By Stephen Vargha
Cuenca used to be a desert in the land of beers. Less than ten years ago, the choices for beer were all mass produced and one could not parch his or her thirst for a quality beer as it basically did not exist in Cuenca.
Since then, several microbreweries have popped up in Cuenca. The lack of choices is no more. Like the United States, Ecuador is witnessing a veritable explosion of the microbreweries industry.
A microbrewery is a brewery that produces small amounts of beer — much less than large corporate breweries — generally 15,000 barrels or less per year. A barrel is 31.5 gallons.
Even smaller is a nanobrewery. The annual cap at the nano production levels are not quite as well-defined but most aficionandos say 2,000 barrels per year it the top limit. Others claim that nanobreweries are operations that brew three barrels of beer or less in each batch.
There is at least one nanobrewery in Cuenca, and that one is on the east side of the city, at de la Bandera Nacional and Calle del Himno Nacional. The Hop Factory was founded by T.J. and Lisa Mauk, Luis Aguayza, and Diana Amya. It opened in September 2019. Being such a young brewery, they are producing about 600 bottles each month. The bottles hold 350ml of their craft beer, which means that The Hop Factory is producing about 18 barrels per year.
Cuenca native Aguayza liked T.J.’s idea of opening a brewery. It is rather ironic that he did. “I did not like beer! All I ever had was Club, Pilsener, and some Corona,” Aguayza exclaimed. “I thought beer was for only getting drunk.”
Club and Pilsener are Ecuadorian beers produced by AB InBev, part of the Anheuser-Busch / InBev SA/NV conglomerate. AB / InBev is a multinational drink and brewing company based in Leuven, Belgium that sells 40 percent of the world’s beers. It is so huge that in 2016, it purchased SABMiller, leaving Coors Brewing Co. the last of the former “Big Three” U.S. beer companies. Coors, in fact, is not independent since it was bought out last year by the Canadian brewery Molson.
It took a Cuenca native who did not like mass produced beer to reaffirm T.J. Mauk’s idea of getting into the beer business. Back in 2017, Aguayza was first introduced to Mauk’s homebrewed beer. At that time, T.J. had been homebrewing for five years. As soon as he tasted it, Aguayza told his American friend that he wanted to produce it in greater volume.
T.J. and his wife left the “rat race” of the U.S. and Fredericksburg, Virginia in 2016 and have not looked back. “I love the Latin culture of Cuenca,” T.J. Mauk says enthusiastically.
That love for the culture and for Cuenca is why he spent eight months in 2019 obtaining the necessary licenses and permits to produce beer. Mauk signed a five-year contract for his location, and then the Covid pandemic “quédate en Casa” order hit. The Hop Factory had to shut down its public taproom.
“Thank God for Gringo World!,” says Mauk. “The gringos stayed at home and ordered our beer that had free delivery. For seven months, the nanobrewery depended on home deliveries to stay alive.” In October, the brewery reopened to everyone’s joy.
Among the devotees of Hop Factory is Sarah Taylor-Fives who recently moved to Cuenca. “I have been looking for a microbrewery! It is what I lived around in Oregon,” declared while drinking a pint in the taproom. “It is a nice surprise.”
Taylor-Fives comes from a top-10 state in the U.S. for the number of microbreweries. California is by far number one. About four out of five Americans live within ten miles of a microbrewery and the statistics bear this out as in 2019, there were 8,275 craft breweries operating in the US. That is up from 7,346 in 2018.
T.J. understands where Taylor-Fives is coming from. “It is all about the experience, and not getting drunk.” Microbreweries are becoming the new place for community social gatherings, he says. “People who drink craft beers are good people. They are not gathering to get drunk, but to be with other people and have good beers.”
“I love it,” Taylor-Fives added. “I tried the ‘Jamaica,’ a Hibiscus flower beer that is like a breakfast beer.” She also tried two other beers: A bourbon stout and a red amber ale. Her favorite was the latter. “It’s got body and is not too full.”
The Hop Factory has four core beers. T.J. likes to say they are divided by colors: A light colored beer is his pale ale; the red is an American amber ale, and the dark beer is a stout. His fourth core beer is a must: An IPA (India Pale Ale).
The four beers are always in bottles. “I never want to run out of the core beers,” T.J. announced. “As a customer, I want to get a core beer whenever I request it.” They can all be enjoyed on Saturdays, the only day the Hop Factory taproom is currently open.
Getting the Cuencanos to enjoy craft beer is a challenge for The Hop Factory. “We have to change the mentality of beer here. People want to know how much stronger it is because it is more expensive,” T.J. explained, adding that he believes the taste for craft beer is catching on. “Once you see a local drinking a dark beer, you know the beer culture is starting to develop.”
Aguayza says that the beer-making process takes almost a month. They “cook” the beer for six hours. It is fermented in a stainless-steel tank for two weeks, followed by a second fermentation in 350ml bottles. By fermenting a second time in bottles, carbon dioxide is created. There is no need to artificially add CO2 to the bottles. “It’ all natural,” Aguayza adds.
One batch produces 300 bottles. The bottling process involves physical labor and takes six hours to complete. Despite the intense labor, Aguayza is thrilled at the benefits. “I am getting my muscles back from bottling!”
In addition to beer, Hop Factory is selling some excellent Ecuadorian coffee at a very affordable price. It all happened by accident. “We went to Vilcabamba for a visit. In town, we saw coffee drying at a compound. I took some photos, and went back home,” Lisa started to explain.
“We went to Vilcabamba again with our son’s friend’s family back to the exact same plantation. We thought it would do well in Cuenca, so they gave us some,” Lisa added. The coffee did better than “well” that they are now going to have it displayed in their taproom for all to purchase.
Aguayza says that the logo rabbit he designed for Hop Factory says it all: “Drink my beer!” He has high hopes that the image will be accepted in the spirit of the World War II poster of Uncle Sam and get people’s attention and that just one sip of Hop Factory beer will convince folks that craft beer is a great addition to life in Cuenca.
Photos by Stephen Vargha