Challenging craft preconceptions, in Chile and beyond
Saturday 17 December 2022
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Ones to Watch
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Jester’s story is an unlikely one, which is to say, I doubt its three founding members could have planned for what the brewery is today when each started out on their craft beer journey. Rafe Hutchings, Pablo Mejia and Rudy Mejia come from such different professional backgrounds, and disparate geographical locations, but found each other against the odds, and combined their skill sets to drive and ride the wave of craft beer’s evolution in Chile.
When I speak to Jester’s founders, they are in Santiago, a long way from both Somerset and Winnipeg, where Rafe and brothers Pablo and Rudy are respectively from. Rafe’s introduction to beer came in early adulthood, when his father would take him to traditional pubs serving real ales. Over time he became somewhat of an aficionado, joining CAMRA and steadily honing his palate to the point that the beers he loved were sorely missed when he moved to Chile in 2003.
It was here he met Pablo, who had also moved to the city for work. The pair hit it off, and after establishing a mutual interest in food and drink, began formulating a plan to import beers from the UK and Europe, and inject them into what, at the time, was a barren, industrial beer scene in Chile. But this plan evolved before it was fully fledged; to get better acquainted with the products they would be importing, Rafe and Pablo began to homebrew, with Pablo taking the lead on brewing endeavours and enrolling in some home brewing courses. After successfully brewing several good examples of the styles they wanted to introduce to Chile, it became clear that producing the beers themselves was a better way to get products on the market.
It took some time for Pablo to convince Rudy that he should quit his job in Germany, move to Chile, and lend his skills as an engineer to what sounded at the time like a “fun little beer project” he was working on. By the time Rudy made the move and Jester gained its third founding member, Rafe and Pablo had acquired a warehouse space and were brewing on a 250L kit that was peppered with homebrewed components and took the meaning of ‘manual’ to a new level.
Rudy tells me that before the brewery upgraded to its current kit in 2015, “we would fill bottles by lifting up fermenters, even onto a counter and filling them by gravity. We’d measure the ingredients and the liquids using a scale”. Now Jester brews using a 15hl brewhouse and 12 fermenters ranging in volume from 25-35hl, so Rudy can appreciate the funny side of the brewery’s humble origins. “Looking back now it’s really funny,” he says, “but people in Chile really liked that about us; that we started so small and then it grew organically.”
As romantic as that sounds, Rudy also assures us that because he, Pablo and Rafe did everything themselves in the beginning, “it would be like a suffer fest on the weekends. “We all had other jobs,” he says, “and so would leave the beer to ferment during the week and bottle it at the weekend”. Pablo adds that as they grew larger, they’d put in a midweek shift from 7pm until 2am once or twice a week, and that’s when they didn’t run into any problems. Family and friends donated their time to help them grow, especially Alison Guzman and Grace Grion, Pablo’s and Rudy’s wives, their parents, and in-laws. While Jester now has a brew team and operations manager, Gabriel Lara, Rudy still brings his experience as an engineer for recipe design and to situations where processes could be improved to enhance flavour and aromatics, Rafe manages fully the commercial side of the business with two sales people and Pablo is still involved in recipe design as well as overseeing all things finance, all while he and Rudy keep up other jobs.
While the brewery’s 2015 upgrade changed operations dramatically, the significant development for Jester came in 2019, when it acquired its first canning line, a piece of infrastructure that Rudy says wasn’t really available in Chile when they first started brewing. “There's equipment businesses now,” he says, “and people who dedicate themselves to importing equipment from China. American providers visit Chile now also, but back then there really wasn't so much equipment.”
US influence and opinion on Chile’s craft beer scene interests me; Rudy reckons that styles from the US were slow to reach Chile because of a misconception among importers that Chilean tastes were limited to sweeter styles. He also notes that US craft drinkers visiting Chile unfairly labelled the country’s first steps away from blonde, black or red categories, as “CHIPAs”, on account of them being very lightly hopped by US standards. This is of course to dismiss the country’s own relationship with beer, and ignore Chile’s unique and very interesting journey to craft.
Rudy notes that while beer was still largely categorised by colour when he first arrived in Chile, people were ordering wine by the grape varietal in restaurants; a trend he took as a sign that people were ready for beer that was defined by style instead of colour. To this Pablo adds that “Chilean wine is robust, strong and full bodied, they’re not light wines. People here also love stiff cocktails. I think all this kind of opens the door to modern craft beer styles”.
Additionally, southern regions of the country already had their own ties with beer culture. Rafe mentions that cities like Valdivia, where he now lives, were colonised by German settlers in times gone by, leaving traces of this history on beer culture among other things. Beer is treated differently here, with dark beers and brewpubs being more popular. Taproom licences are still much harder to attain in cities like Santiago where bars are plentiful, and craft accessible, but breweries often have to host events to meet drinkers face to face.
Putting its faith in signs that the tide was turning, Jester brewed bravely from the outset. “We're very focused on having hop forward beers”, says Pablo. “We're more focused on making great beer than figuring out how much we should price it at. The flavour and aroma of the beer always comes first”. It’s a mantra that has served the brewery well. In 2019, Jester won Best Imperial Stout at World Beer Awards in London for its Russian Imperial Stout, Cosmonauta.
This is the older sister to the American Stout featured in this month’s Beer52 box, Astronauta. Cosmonauta and Astronauta are now brewed to complement and contrast each other in the Jester portfolio; emphasising the more roasty and resinous qualities of a well hopped American stout. The other Jester beer featuring in this box, Uniciclo, showcases the second of Jester's specialities, IPAs. This beer was first brewed as part of a project aimed at experimenting with single hops, and introducing drinkers of Jester beer to some of the superstar hops spread across its portfolio.
Beer52’s own Head Brewer and Winemaker Carlos de la Barra was on hand to help with Jester’s selection for this box. “Carlos has visited our brewery a few times”, says Rudy. “He’s friends with some of our brewers so he knows the process, he knows the equipment and we’ve shared everything with him to make this successful. We picked our favourite beers, and in those he noticed some details he found really interesting and that he thought a UK market would really like. In the end we went with the Astronaut because the beer will be available when it’s cold in the UK and stout is perfect for winter, and the Uniciclo because of the unique candy character of the beer.”
Rafe is naturally excited about Jester’s first dip into the UK market; it’s the first time his friends and family will be able to buy Jester beer. To those who have been waiting for it, I can only advise you to sit tight, as I imagine there’s plenty more to come.
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