If I told you there was a guy who dove to the bottom of the ocean, to retrieve beer bottles from the 1890s, to analyse the 130-year-old remnants so he could replicate that beer exactly, you'd think I was making it up, right? And if I told you that beer nut wasn't Irish or Australian, but Chilean? Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Except that I'm not. Because I actually met this guy, in his microbrewery in the winding laneways of the Chilean town Valparaíso, and he kind of blew my mind.
We arrived at his brewery Altamira, my beer-mad Chimu Adventures guide Ximena and I, as the afternoon sun was turning Valparaíso's candy-coloured houses their most brilliant shades. The beer nut himself came to meet us – a late 30-something named Sergio Morán with longish brown hair but a surprising lack of other hipster traits – to show us around his bar.
"This," he announced, pointing to a black-and-white photo of a dapper, moustachioed man, "is Andrés Blest, the man who started Chile's beer industry." After 1810, explained Morán while pointing at a beer history timeline mounted on the wall, when Chile gained independence from Spain, the new Chilean government encouraged an influx of immigrants from across the world, and Valparaíso became a major port accepting them. These immigrants brought beer with them but, because there was no refrigeration, it quickly went bad.
Enter Blest, an Irish immigrant desperate for a good frosty one. "Imagine an Irish guy in a place like this with no beer, not even one drinkable bottle!" said Morán, explaining Blest's decision to start the first brewery in Latin America in Valparaíso in 1825. Others followed, but most of those smaller breweries were slowly absorbed by Chilean drinks giant Compania Cervecerias Unidas, and by the 1950s most Chileans were drinking the same mass-market, bland beer. Until recently, that is, when craft brewers such as Morán (there are upwards of 400 microbreweries in Chile today) started bringing sophisticated Chilean beer to life again.
Eighteen months before any hops went into Morán's tanks, he started researching historic recipes and importing the best ingredients from around the world to recreate the beers that Chile's first immigrants loved so much. "I was so inspired by the passion of those immigrants, and felt strongly that their story deserved to be told and shared, by creating beer as close to those brewed by Blest," said Morán. To do that, he uses the exact same barley and hops to recreate the flavour, and even adjusts the calcium content of the water he uses to mimic that of Blest's era.
Morán led me through Altamira's bar and restaurant, passing walls lined with historic beer bottles and a statue of the patron saint of brewers Saint Arnulfo of Metz, and into his small brewery. There, after telling me his processes of hopping, fermenting without pasteurising and filtering, and storing also mimic those used in the 1800s, Morán revealed his master plan: to take those 1890s beer bottles that he dove into the Valparaiso harbour for, and analyse their contents so he can reverse-engineer the recipe and get his product even closer to the original.
It could have been easy to write all of this off as a marketing gimmick, and the sceptic in me was ready to do just that. But then Morán ushered me to a window seat in his bar, served me a tasting paddle of four beers, and I quickly realised it wasn't. The crisp, citrusy American pale ale, the caramel amber ale, the stout and the Belgian beer: I'm no beer expert, but these were definitely richer and more nuanced than most I'd tried before. When I told Morán as much, he nodded and said simply, "you're tasting the flavour of history".
LATAM flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago. See latam.com
Hotel Cumbres Lastarria has 70 modern rooms and suites, a small outdoor pool, and sits in the centre of Santiago's buzzing, culturally rich Lastarria neighbourhood. From $185 a night; cumbreslastarria.com.
Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Chile itinerary with flights, accommodation, transfers and tours, including the Chilean Beer Trail experience. Phone 1300 873 981; chimuadventures.com/chile.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Chimu Adventures.
FIVE MICROBREWERIES TO VISIT AROUND VALPARAISO
Yes, you can taste beer just as it was back in the 1800s, but Altamira also enhances the experience by offering a menu of beer-based food, including bread and brownies made with beer. Try to time your tasting with one of its four times-weekly live jazz nights. See cerveceraaltamira.cl
You'd be forgiven for thinking you're in Munich when you visit Tauss, a brewery and beer garden in bucolic Limache (40 minutes inland from Valparaiso) that recreates the German biergarten experience. The German owner imports all ingredients from his homeland. See cervezatauss.cl
Just 15 minutes from Tauss, in the rural town of Olmué, you'll find another outfit producing beer with imported German ingredients, following the strict regulations of the German Purifying Law of 1516, and using pure Andean water. See sessler.cl
After living in Ireland, Kross' Chilean owner returned home in the early noughties and, craving the high-quality beer he'd been drinking in Ireland, opened this boutique brewery in Curacaví (50 minutes from Valparaiso), where beer tastings are conducted in their fruit and vegetable gardens. See kross.cl
In ancient Europe brewing was almost exclusively a woman's role. Hathor brewery (also in Curacaví) harks back to those days of old, being owned and run exclusively by women. Open to the public Monday and Friday only. See cervezahathor.cl