U.S. breweries are making award-winning beers spiced with Amburana wood. See our story, American Brewers Fall for Brazil’s Spicy Amburana Wood, at Craftbeer.com, then come back here for additional anecdotes too good to leave on the cutting room floor!
“The Umburana of Brazil is a soft yellow wood so delightfully scented with vanilla that one is tempted to eat it,” proclaims a 1920 article about South American woods, the words jumping off the page of the otherwise staid American Forestry journal.
This tree is now broadly known by its scientific name, Amburana. We had encountered Amburana before we went to Brazil in March of 2018, but that trip opened our eyes to the many ways this tropical tree’s flavor can influence a well-made beer. In the Craftbeer.com story, we gathered the main facts together about how, in the last two years, Amburana’s arrived in North America with a flourish. Here, we can talk more about the Brazilian roots of the innovations.
What’s the Brazilian experience making Amburana beers?
The most influential Amburana beer in the world may be Cervejaria Way Beer’s Amburana Lager. The beer is deeply entwined in the origin of the cervejaria.
When Allejandro Winocur of Curitiba, Brazil, now 35 years old, toured a small craft brewery on a weekend out of town in the summer of 2010, he knew he had to start a craft brewery. First, he needed to find an expert brewer.
Meanwhile, Allessandro Oliveira, also of Curitiba, had been busy homebrewing – including creating a spectacular maibock-inspired strong lager finished in Amburana cachaça casks. Oliveira and his investors had purchased a pro brewing system. When Oliveira began looking for a business-savvy partner, he happened to ask Winocur’s dad, who made the introduction to his son.
In November 2010, their brewery, Way Beer, launched at a national brewing festival in Blumenau, in the neighboring state of Santa Catarina. Winocur and Oliveira poured five beers in their commercial debut, including the luscious Amburana Lager. Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, in Brazil to check out the developing brewing scene, told them he wanted to feature Amburana Lager in a book on beers of the world. Winocur says they swiftly cobbled together a mockup label for him to publish.
Soon, Way Beer Amburana Lager was being bottled for both the Brazilian and export markets.
From Brazil to Belgium?
Nine years in, Way Beer’s influence is international. In Belgium, Paula Yunes draws knowledge from a beer career in Brazil that included working for Way Beer. She and her husband, Valéry De Breucker, ordered barrels from a Brazilian tanoeiro (cooperage) for use at Atrium, their new craft brewery in the Belgian countryside, near the French border and the remote Rochefort Trappist monastery brewery. She asserts that the medium toast preferred by Way Beer gives the best figgy flavors, her favorite Amburana notes.
Asked about other notable Amburana examples, Yunes praised a special release of DUM Petroleum, a massive imperial stout. DUM (pronounced “doom”) is another small Curitiba brewery that has used Amburana to infuse a special release beer, in this case a variant of their legendary rich, black ale.
(We were happy to hear that. On our trip to Brazil, we’d been fortunate to spend time with DUM founders Luiz Felipe Araujo and Murilo Foltran. We enjoyed not only several of their beers, but also sampled an excellent artisan cheese that had been basted in Petroleum stout as it cured.)
Amburana is now used by brewers around Brazil. For example, one influential, award-winning Amburana beer is made by Backer Cervejaria, in Belo Horizonte, north of Rio de Janeiro. But there seems to be a cluster of wood virtuosos brewing in Curitiba. Cervejaria Bodebrown, credited by many as the reason the city became a craft brewing center, has experimented with custom barrels that incorporate Amburana as every third stave. At the nearby cervejaria Morada Cia Etilica, brewmaster André Junqueira, known simply as Junka, built on brewing skills gained through study at Chicago’s Siebel Institute with on-the-job experiments with Amburana as well as other native ingredients such as wild fruits.
Across the Border to Against The Grain
“I’m a guy from western Kansas,” Jerry Gnagy told us from his brewery, Against the Grain, in Louisville, Ky.. “I went out of the country for the first time about five years ago. So how do I find myself in Brazil? I dunno!”
(Gnagy is a terrific storyteller. In our Craftbeer.com article, we recounted a little bit about his gold-medal-winning 70K Amburana beer and the Brazilian barrels he uses.)
About four years ago, gypsy brewer Brian Strumpke of Stillwater Artisanal arrived in Louisville with a friend from Brazil. That friend was Junka, the owner/brewmaster at Morada in the city of Curitiba. Strumpke wanted Against the Grain to brew a beer with him involving exotic wood.
“We do a lot of smoked beers here,” said Gnagy. “So André sent me some chunks of Amburana and another wood.” Gnagy burned the Amburana, passing the smoke through wheat malt. Then he brewed a wheat wine. The smoked wheat malt imparted a spice character to the beer.
Junka invited Gnagy to come visit, so in 2016 Gnagy flew to Curitiba to judge the South Beer Cup, brew with Junka and visit some cachaça distilleries.
Gnagy brought along Aaron Willett from Speyside Cooperage of Shepherdsville, Ky., who wanted to sell bourbon barrels to Brazilian breweries. When the two Kentucky visitors got excited by the tropical wood flavors they encountered there, Gnagy asked Willett to help get Amburana barrels made and shipped north.
About a year later Gnagy returned to Brazil for another project. As he tells it, “They said, ‘hey, how’s those barrels working out?’ I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ ‘Well, we sent 12 barrels to Aaron…’ I told them that sonofabitch didn’t tell me! He was trying to sell them to US distilleries. So I called him on it, I said, ‘give me the damn barrels!’”
Gnagy laughed. “I got two out of him. Everything else went to distillers. Distillers have money. Brewers don’t have money.”
Against the Grain put the new barrels to good use, producing the imperial milk stout component for blending that eventually led to their 2018 GABF gold medal for wood aged beers.
