CHICAGO, IL -- Craft beer is helping the beverage reclaim its place at the dinner table. With thousands of microbreweries popping up around the country, brewmasters are asking themselves: how can I make my beer stand out?
For Andrés Araya, founder of Chicago’s Latin American-themed brewery, 5 Rabbit Cervecería, the answer is simple—culturally infused beers.
“Some of our beers are inspired in something as simple as an ingredient, others inspired in something a little more complex like a dish, and others in a place, in a time, in music, in many many different things.”
The idea came to Araya after working in the beer industry in Costa Rica.
“The one thing that became very clear as time went by is that there was a very big disconnect between the richness in culture in Latin America versus the beer in general,” he said. “That’s when I decided to open up 5 Rabbit and bring that richness into the world of beer, whatever that meant.”
For the 5 Rabbit team, creating Latin American infused beers means balancing an understanding of traditional craft beers and infusing flavors native to Latin American countries.
Brewmaster John Hall, has been working with Araya to develop a culturally infused Indian Pale Ale—one of the most popular craft beers. According to Hall, the challenge is how to stay true to the flavors that make people love IPAs, but also make the 5 Rabbit IPA different and interesting.
“We thought about fruits you don’t see in America,” Hall said. “There is this fruit called lulo that has a citrus flavor. A lot of IPAs have citrus notes and so we thought this would be a good thing," he said. "This fruit can give us a reason to tell a story.’”
It took over a year to import enough lulo to brew a batch of the IPA, but Hall said it was worth the wait.
“I think for consumers this kind of flavor experience will expand their base of knowledge of what craft beer can be,” said Hall.
“The more diverse everything is the richer everything becomes,” says Araya, who infuses beer with ingredients such as guava and dulce de leche. “It’s all about influences and open minds and just drawing inspiration from people.”
Building beers around Latin American flavors is not the only way 5 Rabbit creates a cultural experience for its customers. The brewery regularly hosts Latin food trucks and plays Latin American music to set the mood for tastings and brewery tours.
Not only can visitors try a few beers infused with hibiscus, dulce de leche and guava, but they also get the chance to experience a new culture. On each 5 Rabbit label consumers will also find food pairings to try at home.
Araya's bicultural and technical background led him to his current venture. After graduating college in the States, Araya moved to Costa Rica where he was raised, and worked as an engineer at a brewery. He then came back to the US for graduate school and worked in consulting before opening 5 Rabbit in 2011.
Araya said that although he can really appreciate the science of brewing, he is also very passionate about its artistic, creative and cultural side. 5 Rabbit takes its name from Aztec mythology; 5 Rabbit was one of the five deities who symbolized excess and over-indulgence, as the brewery explains in its website.
“When we started the idea of having a brewery that is culturally inspired it was - and is - pretty unique,” Araya said. “There are other breweries that are owned by Latin Americans, so we don’t claim to be the first to be owned by Latin Americans, but the fact that our mission and inspiration is Latin America itself is pretty unique.”
Araya may be on to a bigger trend going on in the American craft beer industry.
“In the last 30 years we’ve had a localization of the beer movement occur in the US,” Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, told NBC News.
“American craft brewers look at beer in the way chefs look at food, and are very involved in mixing styles. Small independent craft brewers have come on the scene and changed the way the world looks at the US for beer—they brought innovation to the table," said Herz.
Herz said she has no doubts that culturally infused beers will be part of the future for craft beers.
According to Araya, the craft beer market isn’t innovating as quickly in countries such as his home, Costa Rica, because there is not a history of home brewing and a lack of resources.
“Even to this day in Costa Rica there are a couple of home brew shops but they have not been open for more than three or four years,” Araya said. “They have a difficult time getting the ingredients, such as grains and malts, so there is a big limitation to what you can do in Latin America as opposed to in the US.”
The craft beer market isn’t innovating as quickly in countries such as his home, Costa Rica, because there is not a history of home brewing as well as a lack of resources.
Araya believes that the lack of access to home brewing in Latin America contributes to the lack of diversity in the brewing industry, which has catered primarily to white male consumers. However, he thinks things are changing and has hope for the future of culturally infused beers, not only inspired by Latin America but from all over.
“The more diverse everything is the richer everything becomes,” he said. “It’s all about influences and open minds and just drawing inspiration from people.”