What makes Barbarian unique is that it was the first craft brewery in a city of 10 million people, and only the second in a country of more than 30 million. See, Peru was then, and largely still is now, the land of light lager.
The market is dominated by a massive brewing company called Backus and Johnston, which is part of a Columbian company, Bavaria, which is itself part of the international SABMiller group. Shocking, right? The group makes the Peruvian equivalent of the yellow fizzy beers we’re all familiar with back home. They make the three most prominent labels in Peru—Cristal, Cusqueña, and Pilsen. In all, Backus and Johnston’s beer sales account for “close to 95% of the national beer market,” according to the Backus and Johnston website.
Don’t get me wrong, I drank my fair share of light lagers and Pilsners in Peru. You’ll never catch me telling anyone that shitty light beer doesn’t have its place. I will never forget how I savored the ice-cold cans of Cristal we purchased with our last cash on-hand after a 10-mile hike down a hot beach in the midday sun. And there was the night we arrived in Cusco, feeling yet-unencumbered by the delayed effects of altitude sickness, that I stayed up into the small hours, drinking Cusqueña out of a shot glass with several brothers of our couch-surfing host, watching YouTube videos of their other (now-deceased) brother bullfighting, and introducing them to Midwest hip-hop. Still, I would much rather make new friends over the kind of beer that has a story—like Barbarian.
We had known Diego for just over an hour when suddenly we were in his car on the way to his apartment. (He really wanted to show us his bottle collection and insisted we not leave Peru without a Barbarian T-shirt and pint glass.) Overlooking the sprawling Base Aérea Las Palmas with a gorgeous views of the city, his place was absolutely brimming with empty craft beer bottles from breweries all over the world. These were his trophies, covering every shelf and ledge. The décor, though reminiscent of what you would probably see at a college dorm in the Midwest these days, somehow didn’t emanate the same frat-boy vibe. Diego was a craftsman in search of the finest examples of his craft. He and his business partners had been inspired by each of these beers for its singularity and individuality.
If I remember correctly, he poured us a glass of Founders KBS as we chatted about the U.S. craft beer scene, his days in school in the U.S., and the challenges—and opportunities—that came with being the first craft brewery in such a huge market. A few ounces of KBS and good company on a sunny summer afternoon in Lima had me feeling up for anything. “Let’s go to Cañas y Tapas so you can meet Ignacio and Juan Diego,” offered Diego. We obliged.
Cañas y Tapas was the de facto Barbarian home base. It was the closest thing to a gastropub I visited in Peru, and since Barbarian didn’t have a taproom, it was the place the guys brought people to show off their craft. It was actually the first place we found Barbarian—or any craft beer for that matter—in Peru. We had been lured there by the dim glow of a Delirium Tremens sign a few weeks earlier and had visited a couple times when we had wanted a little taste of home in the form of hops. And on this night, it was at Cañas y Tapas that I would begin a years-long friendship with three Peruvians over too much beer and shared mutual interests in entrepreneurialism and beer.
The Barbarian guys, Diego Rodriguez, Ignacio Schwalb, and Juan Diego Vasquez, were treated like local celebrities at the bar that night three years ago. Everybody knew them—or wanted to. The management reserved a side room for us upon our arrival and we continued to talk about the similarities and differences between the beer industries in our native lands, the growth potential for the industry as a whole, and whose palm you have to grease to ensure a level playing field in Peru.
We were introduced to Juan Mayorga, another Peruvian with dreams of starting his own brewery. (In fact, a little more than a year later, Juan and his partners opened Sacred Valley Brewing, or Cervecería del Valle, in the Cusco area. Though I have not been back to Peru to visit the new brewery, reports from my Barbarian friends are that the beer is fantastic.) Juan had brought with him a few beers from a recent trip he’d taken to the Pacific Northwest: a Double Mountain India Red Ale, Ichtegem’s Grand Cru from Brouwerij Strubbe, and one of my personal favorites: Duchesse De Bourgogne. It was the first time any of the three Barbarian owners had ever tasted a sour beer. It was like watching a kid try Pop Rocks for the first time. Minds were blown. Laughs were had. And more beer.
I don’t recall Chris and I consternating over our impending international flight before we enthusiastically accepted the guys’ invitation to join them for a stop at another one of their favorite watering holes—the Lima Rugby Restobar.
By this point in our weeks-long trip, we had overcome some impressive obstacles. I had endured food poisoning—twice. (I still can’t eat black clams.) We had hiked across miles of hot sand in Mancora. We had trekked to Machu Picchu, dammit. But nothing could prepare us for the test that was the “Barbarian Challenge.” At the since-closed Lima Rugby Restobar, if you chug a liter of Barbarian’s (6.5%) Red Ale, you get the beer for free. Totally sound decision to make well into a day of beer drinking and with an international flight to catch in a few short hours, right? I thought so.
Some of you probably chagrin at the thought of quality craft beer being quaffed in such a manner. Well then, you haven’t felt the glory of a finishing your trip to Peru with a 13-second showing in the Barbarian Challenge in the company of the brewers who crafted that beer. I don’t have hard proof anymore, but as far as I know, I was still on the top 10 all-time list when the Restobar closed its doors a year or so back.
When Chris stepped out of the bar that night, I could tell by the worried look on his face that we had to fly. Literally. We had officially had too much fun. Our international flight would be pulling away from the gate with or without us in T-minus two-and-a-half hours.