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Our resident beer commentator returns, not just for his latest look at the beer world, but also from his travels. Stephen Beaumont tells us about his time spent in South America this month, and why he thinks the region is set to hog the craft beer headlines going forward.

South America is the place to be if youre looking for the next big thing from craft beer

South America is the place to be if you're looking for the next big thing from craft beer

In 2011, enticed by the handful of Brazilian craft beers I had sampled during the previous year's edition of the Mondial de la Bière festival in Montréal, I undertook my first trip to South America. That same year, the Copa Cervezas de América was born in Santiago, Chile.

Now billing itself as "the most important beer contest in Latin America" and featuring also the Conferencia de Cerveceros, or Brewers Conference, the Copa took place earlier this month. Curious to see what has been going on beer-wise in South America since my last visit a few years earlier, I happily accepted an invitation to attend, judge and speak at the event.

It turns out that the Copa's bold claim of importance might not be too far off the mark. The competition portion of the event witnessed the judging of close to 1,700 beers, the sort of numbers put up by respected European contests such as the Brussels Beer Challenge. And, while seven of the beers entered originate from outside of the Americas - three from Lithuania, four from Spain, all brought to the contest by brewer-judges - the Copa also represented a solid cross-section of South and North American brewing, with entries from 16 countries, from the US to Argentina and everywhere in between.

Leaving aside the US entries - accounting for only 8% of the total - the competition was fairly representative of what is happening in Latin America in terms of the progress of craft brewing. Slightly over a third of the beers entered hailed from Brazil, the most developed of the Latin American craft beer cultures. A quarter, meanwhile, came from Argentina, now in its second or perhaps third wave of brewery growth. Somewhat surprisingly, only 11% of the entries were brewed in the host country.

The awards more or less paralleled the composition of the entries. With gold, silver and bronze medals awarded on the basis of a threshold number of points earned from the judges (resulting in possible multiple winners of each medal type across specific categories), Brazil and Argentina led the way in total medals per country, with Chile taking the third most medals followed by Mexico, the US and, impressively for a country with only 36 beers entered from a dozen breweries, Costa Rica.

The relationship of the Copa to the general development of Latin American craft brewing is worth stressing. I see it as important for establishing the competition as a regional bellwether of sorts. That said, we can turn to what it might suggest awaits the southern Americas in the future.

At the head of the pack is Brazil, with in excess of 600 craft breweries operational in 2017, according to Statista, and likely many others having opened this year. While such numbers remain small relative to the country's population -– one brewery for every 343,000 citizens compared with one for every 52,000 in the US - they represent some of the strongest craft beer segment growth in Latin America, eclipsed only by very recent activity in Argentina, by some estimates now boasting as many as 1,000 breweries, and burgeoning Mexico.

Shaken of late by political unrest, Brazil is today well poised to take off as a South American craft beer hub should its economy and political structure stabilise - far from a certainty, obviously, or at this stage possibly even a likelihood.

Bucking the presumed impact of its current economic crisis, Argentina is witnessing craft brewing growth at unprecedented levels, with as much as one brewery for every 42,000 people. High inflation and interest rates, however, suggest that this level of craft activity is likely unsustainable and that a correction, possibly a very large one, is looming in the near future.

One mitigating factor working in Argentina's favour is that its breweries are largely concentrated in three regions: Buenos Aires; the area around Mar del Plata, about four hours south of the capital, and the Patagonian region surrounding the town of Bariloche. So long as those areas can remain vibrant, the country's craft brewing industry will likely do the same.

Over to the west, Chile has shown little to no craft beer movement over the past three to four years, a fact reflected in its low participation rate in the Copa. Indeed, during my week in the country, I saw little in the way of signals that this will change any time soon.

Conversely, to the far north, Mexico continues to demonstrate strong craft segment growth and rapid improvement in the quality of its beers. With interest in craft beers now growing in areas outside of the traditional centres of Mexico City, Baja California and the north-west and Guadalajara, the country may well be poised to become a premium beer leader in Latin America.

As for the remainder of South and Central America, while some nations are improving and expanding more quickly than others - Costa Rica, for example, and Colombia and possibly Paraguay – by and large these countries are still finding their feet where small brewery development is concerned.

Given the rapid grown witnessed elsewhere, it would seem imprudent to count any of them out of what is now clearly a global craft brewing movement.

Click here for more beer commentary from Stephen Beaumont

Sectors: Beer & cider

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