The colorful, ancient and, at times, awe-inspiring little city of Antigua, Guatemala is known for many things: Its Mayan heritage, scattered ruins from the early Spanish settlements that followed and looming volcanic skyline. Beer is not one of those things, but it might be soon thanks to Antigua Cerveza, which celebrated its first anniversary in February.
Venture down the narrow cobblestone streets of the city—just minutes away far from its lush town square, the crumbling facade of the Iglesia del Carmen or the ruins of the Santo Domingo monastery—and you’ll come upon the brewery. Once inside, you could be in Wichita, Kansas or Boise, Idaho. Bright lights, sparkling clean stainless steel equipment and all-around industrial feel are reminiscent of any other stateside microbrewery. But this brewery’s road to success was filled with bumps and challenges few U.S. breweries will ever face.
“We are the first craft brewery in Antigua, Guatemala and the third craft brewery to open in the country,” says founder and brewer Jorge Luis Guzmán. Antigua Cerveza celebrated its first anniversary in February, though this was not some hurried, overnight opening—with partners Taylor Virgil and Jack Spehn incorporating the business all the way back in 2011. “We had a long journey of learning how to make beer, raising capital and crashing on couches.”
Guatemala-born Guzmán went to college in the United States and then found himself in a string of unsatisfying white-collar jobs. “I was working in consulting after already quitting an investment banking job,” he says. “Consulting was just as bad.”
He and Virgil began brainstorming ideas, eventually deciding to a chain of hostels in Guatemala. A trip to a travel blogger summit in Portland, Oregon followed. While they were there, a single beer derailed their plans.
“Having a beer at Deschutes Brewery in the Pearl District changed everything,” Guzmán recalls. “A close family friend who hosted us in Portland and had lived in Guatemala as a missionary for many years dropped the line, ‘I’ve always thought Antigua should have its own brewery.’ Both Taylor and I agreed in that moment that we should shelf the hostel and start a brewery.”
While the duo had no problem making career- and life-altering decisions, the reality of that decision came about less easily. It was Virgil who asked the question, “What do you know about beer besides drinking it?” The answer, according Guzmán was, “Nothing,” but he quickly volunteered to undergo that learning process and enrolled in a hands-on, one-week course at UC Davis.
Next, after a chance meeting with the owner of Jailhouse Brewing Company, Guzmán began inquiring about job opportunities at the Hampton, Georgia brewery. There was one—an unpaid internship of sorts that came with the stipulation that he also must enroll in the Brewing Science and Engineering program, offered long distance via the American Brewers Guild in Vermont. It’s the same program that taught Jailhouses owner Glenn Golden the ins and outs of brewing. The 23-week course culminated with a trip to Vermont for final exams and a one-week residency that included QC lab setup, sensory evaluation and other hands-on skills training.
Guzmán’s newfound education turned his beer hobby into a true passion and plausible career path. “It was honestly during these 12 months that I learned, and fell in love with, everything that brewing entailed,” he says.
Translating that into a business is another story. “The barriers to entry for business in Guatemala, and Latin America in general, are quite large,” Guzmán says. “From a legislative standpoint, the laws surrounding beer in Guatemala have not been updated since the 1940s and were written in time when there was a monopolistic beer market. The biggest issues we faced were vague laws and quite frankly, processes that no one knew anything about.”
He returned to Guatemala in 2013, but was unable to secure building permits for the brewery. A political upheaval due to rampant corruption in the office of the mayor and his cabinet left the Antigua government in shambles. Among other things, the permitting process came to a halt with no end in sight.
This led Guzmán to return to Atlanta for a final stint with Jailhouse, before coming back home to Antigua for good. It took three years to acquire the final brewing permit and another five months to get the permit required to sell beer. That wasn’t the end of the road, with yet another hoop to jump through in the form of a license from the Ministry of Agriculture to import the raw materials they needed. Unlike the U.S., Guatemala doesn’t have the supporting businesses required to maintain a brewing industry, so almost everything Antigua Cerveza uses in its day-to-day operations needs to be imported.
“Even common things such as glass bottles and bottle caps are not widely distributed in Guatemala and the supply is limited,” Guzmán says. “This adds quite a bit to our production cost.”
After a six-year journey to open the brewery and begin selling beer, the next step was finding customers. Enter another problem, which included needing to initiate beer drinkers with no taste for or knowledge of craft beers, alongside a shortage of consumers with a disposable income who are willing to indulge.
“However, people have shown an extreme interest in our products,” Guzmán says. “It’s something new and different. We like to think that anyone will try our beer once, but the true test is if they order a second beer—and so far, folks have typically been ordering more than one.”
At Antigua Cerveza education goes beyond simply inducting customers into the cult of craft beer. Guzmán and his team are also educating the staff of every bar and restaurant where their beer is served. Guzmán hosts extensive training sessions at the brewery, covering everything from the basics of brewing to properly pouring a draft beer.
“Our goal is to get the customers engaged in the product from the beginning,” Guzmán says. “At every new point of sale, we host a training session at our brewery to show how to properly pour draft beer, and we introduce them to the brewing process. We also suggest food pairings and start with a blonde ale, our light beer, to make the transition to the stronger flavors.”
Before education came an even bigger hurdle: Getting their beer into restaurants and bars. This proved daunting, because the majority did not have working draft systems. Once again, it fell on Guzmán and his team to handle the matter for themselves. They designed and built portable beer refrigerator and tap systems for restaurants and bars, free of cost. On top of that, they are servicing their equipment—cleaning lines, replacing CO2 and fielding support calls. “This is why our training days to points of sale at the brewery have been so critical for us,” Guzmán says. “Overall, it’s slowed down our pace in terms of how fast we can expand, but it also helps us improve our operations, building brand loyalty, and almost always provides the freshest beer possible to the consumer.”
So, they build the equipment, train the staff who will be using it and supply and service it, all to get their beers into the hands of patrons of those establishments. For Guzmán and him team it’s a labor of love and one that ultimately means more customers are able to sip on a perfect pint. “High quality craft beer is more than just a ‘beer.’ It’s an experience,” Guzmán says. “The pour of the beer into a glass, the complex aroma, the different mouthfeel, the attention to detail in quality. It’s important that we can show Guatemala what craft beer is all about—the experience of good beer and good friends.”
While Antigua Cerveza only recently celebrated its inaugural anniversary, the first year has been a successful one for both the brewery as well as for the growing, changing beer culture in Guatemala. Three more craft breweries have opened since, and at least two more are already in the works. For Guzmán, his next big plan is to take Antigua Cerveza out of Guatemala.
“We want to be known as the best craft beer in Central America and beyond,” he says. But it’s more than that. According to Guzmán, he believes Antigua Cerveza can be an ambassador for the entire country by bringing attention to both Guatemala and Antigua.
“We think it has the landscape and a vibe that makes you feel that you are experiencing something beautiful and genuine,” Guzmán continues. “Who doesn’t want to experience something beautiful and genuine with a great beer in their hand? Jokes aside, this might seem like just another craft beer to an outsider this really is an expression of a new generation that is trying to push through the limitations that are often set in these countries. We hope that our fight inspires change in other industries and Guatemala as a whole.”
This article was originally published on March 22, 2018 in the now defunct beer publication October, Oct.co.