So You Wanna Be a Brewer?

Brian Coombs and Joe Giammatteo at Sacred Valley Brewing Company
Brian Coombs and Joe Giammatteo at Sacred Valley Brewing Company.

During my time at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, my colleagues and I had a saying that we would use sarcastically on those days our jobs were anything but the popular over-glamorized view of working in a brewery — “So you wanna be a brewer”. For example, on those mornings your un-insulated warehouse is barely above freezing and your Meheen bottling line decides to give you an IPA shower. Or during the fresh hop brew day when you have to get inside a 100+ degree whirlpool to shovel out whole cone hops. But at the end of the day, those moments are always worth it and make good stories over your shift pint with co-workers.

For a month this past spring, I have been helping out a friend, Joe Giammatteo, in his six-month-young craft brewery in the Sacred Valley region of Peru. The overall experience at Cerveceria Del Valle Sagrado (Brewery of the Sacred Valley) was phenomenal, but my short time brewing here gave me an entire new meaning of our phrase “So you wanna be a brewer.”

Even though roughly one million tourists a year travel through the Sacred Valley on their way to Machu Picchu, the area is still very rural and the infrastructure reflects that. The power and water supplied to the brewery was great — when it was functioning at 100%. However, it was not rare to experience random power and water outages, leaving the brewery at the mercy of the brewers’ creativity and problem solving. This was the case on my first day and several others working with Joe.

Joe Giammatteo brewing at Sacred Valley Brewing Company
Joe Giammatteo brewing at Sacred Valley Brewing Company

The night before I arrived, there was a power surge that blew out the breaker on the brewhouse pump and affected the controller for the hot liquor tank temperature. This being one of many times that this had happened, Joe immediately had a fix with a strategically placed piece of duct-tape to hold the burnt out breaker down and we just used the kettle to heat the HLT. Located in rural Peru, we were not able to pop over to a hardware store like Jerry’s or Home Depot to grab a replacement breaker, so we brewed like this for the rest of the week until we could take the hour combi (shared van) ride into Cusco to get supplies that weekend.

Sacred Valley Brewing Company brewhouse pump breaker
Sacred Valley Brewing Company blown brewhouse pump breaker.

Shopping in Cusco is made up of several small shops that are organized in town by the products they sell. For example, if you are shopping for a mattress you go to the street that is exclusively mattress stores. While this means there are no one-stop get-everything-you-need stores, it does make it very nice for price comparisons. So we made our way to the brewery supply street… If only. Instead, we headed for the electronics section and started going through the stores in search of the breaker we needed. After we visited more than half a dozen of the little electronics supply stores we were beginning to think we weren’t going to find one on this street. Into a taxi we went to another market about 10 minutes away where we were successful in finding our breaker.

We spent the rest of the weekend in Cusco eating great food and trying some of the other Peruvian artisanal beer. Zenith is a brewery in Cusco run by an Australian who is producing a good IPA and pale ale and a great porter. Of course, no trip to Cusco is complete without a visit to the Museo del Pisco, the Pisco museum, for some incredible Pisco cocktails. This night is when I realized what it’s like to drink above 11,000 feet, but that’s a story for another time.

Drinking in Cusco, Peru
Drinking in Cusco, Peru

We headed back to Ollantaytambo so we could brew a double batch of IPA with our now fully functioning brewhouse — hopefully. We arrive to the brewery to find that now the water is out and has been for the last several days. The PVC pipes that were installed in the ‘80s to bring water down to the village of Pachar and the brewery from a source more than 14,000 feet up had severely broken. Luckily we had barely enough water in our storage tanks to clean and sanitize the FV, mash-in and knock-out into it. When I say barely, I mean barely. Every bit of water that could be reused was reused, and there was no room for error. If we used too much for any of the process we wouldn’t have enough water to run through the heat exchanger to knock-out. If all breweries brewed the way we did that day I imagine millions of gallons of water would be saved throughout a year. We made it through the brew-day with no water to spare. Batch 1 of 2 was in the tank, now fingers crossed the water line would get fixed in time to brew the second batch the next morning. We rushed to the brewery the next morning hopeful that the water was back on and we could continue to brew — no dice.

Remember when I said brewing in Peru is really up to the creativity and problem solving of the brewer? This is what I meant. We brainstormed for a few minutes and made some phone calls. It turned out that a few miles up the road a ranch had water! Another phone call and a friend had a truck we could borrow, so we started cleaning every storage container we could get our hands on — trash cans, plastic storage bins, 5-gallon water jugs, etc… When we arrived at the ranch the family was more than happy to help. They hooked up a hose to their water storage tank and we started filling.

Obtaining water to brew on a ranch in Peru
Obtaining water to brew on a ranch in Peru

Filling our containers was taking a long time, so the rancher invited Joe and me into his house. We enter his living room to find a large bookshelf packed with trophies. The rancher had brought us in to show off all of his accolades for being one of the best, if not the best, horse dancer in Cusco. We flipped through photos he handed us, showing a very elegant looking dance where he was guiding a horse around a woman. I wish I could have seen the dance in person but his next performance was after I was slated to leave Peru. Although, there was talk that he would preform it at one off the brewery’s parties. 

After two trips, we had enough water in our storage tanks to finish out the double batch of IPA. Thankfully the water was repaired by the end of the day in time for the next day’s monthly brewery party. Then we found out there was a scheduled power outage the entire day of the party. Just when one challenge was solved, another appeared!

Every month the Sacred Valley Brewing Company hosts a party in which a percentage of the proceeds go to a local NGO. These parties are a huge success that draws locals and tourists alike from all over Cusco. The power outage wasn’t a big deal and actually turned out to be very fun. There is something very special about drinking good beer with friends under candlelight. And because everyone had a good buzz going, dancing commenced as soon as the radio had power. The night was finished off by some very dicey homemade fireworks that didn’t always leave the launch pad as planned.

Sacred Valley Brewing Company Cheers
Sacred Valley Brewing Company Cheers

The rest of my time brewing for SVBC was relatively normal and stress-free for Peru. We still ran into the usual problems of a hop order sitting warm for weeks in Lima waiting to get through customs, or the challenges of brewing at such a high altitude. And I never did get used to loading kegs into the back of a taxi to be delivered to Cusco, where then the driver would transfer the kegs to a bus that would take them to Lima or Arequipa. It amazes me that the kegs always made the journey without “falling off the bus” or showing up a couple liters light. But at the end of the day it was extremely gratifying. Being a part of the brewing industry in the Pacific Northwest, it is hard to come by someone who has never experienced drinking a craft beer. I forgot what it was like to share my passion with someone for the first time, and to see their reaction to the variety of flavors that craft beer can offer compared to a warm domestic lager (Cusquena in this case). And it was equally rewarding giving weary travelers a piece of home in a good Northwest IPA.

So do I still wanna be a brewer? You bet.

Sacred Valley Brewing Company Patio
Sacred Valley Brewing Company Patio

More information about SVBC can be found on the brewery’s Facebook Page or in an article from Paste Magazine.

2 Comments

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *