CARACAS — As Venezuela continues to get crushed by a grinding economic crisis that has shut off the lights and emptied the store shelves, a small group of resilient craft brewers is doing whatever it can to keep the local beer taps flowing.
The country’s main brewery shut down in April, after the government cut off its access to U.S. dollars needed to import raw materials.
But small craft brewers are now turning to U.S. courier services to get pint-sized shipments of barley and hops into the country.
“Every few weeks I get a box full of barley from a courier in the states that arrives to the door of my house,” said Juan Manuel Torres, who runs the Coronarias craft beer brand.
He admits that it's not exactly legal to import food products into the country without declaring them at customs, but says extreme times call for extreme measures. And nowadays, you have to bend a few rules to get anything done in Venezuela.
“I tried to import malt and barley legally, and it took two months to get the product released from the customs offices,” said Harold Perez, who runs the CACRI craft beer brand.
“There are no preferential currency exchange rates for businesses like this one,” Torres adds. “And we don’t have any contacts in the government.”
Since 2003 Venezuela has enforced strict exchange controls that force businesses to buy U.S. dollars at prices set by the government when they need to import goods. But with oil prices down nearly 70%, in two years, the country is running out of cash and the government can no longer allocate dollars to many industries that need to import raw materials.
The exchange controls have also affected imports of basic food items such as meat, milk and chicken, leading to long lines—and occasional scrums—whenever the products arrive at supermarkets. Even beer has started to become scarce after the Polar Beer brewery, which produced 80% of Venezuela’s cerveza, shut down its plants last month.
“It’s a pity,” said Alexander Jimenez, creator of the NortedelSur craft beer. “People are not going to stop looking for a pilsener beer to refresh themselves at the beach”.
Craft beer brewers only need to work with small amounts of raw materials, which can fit into parcel boxes or suitcases carried by people traveling back from the U.S.
But priced at $2.50-$6 a bottle, craft brew is a product that is out of reach for most people in Venezuela, where the monthly minimum wage is currently worth $15. That means an average Venezuelan worker could spend his whole paycheck on beer and still come home with less than a six-pack.
“Most of my clients are wealthy people or gourmet restaurants and supermarkets,” said Leopoldo Rueda the owner of Craft Beer Venezuela, an online store. “In places like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil craft beers can actually compete with industrial beers, but in Venezuela the price difference is more than 1,000%.”
Torres, who still operates his small craft brewery out of a room in his home, says he is able to make around 200 gallons of beer a month—a drop in the bucket compared to 22 million gallons a month that Polar used to make.
But the brewmeister says he will keep his “factory” running as long as there are customers who can pay $3 a bottle—or until the courier service stops delivering boxes to his door.
“Almost all my friends have left the country,” he said. “But we are going to hold on here as long as we can”