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Quilmes and Me: A Love-Hate Relationship....or, A Brief Primer on Argentine Beer

There is basically only one mass-produced beer in Argentina; it is called Quilmes (Say: KEEL-mess). In a way, it is like the Argentine version of Budweiser, except Quilmes is practically the only beer available anywhere here. Whereas in the U.S. most restaurants and bars with serve Budweiser, they will probably also serve at least a few other beers. Not so in Argentina, or at least in Buenos Aires.

Here when you go into a restaurant or café the drinks menu says merely cerveza litro and cerveza chopp (meaning a liter, and small draft). And when all the menu says is "cerveza," it is taken for granted they are referring to Quilmes. On average, most places might serve one other beer, such as Stella Artois, but it will be much more expensive. A liter of Quilmes will run you around $9 peso, whereas the same of Stella or another import will be around $15 peso.

So from whence comes the title of this piece? Well, I'm not a big fan of Quilmes. It is very, very light in color and flavor. It tastes somewhere between Corona and Coors Light. Furthermore, it accomplishes the strange feat of leaving more of an aftertaste than an actual taste. I'm sure it took years of science and teams of men in lab-coats to produce this, but I just don't like it that much. The only problem is on a day to day basis I can't get anything else!

My favorite beer here is Isenbeck, which is pictured as well. Isenbeck has a much more golden color, and has a much more "malty" and appreciable flavor. It is also an Argentine beer, except it is almost impossible to find at restaurants. It is available at about 50% of convenience stores, but come on, one just does not walk into a café with his own liter of beer under his arm. Maybe some people do, but I don´t posses the chutzpah or the forethought for that just yet.

So, nine times out of 10, I end up ordering Quilmes. I´d love to say that it has started to grow on me, but I can´t even honestly say that. I can just say that now I´m able to tolerate it. There was a point when I would have rather just ordered water than Quilmes, but after a while the sheer persistence of the heavy and incessant Quilmes Lobby has worn me down. I have specific tastes, some would call that "picky," but one can only survive so long without a nice cold beer.

I have always loved beer. To be more accurate, I have always loved drinking beer. I'd take it over wine any day of the week. When I came here I thought I'd get totally converted to the fruit of the vine, but the opposite has happened. Beer is just cheaper, more readily available, and available in smaller quantities, which is perfect when you are eating alone much of the time. So that is to say I'd rather drink an ice cold Quilmes than nothing at all. So when the waitress plunks down that blue and white liter bottle, I say in my mind, "Alright, Quilmes...I don't like you and you don't like me, but just help me wash down this meal and I won't complain. Let's get this over with..."

But you do come to develop a special relationship to brands. In a world where everything is mass produced, brands tend to take on the character of old friends, or in this case incessantly available pests that simply will not go away. It is Brand-Indoctrination at its absolute best: "Force 'em to like. Ram it down their throats and don't offer 'em anything else!" It's damn near Brand-Communism, in a way.* And in a way, I love Quilmes for that. If it disappeared tomorrow, I might actually be sad. But not for long.

As a side note, there is also a beer here called Andes, which is more readily available in parts of the country close to the mountain range that lends the beer it's name. In places such as Mendoza, Andes is more popular than Quilmes, and there seems to be more democracy in terms of beer. The Quilmes choke-hold is not quite as great. I can't precisely remember what Andes tastes like, but I know I preferred it to Quilmes, for sure. To use one of those vague alcohol descriptions, it has "character."

To finish with a funny "I'm so confused" anecdote, today I went in a small café to buy some empanadas and a beer (yes, all they had was Quilmes). I put the beer on the counter to pay and get my food ¨para llevar¨ which means to-go. Everything seemed fine except that the husband and wife behind the counter seemed to have a problem with my beer purchase. They started saying things to me, in turns, while motioning toward the sweating liter of Quilmes on the counter. I'm taking Spanish classes now, but they might have been speaking Martian for all I understood. The man went to the cooler, and brought out a small bottle of Heineken and tried to switch it with my Quilmes.

"Ah, no," I said. I may not like Quilmes but I like even less being told what I must buy. "So, I cannot buy this beer?" I asked.

"No, no, no...[unintelligible Spanish]," he said.

"No entiendo nada (I don't understand anything)," I said. "Puedo comprarlo o no (Can I buy it or not)?"

"Si, si, por supuesto (of course)," he said, looking a bit fed-up.

His wife then wrote me a hand-written ticket with "$1 peso" written on it, and something else, apparently indicating I am supposed to return the bottle to them when I am finished, for a $1 peso refund. Quite thoughtful, and now that I understand, it makes some more sense. You see, here you can return your empty liter bottles and get money toward more beer. You save money, and actually "re-use" the bottle, thereby saving energy and reducing waste. Novel concepts that, as a good American, my mind has had trouble digesting...

Luckily, everything worked out fine. I got my empanadas and my beer, and no one got hurt. Just another mundane trip to the store, made five times more exciting by the fact that I am in a stranger in a strange land...

*(Strangely, the Argentines do the same thing with their pink sliced-ham: they put it on almost everything. Order a cheese empanada, and 80% of the time a little slice of pink ham will be gently sneaked in. Order a "vegetarian" dish (which I never do but I've heard from others) and you will likely find some flakes of ham sprinkled on. On the buses here they give you food, which almost always consists of a few ham sandwiches with quarter-inch slices of bread girding a razor-thin slice of ham, almost as thin as one ham molecule...even the desert on the buss is sweet bread rolled in ham and cheese, no joke. But you scarf that down as if it is your last meal. It gets to a point where whether or not you like ham, or even meat, you begin to love the stuff, and then crave it, and then need it.)


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