Saturday, January 28, 2012

Good Times at the Buena Birra Social Club

The Puerta Cerrada (a closed door reservation-only restaurant) is not a new concept in Buenos Aires anymore, but that hasn’t stopped Ariel ‘Toti’ Golia from doing something new with the idea. His Buena Birra Social Club has, if you let your imagination embellish a little, the same spy thriller fun and secrecy as other Puerta Cerradas, but no other establishment pays homage to good beer like this.
The club is unlike anything else in Argentina. It certainly stood out to international beer expert Stephen Beaumont, who recently named the club as hisfavourite beer locale of 2011. Pretty impressive when you consider that he logged over 50,000 miles of air travel last year, visiting the world’s top bars and breweries. When I asked Toti about it he confessed that he wasn’t aware that Beaumont has visited until his article was later published. To Toti, Beaumont was just another customer and he wasn’t afforded any more special treatment than you or I would get. Promising news if you were left disgruntled by the service you got the last time you ate out.
The Buena Birra Social Club is the logical culmination of 10 years of brewing by Ariel. After a decade of tinkering with recipes and sharing brews with friends it was time to expand the circle that could enjoy his beer. The club provides the platform desired by every brewer: pleasing paying customers with the fruits of their labour. It is a family affair, with sister Maria Eugenia having a hand in everything except the brewing. She is seemingly everywhere at once: tending to the kitchen, welcoming guests, pouring drinks at the bar, and smiling the entire time.
The club is in a residential house modified for the purpose of brewing, cooking and providing an informal environment for relaxation and conversation. Past the front door you enter immediately into the bar and dining area, where there are less than a dozen tables in the interior, making for a cozy atmosphere. Despite the size, high ceilings make the area feel airy and expansive.
A patio, with hop vines overhanging it, awaits in the back yard. There are two more tables in the open air garden if you prefer fresh air with your pint or if you need a place to smoke. Trees from the neighbouring yards stretch high over the walls of the club and you feel very secluded, almost as though you are outside of the city.
The back yard is also home to the brewhouse, a compact setup featuring two 180-litre fermentation vessels with digital controls. It is an enviable operation that any neophyte homebrewer would aspire to own. When I was there a batch of Golden Ale and Indian Pale Ale were in the midst of fermentation, soon to be kegged.
On tap during my visit was a Dry Stout, a Blonde and an English Mild.  The Dry Stout was my favourite of the three. It was a roasty looking black with a hint of ruby light peeking through. The cap of head was thick and aromatic. The Mild was also a winner. Give this a try, but don’t expect a light beer despite the name. Mild comes from a time when beer in England was sold aged or young and fresh from the brewer.  The word Mild used to apply to the young tasting fresh beer regardless of style. Nowadays, it refers to a brown ale, notably bitter but much less so than a Pale Ale. It has a malty backbone and often a touch of sweetness, and this club has an admirable version. I must confess one regret—I did not sample the evidently popular Blonde. There seemed to be a Blonde lurking at every table.
The lineup is constantly changing and the new beer on offer is already a great reason (excuse?) to go back. The food, meanwhile, is a welcome bonus. I enjoyed a personal-size pizza, made to order. Tacos, nachos and picada plates (cheese and cured meats) are also available. Prices are reasonable for the beer, especially when compared to other craft beer bars (especially those in the city centre). Consider that you get a whole pint for a competitive price and you are definitely winning. Where the kitchen is concerned, the portions could be bigger, but the food was a hit. At least this leaves plenty of room for more beer.
I sat out the back, nibbling on pizza, enjoying my Dry Stout and looking inside as couples on dates and small groups of friends began to trickle in around 9.30pm. When pressed, Maria Eugenia told me the ‘typical’ customer was at first someone from their circle of friends in the brewing industry and homebrewing community, but that the word-of-mouth nature of the club has brought in an increasingly diverse crowd of people since they opened just over one year ago. Now, people who “probably have never had artisanal beer before” are the ones calling.
Public interest in artisanal beer is slowly but steadily increasing with media exposure (Toti was recently brewing on Live TV) and the promotional efforts of brewers and homebrewers. “When drinking wine, no one accuses you of drunkenness. Beer still needs to gain respect” says Maria Eugenia of their work to secure a place for beer in the Argentine heart and mind. The group of three girlfriends drinking beer in the back yard and the couples in the dining room look convinced.
The day to day operation of the club is straightforward: beers and a simple menu are available. Buena Birra Social Club also hosts regular prix fixe beer dinners featuring more exotic fare and specially brewed beers to match every course (including dessert). I recommend simply looking at the photos on their Facebook page if you are undecided about attending. The plates look like works of art.
To conclude, I must touch on the question that you are surely wondering about. Where is it? If I told you, it would ruin the fun. Half of the enjoyment is not knowing where you are going and having to call for a reservation. Who am I to deny you that pleasure? I will reveal that is in Colegiales. Take collectivo 59 or Linea D to Estaction José Hernández and you won’t be far away on foot.
You can contact the club via their website or by calling 15-6428-3457. They are normally open in the evening on Thursday through Saturday, but are currently on summer hours and will be closed Saturdays.
*This article originally appeared in the Argentina Independent 

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