While the craft beer movement might be consuming the American market, it’s a different story in Peru. Here, the sudsy pride from jungle to coast is indisputable: Cusqueña. From the sides of restaurants on the sloping, cobbled streets of Cusco to the electronic marquis of Lacormar mall in Lima, the Cusqueña brand is everywhere.
But why is this simply crafted brew so popular? And how does a country so rich in culinary traditions incorporate this longstanding beer into its mealtime culture?
First, a bit of history. It all began with two foreign brewers—Jakob Backus and John Howard Johnston—who emigrated to Lima, Peru in the 1800s. In the late 1880s, they incorporated as The Backus and Johnston’s Brewing Company, and began brewing the country’s flagship beers. After a flood of British investment, Johnston left Peru, and the company, in 1898. A year later, Backus died. The Brits continued to own and run the company until the mid-1950s, when assets were returned to Peru. In 1994, the company acquired longstanding Peruvian competitors National Beer Company which produced Pilsen Callao beer. After 2000, acquisition of Backus and Johnston by SABMiller made the brewery one of the most significant features in the SABMiller portfolio—a collection of beers that now includes Cusqueña, Pilsen Callao, Cristal, San Juan, and a handful of other labels.
In the Backus family of beers, Cusqueña is considered a premium brew, offered in four year-round varieties—golden lager (dorada), wheat (trigo), red lager (rojo), and dark lager (negra)—and one seasonal variety—a uniquely Peruvian beer brewed with pearl quinoa instead of wheat.
When compared with its sister beers in the Backus portfolio, there are a few things that make Cusqueña stand out from the crowd. First, it’s brewed with top-notch ingredients sourced locally and regionally whenever possible. And as anyone who has brewed beer knows, water makes the flavor—a flavor that can’t be duplicated outside of Peru.
Second, each variety is crafted with a nuanced palate. From the polestar dorada, which layers grassy undertones with a vague maltiness, to the specialty quinoa that offers surprising notes of orange and tropical citrus, these beers are not one-dimensional. Easy to drink? Yes. But not boring.
Third, the brewmeisters at production breweries across Peru—located in five cities across the country, including in Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa—brew with food in mind. While many large production beers are crafted simply to be enjoyed solo, Cusqueña thinks about how their varieties will marry with classic Peruvian cuisine. Not surprisingly, they manage that well, with apt pairings across the flavor palette of the entire country. And if a beer pairs well with a nuanced dish, it often goes well in the dish. Brewery conversations with many high-profile Peruvian chefs, including Chef Flavio Solorzáno of El Señorio de Sulco in Lima and Chef Manuel Córdova of MAP Cafe in Cusco, have opened the door to cooking with Cusqueña and alongside Cusqueña. Much like wine, the beer’s dynamic flavor profiles bring new dimensions to meals in restaurants across the country.
At the moment, Cusqueña is available only on the eastern seaboard in the U.S., but the hopes are to expand distribution so that American markets get to enjoy the same beer that has captivated Peru for decades. And with that introduction, Peruvian food is bound to follow—a palate-astounding journey that will re-craft our appreciation for beer and South American cuisine.
To get a taste of this premium cerveza, visit cusquena.com and look for recipes at diningout.com made with and for this scrumptious South American brew.
By Jeffrey Steen, Managing Editor