Roused from sleep as our plane descended, I peered out to see the Andes welcoming me to Lima, Peru. Bleary-eyed, I wound through customs and baggage before seeing a red and gold sign with my name. “Susanna? Bienvenido a Peru,” said Luis, the man greeting me with his sign and a cooler full of Cusqueña beer—at 7:00 a.m. I was ready to decline but remembered my year of living in Latin America and how it’s sacrilege to refuse an offer, so I took an ice cold lager.
This was my first press trip and I had no idea what to expect on what was dubbed the “Cusqueña Experience.” Though the trip was organized by one of the country’s most popular beer companies, much of our time was spent in the country’s open-air food markets and learning the art of Peruvian cuisine from prominent chefs. In demonstrations, we paired their crisp, light beers with freshly prepared ceviches (a classic and rightful pairing) and used dark, chocolatey lagers as an ingredient in desserts.
At the heart of the trip, though, was the tradition of using local grains—many cultivated since the time of the Incans—in both brewing and cooking. Having grown up in a small beach town on Long Island (where I’ve since been inspired to make ceviche with local seafood), I was most excited about trying the Roja, or red lager, alongside a plate of milky white sole tossed with ahí chiles, lime and salt. Delicious pairings like this speak volumes about the inherent simplicity of Peru’s local ingredients.
Cusqueña takes pride in this tradition by using only Peruvian-grown grains. They’ve actually made a special edition quinoa beer (Edición Especial Quinoa), which, prior to becoming a near mainstream supergrain, Peruvians farmed for centuries. You won’t find blueberry, pumpkin or coffee infused in Cusqueña beers, though. Not trying to be the trendiest brand, Cusqueña brews simple, deliberate and consistent beers like Dorada (a balanced light lager), Negra (a creamy, chocolatey dark lager), Roja (a red lager that leans more toward burnt orange in color while maintaining a subtle earthy hop flavor) and the Trigo (a citrusy wheat beer).
The original and smallest Cusqueña brewery (founded in 1908 and bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev in recent years) lies atop the ancient Incan city of Cusco in homage to the city’s founders. The entire brewery, which dwarfs most American ones, could be mistaken for a mid-size college campus. Following closely behind the head brewmaster Fernando Elorrieta on a tour of the grounds, we passed through the cavernous compound tasting beer at each step of the brewing process to check for any irregularities. The entire Cusqueña team is very hands on, both in brewing and bottling, fostering what seemed like a safe and happy workplace.
The beer may be a departure from the craft brews I’m used to drinking in New York, but that wasn’t a bad thing. It was crisp, refreshing and uncomplicated like a cold Miller High Life on a hot day. The uncomplicated flavors lend themselves nicely to pairing, and you can try it (along with some ceviche, I recommend) at Llama Inn (Williamsburg), Surfish Bistro (Gowanus), Desnuda (Williamsburg and East Village), Bespoke Kitchen (West Village), Sushisamba (Greenwich Village), Raymi (Flatiron), Macondo (Lower East Side and West Village) and Hotel Americano (Chelsea).