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When it comes to beer drinking in Colombia, the market is dominated by the bog-standard Bavaria beers. The nation’s tipple of choice is generally a Poker, Aguila or Costeña, with some opting for the more ‘upmarket’ Club Colombia. They’re far from amazing, but they’re fine all the same.
Yet for those looking for a better beer-drinking experience, there are other, quality options available. The most popular in this regard is the Bogotá Beer Company, but it could be argued that it has drifted a bit from its artisanal origins (if it ever really had such). It’s also generally priced quite highly in the venues where its brews are sold; the cost of just a couple of pints are equivalent to half a days wages for many.
Thankfully there are more attractive alternatives. One of those filling this value-for-money versus quality/originality void is Cervecería Gigante, the brainchild of California native Will Catlett.
We caught up with him over a tasty pint (or two or three!) recently to find out what has him brewing beers down this side of the Americas.
Wrong Way: What made you start up a micro brewery in Bogota?
Will Catlett: Being from California, home brew and craft beer is a major part of our culture. My interest in craft beer started as a teen, and I got my first home brew kit when I was 15. Needless to say my interests in drinking beer at that age were quite different from what they are now, but it was always a passion and something I enjoyed doing.
There’s also a social aspect that I always enjoyed, as you can share experiences about beer with anyone from anywhere around the world, and brewing with other people is always a good time to connect and share interests. But being that there is so much beer in California, and in the US in general, I never considered it an option simply based on the price and the competition.
So when I came to Colombia, I saw the lack of good beer, and I realised that the craft beer scene here would kick off soon. I had a restaurant for a while in La Candalería, and that was sort of my icebreaker in seeing how business works here, but it was kind of both a dream and a nightmare so I closed it and began thinking about what I wanted to do.
In my boredom/planning, I went to the only local home-brew shop I knew at the time, and bought some ingredients and started trying to make some of my recipes from back home. As the ingredients were limited, I worked with what I had and eventually got some pretty decent beer. I did a few events around Bogotá trying to promote my beer just to see how it would go, and we ran out faster than I expected every time.
From there I started thinking more seriously about the project and started looking around to find a warehouse where I could have both the brewery and the pub. And thanks to a ton of support from my family and friends, about a year or so later here I am with a brewery and pub, moving right along, living my dream.
WW: You say your restaurant was both a dream and nightmare! How has setting up & running the warehouse/pub been different? And how is business going so far?
WC: So there were various factors that made the restaurant both a success and a failure. To start off, that was my first experience owning and running a business. I had two business partners who helped out, but it wasn’t enough to get things moving.
Both my lack of experience and fear of dedicating to one idea made it difficult for us to succeed. But we were very well located and our quality food, beer, and wine kept us afloat for quite a while. But in the long run, it wasn’t enough to continue, and we eventually had to close.
In a sense I feel like what I’d done with the restaurant was really more of a distraction from what I really wanted to do, which was beer. Since opening the brewery and pub, I am happier than ever, and surprisingly it’s a lot easier to run.
It’s a lot more streamlined as far as the concept goes and it’s a lot easier to capture my target market. With the craft beer scene being so new here it’s really easy to connect with different markets and practically everyone shows interest right from the start. There is a growing community here in the craft beer scene and that definitely helps.
Running the brewery is fairly easy but it’s a lot of work, dedication and endless things to do, but I enjoy every minute of it. The pub on the other hand is a bit more complicated, surprisingly a lot more work. Things are starting off well, but getting our name out to the general public is really the hard part, since we get most of our clients by word of mouth.
Most of my job at the pub is showing people the difference between craft beer and commercial beer, and not only why it’s better, but to explain what quality beer really is and to make them pay attention to what they are actually consuming, and most of all, who they are supporting with their hard-earned money — a greedy monopoly or a local, hardworking, passionate, small business owner.
With craft breweries only having one per cent of the market share in Colombia, it’s a slow process, but in the last few years it’s come a long way, and I hope to be a part of the growing scene and culture as it expands, overcoming the challenges of competing with giants like Bavaria and SABMiller (now Anheuser-Busch InBev).
That’s why the brewery is called Gigante, because that is what we have to be, no matter how small or how big we are, we will always strive to be bigger and better.
WW: So if a lucrative offer was to come from one of the brewing giants, what would your response be?!
WC: As far as one of the brewing giants buying me out or having partial ownership, at this point absolutely not. But if someone came by as a private investor I might be interested, but everything would depend on the offer. For me it’s not about the money, it’s about the idea and philosophy, so it’s a very fine line between what I would or wouldn’t accept. Although in almost all cases breweries are subjected to looking for bank loans or investors of some sort, not necessarily for starting up, but for increasing capacity and production, so it’s not a theme I’m afraid to talk about.
WW: Finally, in a few words, for Cervecería Gigante newbies, what can they expect on a maiden visit?
WC: Good beer, good food, good service, a proper gastropub, and a unique atmosphere.
(We can vouch for that, and all at pretty reasonable prices, too, which can be difficult to find in Bogotá.)
*Cervecería Gigante’s bar is open Thursday through to Saturday from 5 to 11 pm. It’s located on Cra 22 # 70a-60. Pints (500 ml) of beer start from 7.000 COP, with 330 ml glasses from 5.000 COP.
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