma was a little grainy and typical lager yeast, not so wheaty. But the flavour was wheat beer and quite refreshing. Nothing outstanding but high marks for Peru, I would happily drink this simple wheat beer again.
Apu Cerveza de Coca from Backus y Johnston (SABMiller)
You can’t go tp peru without giving in to the coca plant hype. Chew coca leaves, drink coca tea…or drink coca beer! Very light colour with a hazy translucent look. It has a huge smell of lemons, looking and smelling like lemonade. It’s easy to drink but has an odd spiciness alongside that zesty lemon. It really doesn’t taste like a beer, but more an alcoholic juice. You would liken it to a Radlermass beer I guess, but with more of an edge. It’s actually better than what I expected…although tastes nothing like what I expected. Best part of the beer is that the label calls it a ‘smart drink’! It’s worth a try for novelty sake, but far from a good beer.
Cusqueña Malta from Cervecera del sur del Peru (SABMiller)
This black beauty is a schwarzbier and is sweet and malty as the name would suggest. One of the darkest beers I had in Peru. It was sugary and a bit syrupy but not so bad overall. There is definitely more complexity of taste to this than your common lagers. It is a beer that you can enjoy while dining on Alpaca steak! But not the most session-able brew. Decent finish, no real lingering after-taste aside from some caramel flavour. All around, a decent effort and beer.
Cusqueña Red Lager from Cervecera del sur del Peru (SABMiller)
This beer is actually a golden orange colour, not quite red or amber. The taste is fresh and mildly sweet. A bit grainy but not like most Peruvian lagers. Expect a big frothy head during the pour. This one falls in the middle of the pack in terms of quality and taste. It’s far better than the light lagers, but not nearly as good as the craft beers. If you’re looking for a bit of flavour without having to pay more for your beer in Peru, this is a decent option. Definitely passable and above average for Peru. Has a light, pleasant finish, a bit wet not dry.
Craft Beers of Peru
Now for the good stuff! These are, in my opinion, the best beers in Peru. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to find craft beer in Peru, in particularly around the main square in Cuzco and also in Lima. As I didn’t have time to explore Lima on my recent trip, I’ll focus on sharing the craft beers I had in Cuzco.
Nortons Pale Ale at Norton Rat’s Tavern in Cusco
This was the first pint I had in Peru. Yes – a pint, not a bottle of beer! Unfiltered beer I assume. It looked like some kind of orange-brown cloudy Metamucil drink and had a slight sediment left in the bottom of the pint glass. Taste was nice and crisp though. An ever so slight bitterness lingers at the end, while the smell was fresh, a bit fruity and sweet. It is not like any pale ale I’ve seen before but the taste is similar. By Peruvian standards, delicious. This beer was the first time I tasted any hint of bitterness and hops in a beer in Peru. Norton Rat’s Pub has only started brewing their own beers somewhat recently, and while they may not blow you away, they are leaps and bounds better than the light lagers you get used to in South America.
The Norton Rat’s Website: nortonratspub.com
Norton Rat’s on Facebook: www.facebook.com/NortonRatsTavern
Snortin Norton Porter at Norton Rat’s Tavern in Cusco
My favourite Norton beer. It’s a shame that so many beer drinkers may pass through Peru without realizing well-crafted, tasty beers exist here!
There was a definite coffee aroma to this dark, but not black beer. It had a different colour for a porter. It was dark, but with a more brown than black colour. Aside from that it was a joy to drink. Light on the lips it was a bit watery upfront but quickly delivered on coffee and toffee flavours. It had a fairly long lasting dry finish too. From wet to dry it’s a nice effort for a porter beer. The clingy light brown head is evidence that it’s been brewed with passion, or at least quality ingredients. No evident sediment in this brew, unlike their Pale Ale.
Nortons Brown Ale at Norton Rat’s Tavern in Cusco
A bit dark inside the bar so the colour was hard to distinguish. Definitely a darkish beer but can’t tell how ‘brown’ it is. Aroma was wet, not so strong. Trying to discern this beers characteristics was tougher than their other two brews I had. Taste was a brown ale though. They did get the core elements of that right. A bit of molasses flavour but quite mild. As this beer warmed up, it’s flavours and aromas became more pronounced. So after 1/2 a pint we’ve got a sugary smelling brew that has a medium mouth feel and moderate caramel molasses flavour profile, with a hint of nut or nutmeg flavour. It is far from a light lager, yet fails a bit as everything was just slightly underwhelming with this. A brown ale, or even a nut brown ale, could work so well with the natural ingredients found in Peru…this one needs to be tinkered with, nice but this was my least favourite Nortons brew.
Dragon’s Tears at Dragon’s Palate in Cusco
Not only did this fun place have good beer, they had good food too! With a little beer garden area, it’s a great spot and right beside a good bakery too. When I visited they didn’t have their Dragon’s Breath Honey Pilsner or Dragon’s Blood Nut Brown beers available, so I got their American Pale Ale, called Dragon’s Tears. The beer poured a mildly opaque yellow-orange colour with a decent amount of sticky head. Good amount of bitterness to this brew. It smelled crisp as well, with a lemon citrus freshness to it. Does not look nor smell like a beer from Peru. It drinks easily with a nice, long finish that leaves a bit of a sour grapefruit, bitter hop flavour in your mouth. Overall, my favourite beer in Peru.
Dragon’s Palate Website: dragonspalate.com
Dragon’s Palate on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DragonsPalate
There you go, a run down of 13 beers from Peru. Hopefully on your journey to Peru you’ll be able to sample something beyond Cristal, Pilsen and Cusquena.