Chilean consumers embrace premium and handcrafted brews

Beer has surpassed wine and pisco as the most popular alcoholic beverage in Chile, with the average citizen consuming more than 35 liters each year.

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Five years ago artisanal and imported brews, classified as premium beers, could barely compete in the Chilean beer market, dominated by mass-market products like Cristal, Escudo and Royal Guard.

Now, according to a report in Chilean daily newspaper La Tercera, premium beers account for 20 percent of all beer sold in Chile. They also represent 13 percent of beer consumed by volume – a figure expected to grow to 20 percent by 2015.

Though artisanal beers – locally-produced handmade products – still represent a fairly small portion of the market, accounting for just 0.4 percent of beer sold in Chile, they have experienced significant growth in recent years.

According to an interview in Business Chile Magazine with Kevin Szot, owner of Chilean brewery Szot, up to 90 artisanal brews are now produced across the country, ranging from well-known producers like Kross to homegrown brewers working on the most local level.

Kross is among the most commercially successful and readily available of the handcrafted beers on the Chilean market. Made near Santiago, Kross now produces about 700,000 liters annually, while maintaining the complex fermentation processes that are the trademark of artisanal breweries.

New artisanal beer company Guayacán has also been increasing distribution in the same vein as Kross. First launched on Sept. 18 2009, Guayacán was begun by a former wine-maker living in the Elqui Valley, a region famous for its pisco production. A year after launching its first beer, Guayacán now makes an average of about 4,000 liters of beer each month, a figure that they expect to at least double over the coming summer months.

“There has been a boom in handcrafted beers,” says Guayacán business partner Victor Szecowka. “It’s a very friendly industry.” Growing numbers of small producers are now working informally together to increase the visibility of handmade beers in the Chilean market, assisting each other with marketing and production techniques.

Dozens of new breweries have opened in the last few years, as evidenced by the scale of this year’s annual Oktoberfest. Held from Oct. 29 to Nov. 7 in the town of Malloco, about 33 km southwest of central Santiago, the beer festival hosted 70 producers, most of them national, artisanal breweries with 29 new to the festival this year.

For now, handmade beers are still a small part of the wider premium beer category which is gaining traction in the Chilean market. But with new breweries taking their products to an increasingly receptive consumer base, and events such as Oktoberfest supporting a passionate and productive brewing community, artisanal ale is at the frontier of a widespread renaissance in Chile’s beer industry, as vibrant and rapid as that which transformed the wine industry nearly 20 years ago.

This post is also available in Spanish