Hot stuff, tearing it up in central Santiago
Saturday 17 December 2022
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Ones to Watch
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When I make contact with Max Ivanovic he’s in Mexico, some time and distance away from Spoh’s Santiago based brewery. He’s largely without signal, so we WhatsApp, exchanging voice notes when we can, and doing our best to bypass the time difference. Sometimes the background is quiet, other times Max speaks against the backdrop of traffic, or the voices that make up a crowd, and somehow this makes Spoh feel both closer and further away. It is a brewery with a story like many others, but is also profoundly and uniquely Chilean.
In Chile, “poh” is a slang term used at the end of sentences to indicate emphasis or enthusiasm. Max is keen to point out that it also spells hop backwards, making the brewery’s name a colloquial play on words, and an apt title for a brewery celebrated for its hop-forward beers. In this regard, Spoh’s story follows the trajectory of many breweries; friends who start out homebrewing begin selling beers to friends and family, and eventually take a leap of faith and quit jobs they hate to start a brewery. What makes them unique is the hurdles they’ve faced, and how Spoh’s navigation of these challenges make it a brewery that has shaped and is shaped by the landscape and locality of Santiago.
“We have always brewed American style beers, and loved hops,” says Max. “We were the first to brew a DIPA in Chile, the first to brew a Belgian IPA and triple IPA, but we’ve evolved from brewing exclusively these styles while continuing to make the beers we’re known for. When we can, we like to incorporate local ingredients, we use fruit grown nearby for our sours, and brew with local herbs also, but nine years on, our best seller is still our DIPA, Animal.” When Spoh first brought this out, Max tells me that “it wasn’t the case that the style wasn’t well received, but that it wasn’t fully understood. People initially didn’t know what it was about, so its popularity grew only as fans of the style recommended it to friends. Now, Animal is a bit of an iconic beer in Chile.”
While Animal ultimately became a success for Spoh, the brewery didn’t ignore the reality that a high ABV and soaring IBU can be difficult to introduce people to, so they responded by making π (Pi) and Φ (Phi, referred to as Fibonacci in Spoh’s repertoire); two beers intended to form a gateway into the world of Spoh. π Session APA has the body, aroma and mouthfeel of a heavy hitting American pale ale while coming in at an easy drinking 3.14% ABV; the idea is that this is a beer you can drink an infinite number of without losing the rest of your day, or waking up with a hangover.
The centrality of location in Spoh’s story cannot be understated; it is one of just three breweries in central Santiago’s municipality, making it an exception to a wider trend among microbreweries to set up shop in industrial outskirts, or rural locations. This is largely because at the time Spoh was founded, taproom culture was yet to reach Chile, and one could argue even now that this is a wave just beginning to break over the country.
While ten years ago it might have seemed a fool's errand to lay foundations in an area with high rent and spatial constraints, Spoh’s foresight and concerted efforts to engage with drinkers has made being 10 minutes from a subway station really pay off. It is now one of the only breweries in Santiago with a taproom you can visit on a regular basis. Max tells me that while other breweries mostly only host on-site events occasionally, Spoh now hosts a live music event at least once a month as well as keeping its taproom open Monday through Saturday.
I am surprised to hear that in spite of Spoh’s success, it is still brewing on the 10hl brewhouse it started out with and which Max says is a “really, really basic system, but it was made here in Chile” and doesn’t stop it producing 150hl a month. With this volume capacity, Chile is usually Spoh’s only market, with the bulk of what’s produced serving Santiago by keg, and 30% being shipped to other parts of the country in cans.
It’s easy to see how contract brewing benefits a brewery like Spoh, where operations are relatively small. “Contract brewing can be a great option at the beginning, but not just at the beginning,” says Max. “Having and running a craft brewery is really expensive, you’ve got to invest a lot in more than stainless steel; if you want more capacity you need more than extra fermenters, it means buying more kegs and investing more in cooling, refrigeration, and cold rooms. It gets expensive really quickly. Contract brewing can eliminate those fixed costs making it a great option, especially if you have a good relationship with your contract brewer.
“Here in Chile, contract brewing isn’t that common, firstly because most places don’t have excess capacity, but also because the ones that do don’t always let you get involved in the process; you give them the recipe and they tell you when the beer is done and you can pick up the kegs. That doesn’t do the best thing for the business or the beer, but when you can have a relationship with your contract brewer, working this way can be a really cool option.”
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