Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Tico' beer takes a big step forward

Local brewer brings American know-how to Central America

Express Staff Writer

Gordon Gammell and apprentice brewer Niki Hurren proudly display several kegs of Volcano Brewing Co.’s new offerings.
Courtesy photo

    When Ketchum resident Gordon Gammell was at the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica a couple of years ago, he was impressed with the surf, but not with the beer that was served there. In fact, he told the owner, “This beer tastes like crap.”
    But Gammell’s comment wasn’t just an insult. As one of the founders of Sun Valley Brewing Co., he actually had something constructive to offer. “If you want to step this up, let’s talk,” he said.
    A year or so later, Gammell was surfing in Panama and got word that the owner, Joe Walsh, did indeed want help. He had decided it was time to brew his own beer.
    Gammell shipped down the necessary brewing equipment and trained employees in the ancient art. Beginning this summer, surfers and pub goers can now imbibe Volcano Brewing Co.’s Witch’s Rock pale ale and Gato Malo dark ale.
    “They’re really good—amazingly, with the power shutting off and challenges to regulate tank temperatures,” Gammell said.
    Word spread of the tasty brews that had popped up on the Costa Rican coast, and now Gammell is involved in two more potential brewpub startups in Costa Rica, as well as others in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico. He said he thinks a wave of interest in craft breweries is just starting to build in Central America, as it did in the United States in the 1980s when Sun Valley Brewing Co. got started.
    “The tourists immediately identify with it, but then the locals start picking up on it,” he said. “The appreciation is growing exponentially. They’re demanding quality items.”
    If micro-brewing does pick up in the region like it did in the U.S., Gammell will have more international beer-brewing opportunities than he’ll know what to do with. From just a handful of breweries in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, there are now about 3,000. According to the nonprofit Brewers Association, nearly 2,000 more are in the planning stages.
    Gammell said that about 10 years ago, he was told by well-known British  beer writer Michael Jackson, author of the “World Guide to Beer,” “I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but Americans make the best beer on the planet.”
    Gammell said current Central American breweries were all started by German immigrants, who introduced their country’s signature lager-style beers. He said American brewing styles can greatly expand the variety of beers available there.
    “Hands down, the U.S. leads the way in resurrecting beer styles and in creating beer styles,” Gammell said.
    He said the Volcano Brewing Co.’s beers are based on English brown ales and pale ales, which use more ingredients and a different fermenting process than lager beers do. He said he’s also using better barley, more hops and better yeast. All of that widens the taste options.
    But it hasn’t been easy. Gammell said his first shipment of brewing equipment to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, this winter was held in customs for a month and a half.
    “We had pallets of grain and boxes of hops and stainless steel equipment and piping. They didn’t know what to make of it. So I had a month and a half to go surfing.”
    Gammell said he had to design the brewery backwards—based on how much wastewater it could put out. Too much would overwhelm the beach resort’s sewage-treatment system. Then there was the problem of finding parts—even good-quality nuts and bolts were scarce.
    “When I went to the hardware store, I typically came back with about 15 percent of what I needed,” he said.
    While he was constructing the brewery, Gammell trained the employees there how to use it. Just two weeks ago, a former bricklayer from England turned out the brewery’s first all-home-produced beer.
    Now Gammell’s continuing his correspondence with aspiring commercial brewers in the surrounding countries, setting up dates to begin the process there.
    “So I plan on doing a lot more surfing,” he said with a laugh.

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