By Tony Forder
Roughly 24-hours after I returned from the Great American Beer Festival, I was airborne again headed for Rio de Janeiro and the Mondial de la Biere Festival.
A quick turnaround to be sure, but it was not my first time. I have grown up with this fest, but even I am stunned at the rate which the Mondial Rio has grown in its 4-year history. Teaming up with FAGGA/GL EVENTS, a Rio-based event company more known for their trade shows, the Mondial de la Biere, led by President Jeannine Marois, brought their 20-year-old Montreal beer fest to Rio in 2013.
The first international craft beer fest in Rio, it was an instant success, attracting nearly 25,000 rabid beer fans over four days. It was not without some teeth-cutting problems, including soaring November temperatures in a non-air conditioned tent. There were six breweries represented from the home state of Rio de Janeiro. Three years later, there more more than 50 breweries in the state and it is safe to say the Mondial caught this new wave of beer interest, surfing it to perfection.
The second year, breweries and AC were added, and attendence grew to 25,000, but it was becoming obvious the location was too small. The next year the fest shifted to Pier Maua, a warehousing district on the water that was being redeveloped for tourism, including the new "Museum of the Future" and a new tramline. In fact, construction of the tramline was a bit of a hindrance in 2015, but the fans flocked anyway, almost doubling to 40,000.
This year an extra day was added - now 5-days including a holiday kickoff - and all except one was sold out for a total of 48,000 attendees - almost as many as GABF. Of course the number of beers and breweries pales in comparison to GABF, as do most fests (700 breweries/3800 beers) but the Rio fest unveiled some impressive innovations. Chief among them was the Go Cashless card enabling purchases to be made without coupons, cumbersome for both customer and vendor. Another recent US adaption to Rio's social scenery - the food truck - was there in force, offering Brazilian dishes as well as the familiar hotdogs and hamburgers.
What about the beer? Well, although traditionally Brazilian breweries have taken their inspiration from the German brewing tradition, ever since I have been on the Brazilian circuit it is American craft brewing that provides the inspiration for these modern Brazilian brewers. My first year at Mondial Rio I served as a judge in the beer competition. A barrel-aged imperial stout won the platinum medal. The two most prominent craft breweries in the north - Wals and Colorado - featured prominently among the 10 gold medals awarded. Those two breweries have since been absorbed under the InBev umbrella. Building or expanding a brewery in Brazil is an extremely daunting task in terms of dollars and logistics, so it is not surprising to see these breweries seeking outside help. Also not surprising is the prominence of gypsy brewers, specially around Rio. There are three main breweries of medium size that make beer for as many as 10 contract clients. Rio has a law that prohibits industrial activity within the city limits so breweries are situated on the periphery; although a law was passed a year ago to declassify microbreweries as industrial, guidelines have yet to be established, an example of Brazil's sometimes gridlocked bureaucracy.
Some of these gypsy brewers are extremely popular - as evidenced when newcomers 3 Cariocas (Carioca is the name for a native of Rio) tied for a platinum medal in 2014 with their Ipanema session IPA. This year another threesome, the 3 Monkeys, with whom the 3 Cariocas often collaborate, took a gold for India White Ale. Another gypsy outfit Hocus Pocus was one of the most popular booths in the show.
Thanks to the internet, and an extremely active homebrewing scene, Brazilian brewers are onto new US trends like flies on...you know what. Two years ago Session IPAs were the cutting edge beers of the show; last year it was fruited IPAs; this year New England or cloudy IPAs, not just from gypsies like Hocus Pocus, but also from established breweries like Mistura Classico. Sours were here and there but have not quite penetrated the Brazilian to the same extent as in the US.
Brazilian craft breweries face a lot of challenges - many more than their US counterparts . Sourcing ingredients - all hops and malts, other than Brazilian base malts have to be imported; distribution in such a large country with a hot climate is challenging; but chiefly burdensome taxes which can account for 70% of the cost of beer lead to high prices for craft. The landscape is even more David and Goliath as with a portion of the taxes based on sale price, large brewers pay less (in the US, small brewers receive a tax break). Efforts are underway to level the playing field, but it is tough sledding.
Despite these difficulties and a plunging economy, enough consumers are embracing Brazil's new craft beer to keep it on the fast track. (While Rio has recently caught fire), other states to the south - Paranha (city of Curitiba) and Santa Catarina (Blumeneau) have an even more developed beer culture.
At Mondial de la Biere Rio visitor;s preferences were easy to spot. Out of the three beer halls, the first housed mostly the large breweries and their affiliates - it was fairly easy to navigate; the second hall mostly visiting breweries (including the Petit Pub which showcased US breweries Stone, New Belgium, Lost Abbey and Empire Brewing Co.'s) - pretty crowded, especially Curitiba's Bodebrown brewery; the third hall, mostly the local brewers - mobbed!
Disclosure - The author acts as US Beer Ambassador for Mondial de la Biere.