The global beer network never fails to throw up pleasant surprises. There we were, on the Saturday morning of this year's Fresh Hop Festival in Launceston, sitting down to an Ocho-hosted beer brunch and looking forward to an afternoon sampling fresh hop beers.
Among the diners outside The Sebel were a number of people who'd won tickets through The Crafty Cabal. Mid-course, we went for a wander and got chatting to one of them: Lex Lanham. As the conversation progressed, talk turned to his t-shirt, which bore the name of a South American microbrewery. Presumably, he was a keen beer tourist who had called in on one of his travels?
It turned out the connection was rather stronger. Zenith had been founded by Zac Lanham, one of Lex and wife Judy's kids, along with his Peruvian wife Milka. It's found in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, where Zac currently has a brewer from Oregon working alongside him knocking out beers that range from quinoa porter and pale to saisons, IPAs, Gose and barrel aged beers.
Once the Fresh Hop weekend was over, we got in touch and here's Zac to tell us more as the latest to feature in our Aussie Exports series.
ZAC LANHAM – CERVECERIA ZENITH
How did you end up in Peru?
I came over to do a volunteer program in 2004 and liked it so much I came back in 2005. I worked in various jobs – English teacher, tour guide – and traveled around a fair bit before settling in Cusco in 2008, working for a tour company.
How did you end up running a microbrewery in Peru?
When I stopped traveling in 2008 and settled in Cusco, the first thing I did was try and start homebrewing. At that stage in Peru there were no homebrew stores so we had to source all our ingredients outside the country. I had stuff brought up from Chile that first year.
I remember losing a load of hops to the guys at Customs at one point (happens when you don't have the paperwork for it). We were fortunate enough to have friends who owned bars here in Cusco, and over the years they all tried our homebrew and said if we could make it in volume they would sell it.
Back then, there weren't many craft breweries in Peru. There had been a few start up over the years, and most had all shut down. In 2010/2011, a bunch of new ones started opening, and we finally made the leap in 2012 still brewing on our 40L home brew setup and still working full time jobs.
When I say “we”, it's not the royal "we", I am referring to my wife, Milka, and myself. She is an integral part of our brewery and, in reality, the reason it even got off the ground in the first place.
Like most homebrewers, I always dreamed of going pro, but never really thought it would happen. She is the one who believed in me, and in what we were doing, and and got us started. And our name Zenith reflects this. Zenith is a combination of our names. Z for Zac, and the “enith” comes from Milka’s second name “Senith”.
Were you involved in beer in any way in Australia before heading to Peru?
I was an avid home brewer in Australia and a member of the Canberra homebrewers club in the years before I left.
Is there much of a craft beer scene where you are?
Yeah, it's really starting to take off here in Peru. Obviously, we are years behind places like the US or Australia, but it's really starting to gain traction. From five years ago, when there was only a handful of breweries just starting to now, it's almost like I hear about a new one every other week.
Are there craft beer bars as well as small breweries?
Yes, here in Cusco there are a couple of craft beer bars. Cholos Tap Room is the best of them. As for breweries, here in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I think we have around ten or 12.
What sort of styles are people enjoying in Peru?
IPAs are very popular here at the moment. And we are heavily influenced by the US craft beer scene, so sours are popping up a bit here and there as well as barrel aged beers. There are also some great beers around using local fruits. Peru has such a wide variety of options when it comes to local ingredients.
I hear you had to rename your brewery – what happened there?
The joys of starting a business in a foreign country and a foreign language. We initially setup under the name Wayki Brewing Company. Wayki is a word in the local language (Quechua), which means brother or friend. When we started, I asked the lawyer if we were good to use that name, he said yes. But he only checked if we could use it a business name, not a brand name. Something got lost in translation there I think.
So, a little while after we launched the beer, we got a very nice letter from Backus, the major brewery here in Peru (previously owned by SAB Miller, now AB InBev), asking us to drop the name or pay up. So we very quickly dropped the name and ran that first year without a name.
We were on tap in one bar in town as the house beer. It took at least six months or more to find another name we were happy with, and then another six months to get it registered.
What style of beers do you brew?
Lots. Bueno, we started out with an American pale ale and a porter with a touch of quinoa. Those were our first two beers and still remain our two flagship beers. Currently on tap in the tasting room we have a Gose, an NEIPA, a wheat beer, a braggot, a stout with coffee, cacao and cocoa, a hoppy American red, and we have a Russian imperial stout in the tank ageing and a Helles on the way.
We also do a Christmas seasonal which we aged on Palo Santo wood last year. And occasionally we produce a cider, mixed with a local fruit called camu camu.
Do you think the beer industry where you are has any lessons for the one here in Australia?
Maybe, or I think maybe we could learn a lot more from the industry in Australia as it has been around longer and has more experience/lessons to give.
If any beer lovers are coming to Peru, what would you put top of their to do list?
Most people come to see Machu Picchu and a few other things like the jungle, Nazca Lines, Lake Titicaca, the Colca Canyon. There is so much to see and do in Peru it's kind of hard to recommend.
Personally, when I travel, it's more about the food and the beer. Food wise, Peru has some amazing cuisine. And some world class restaurants. So I would say, check out the local food, don’t be afraid to try new things.
And what would you say are the three local beers that absolutely must try?
Hmmm, can I say Zenith, Zenith and Zenith?
OK, I would recommend anything by the Sacred Valley Brewing Company. They have great beer, and a cool tap room out in the Sacred Valley, very much worth a stop in. Their beer is available all over Peru in draught form.
Sierra Andina, from up in Huaraz, are making great beer. I really like their IPA (the Shaman) and their Saison (Mi Yunta). You can find them in bottles and in draught all over Peru.
And number three I would recommend trying is Greenga, one of the few female brewers here in Peru; her OG, a hopped up pale is an amazing beer. A bit harder to find outside of Lima, but worth the effort.
Thanks, Zac. You can find Zenith via their Facebook page (from where we pilfered all the photos – with permission!).
And you can check out other Aussie Export features here.