The maturing craft beer scene in South America
Dick Cantwell first travelled to Brazil on a mission from the US-based Brewers Association, on behalf of their Export Development program, “a couple of years before the Elysian dissolution,” as the former Seattle brewmaster puts it. He was shown around São Paulo by Gilberto Tarentino, a leading importer of American craft beer to Brazil.
“He really got the cold chain concept,” remarked Cantwell, reflecting on the heat-damaged beers often found on tropical shelves. Other importers seemed to feel that with pasteurized beers, cold shipping and storage don’t matter.
“The big challenge in Brazil, like everywhere, is packaging adequately without too much oxygen,” explained Cantwell. “And then you can’t count on it being refrigerated. Because it’s a sprawling big country, to get it out to the hinterlands, it’s obviously going to be shipped warm.”
But he’s encouraged that each time he returns to any of the South American countries he’s visited, the craft beers have improved “by leaps and bounds.”
It wasn’t until he was working on Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide that Cantwell learned of Amburana and tasted some Bodebrown beers.
“Whenever you publish a book, the next two months you find out all the things you wish you’d put in it,” he mused. “By the time Peter [Broukaert] and I finished the Wood book, we knew of Amburana, but we didn’t have exposure to any of the other South American woods yet.”
On a recent visit to São Paulo, Cantwell’s old importer friend Tarantino, now the owner of a brewery, arranged a tasting of beers made with a dozen different woods supplied by a respected cooperage. Cantwell is now tinkering with wood chip infused beers at Magnolia Brewing, his San Francisco brewery.
Brazilian barrel-making traditions continue
(We didn’t get to visit a tanoaria, but we reached out to a respected operation that sells barrels and chips internationally.)
Mauro Mesacaza of Tanoaria Mesacaza has been building barrels made of Amburana since 2005. In an email exchange, he told us that the wood is called “cerejeira” in his region, and that most of it is used for furniture. He says his cooperage takes pains to only buy legally harvested logs.
“The sawmills work through sustainable management, where the trees that can be felled are marked. Then they have to wait to be able to cut back in the same area, so that the forest can recover naturally,” he explained.
Earlier, there was a time of no national forest management. Mesacaza notes that other trees that were once used for cachaça have already been lost. “There are species that have gone extinct – but were fantastic for use with drinks.”
Brazil’s clearing the Amazon at a frightening pace. What will be left?
Vulnerable and Endangered. The two main species of Amburana have been listed this way since the 90s. National regulations came together to govern the age and size of trees to cut.
“Brazilian logging practices have a history of being unsustainable,” said quantitative ecologist Chris Free, now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who worked on an international rebuttal of a Brazilian study on how quickly the trees mature. “It’s important to have regulations that are informed by the growth rates of these trees.”
But beyond better-informed regulations, any such rules would also have to be vigorously enforced, something that the current administration in Brazil actively campaigned against.
Mesacaza, the cooper, is optimistic about the future of Amburana, citing a new initiative to cultivate the slow-growing tree in the state of Santa Catarina. It takes time before newly planted saplings can be harvested to contribute flavor to beers or spirits, but tree farms are now in the works.
As Junka sees it, the major pressure on Brazil’s wild Amburana trees doesn’t come from this miniscule barrel-making demand, nor even from the extensive sales of tropical woods overseas for paneling or deck materials. It’s driven by cattle speculation – converting tropical forests to pasture and livestock feed crops.
“People like to put the blame on the people who sell wood – but the farmers actually pay to clear the lands,” he reminded us.
Winocur told us that in addition to continuing with Way Beer, he has other Amburana ideas in the works, as mentioned in the Craftbeer.com story. It’s early, but he stated, “I am working on a project to export many kinds of Brazilian wood flavors to the US and the world. Amburana is the tip of the iceberg – the way to get people interested.” He believes that Brazil can turn the tide and take care of the forests. Knowing Amburana may help.
Motivation, Momentum and the Elephant in the Room
In 2018, Brazil – the world’s third largest beer-producing nation – passed 900 independent breweries. The thirst for beer can be traced to German immigration in the 1800s, building up brewing companies which would take part in waves of consolidation and acquisition in the following century. While the independent brewery count is still at only about 12 percent of the 7,000-plus craft breweries active in the USA, recent growth in small, independent Brazilian breweries has been explosive.
Ambev, one of the predecessors to AB-Inbev, the world’s largest beer multinational, was itself a product of that Brazilian brewery consolidation. ABI has been purchasing craft breweries in Brazil. It’s conducting “disruptive” experiments there, such as designating a brewery for aspiring gypsy brewers to use in creating new brands. (New beer brands made there will even get distribution help from the industry giant. It looks a bit like how Amazon – the online store, not the river – started by competing with independent bookstores, then invited the survivors to sell through its platform.)
The small brewers of Brazil often come face to face with stiff competition from the largest multinational brewers. Junka painted us a big picture of these challenges.
“Our problem with big brewers over here is not corn syrup! It’s pay-to-play. It’s the gray areas. It’s the dumping that they do at the supermarkets with such low prices that not even our costs, within the brewery, will match what they will sell for at the supermarket. They’ll sell beer for the price of the glass bottle. We have to keep an open eye and be outspoken, otherwise they will eat the market from the inside out and make it completely rotten.”
But Junka couldn’t end a conversation with a lament. Craft beer represents a ray of hope.
“Eventually we will break through from the chains that bind us down here and through the crazy politics – that we’ll live through,” he vows.
“We’re making the best effort to grow, to get more people interested in the craft beer scene and teaching people about these things. We’re getting them off the corporate beer.”
A Beer Currents/Beer By BART project by Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro