All The Beers in San Telmo
When I first arrived here in 2007, the quality of the beer disappointed me. The good cheap pivo in Prague, where I’d lived for 5 years, had spoiled me. Quilmes, the Miller Light of Argentina, just wasn’t cutting it. Once I found Warsteiner, a Germanesque beer brewed in Argentina, I was a little happier but still not satisfied. Then somebody took me to La puerta roja in San Telmo and introduced me to the Antares label. That brand’s Scotch Ale became my go-to beer for a long time. But that’s not all there is to drink in Buenos Aires’ oldest and beeriest barrio.
Most of the world’s heavy beer drinkers are represented in the bars of San Telmo. We’ve got an English pub (Gibraltar), an Irish pub (Breoghan), another kinda-sorta Irish pub (Brath’s), a Polish bar that doesn’t serve Polish beer (Krakow), a German bar (Achtung), a German beer hall (Untertürkheim) and even an American bar, in style if not in name (La Puerta Roja). The Aussies don’t get their own bar, probably because they’re happy drinking anywhere. Only the Czechs are missing. I’d love to have a traditional Czech hospoda in San Telmo: I miss the long tables that encourage drunken camaraderie and the beer that keeps coming until you tell them to stop. Now that’s civilized.
Until an authentic pivnice arrives in Argentina, I’m well content with the beer crawl I’ve planned out here. Vamos.
First Stop: Antares
When the clock strikes 18:00, or 6 PM for you estadounidenses, the fun starts, and the place you should be when it does is the newest location of an Antares brew pub, on the corner of Bolívar and Venezuela.
All the Antares locations look similar. They’re handsomely if simply appointed, dark wood with a long bar and tall shiny copper cylinders full of beery goodness behind it — an Argentine rendition of what an international pub should look like. The San Telmo location is the prettiest to my eyes. Its ceilings, exposed brick and tall arched windows looking out onto the barrio’s cobblestoned streets all give the place an airy but somehow quaint and cozy vibe.
But who cares right? If this were the diviest dump in San Telmo you would still make your way here for some of the neighborhood’s best cerveza. I suppose the safest way to explore what’s on tap would be to order a flight, or degustacion, of beers. For a reasonable price you’ll get several small samples of beer, bartender’s choice.
But that’s not my recommendation. Sure, it’s fun but unless you cleanse your palate after every taste of a different beer, you’re going to spoil the unique characteristics of individual ones. Sampling the Honey Beer after you’ve had a mouthful of a bitter IPA will make the former taste like beer-flavored water. So, choose your style, buy a pint and stick with it for a while before you switch. I like bitter beer so I’m always going to go for an IPA first. However, Antares regularly features a Brewmaster’s Choice and that’s what I recommend for starters. Two months past that beer was Pizarrón, probably the tastiest, hoppiest brew I’ve ever drank in Argentina. If there’s any of that stuff left, drink it up. This month it’s an Irish Red. At IBU 16, it’s not very bitter. So if it’s bitter you want, try something else. Each beer’s IBU rating is listed on a blackboard over the bar. The higher the IBU, the more bitter the beer.
Happy “hour” only lasts until 8 at Antares so once you’ve had a couple pints, it’s time to move on to the next stop.
Second Stop: San Telmo Brew Pub
Walk south down Bolívar and you’ll find a new joint on your right serving craft beer, simply called San Telmo Brew Pub.
I happened to stumble by one night and spot the word BITTER chalked on the bar’s sidewalk sign. Naturally I went in, only to be disappointed that they were out of BITTER. I think they mean bitters, but whatever. Instead I tried a Buko Doppel on tap. (I think they mean Doppelbock.) I’m not an expert on this style but from my limited experience, this isn’t a typical doppelbock. It is mildly malty and somewhat sweet, though, but quite light. But that’s typical for many Argentine craft beers. As for the alcohol content, I forgot to ask! The San Telmo Brew Pub makes their own beers, too — an IPA, a honey beer and a golden ale. I didn’t try them but they’re pretty cheap at 35 pesos.
Third Stop: Breoghan
When you exit the Brew Pub, turn right, continue down Bolívar and cross Independencia. About a half city block from the corner you’ll find Breoghan, an Irish brew pub. A venerable San Telmo street artist named Grolou painted the façade. He’s also a tattoo artist and you can see that influence in his work in the streets.
While not as well-appointed, Breoghan’s creations rivals Antares’ in quality. I’m especially fond of the creamy, little-bit-nutty brown ale, which is not as sweet as most Argentines seem to like their beers. It sports a two-finger head and goes well with any of the OK bar food that Breoghan serves. Since you’re probably a bit peckish by now anyway, I will say the fish ‘n’ chips aren’t bad and they’re cheap. But I’d stay away from the soggy salads.
You can safely go from a brown ale to the bar’s signature IPA, known as San Telmo Fire. You’d have to try it for the name alone, right? It’s a bit less full-bodied and bright than the IPA at Antares and not as bitter, but it’s a solid offering. They seem to run out of it frequently, however. I prefer it these days to the locally brewed Kingston IPA at Gibraltar, which is our next stop. Happy hour lasts until 10 PM at Breoghan but don’t get distracted. Down another pint of Fire and let’s move on.
Fourth Stop: Gibraltar
Walk south about 20 paces then turn right on Estados Unidos. As you walk the block to Gibraltar, check out some brand new street art on the left.
On your right, near the corner of Estados Unidos and Perú, sits Gibraltar, the closest thing that Buenos Aires has to a British pub. Inside it looks like one, all shiny brass, dark wood and a couple leather-upholstered and sought-after chairs and a settee. The kitchen serves fish ‘n’ chips… hold on a minute. When I first started writing this article, Gibraltar was still serving British-y pub food. But they’ve changed the menu again — there’s something on there called sliders now, but they seem to have nothing to do with anything I would recognize as a slider — so now it’s generic bar food, with slightly lower prices. No curry. No fish ‘n’chips. No shepherd’s pie. Is this a concession to inflation or to the teenage palette of many Argentines? I’m not going to ask.
But what really sets Gibraltar apart is the honest-to-goodness beer-pulls from casks behind the bar. Kingston IPA comes out at the proper temperature, too, not icy-cold as would be required to tolerate Quilmes or Budweiser. I’ve spent a lot of time in Gibraltar and this local IPA used to be my favorite. It’s still good but I’ve found I can’t drink a whole lot of it before the harsh bitterness gets to me. It’s almost astringent.
But go ahead and skip the IPA, You’ve probably already had at least two by now. Instead, down a Celtic stout from Gambrinus. It’s not as as full-bodied as the Antares, nor as malty, but it’ll do just fine. Gibraltar also serves Fuller’s London Pride in cans, which might be the last remaining British thing about the place, and also a pricey 660 ml bottle of locally made Scotch ale called Cabeza de la Reina. At 80 pesos, I wasn’t even tempted.
Did you drink two of the stout? I hope so. If we’ve timed everything right it’s before 10 and still happy hour. But if not, save that drink ticket for when you come back another time, for a game of pool in the back or um, a slider. But let’s crawl on.
Next Stop: Bar Defensa
When you exit Gibraltar, turn right. One of San Telmo’s bares notables is just two blocks away on the corner of Carlos Calvo and Perú. I’m not really bringing you to El Federal because of the beer. Yes, it’s cerveza artesenal, or craft beer, made by the bar, but it’s not that great — very light, slightly sweet and not very malty, with the tiniest hint of hops. It’s refreshing but it bears only a passing resemblance to any of the full-flavor beers you’ve been drinking so far tonight. I’d say your best bet is la roja o la negra. But El Federal’s ambiance is everything — old-timey Argentine and free peanuts. I mean, look at this place!
Maybe you’re a bit drunk by now and could use a little walk. Our last stop will take a few minutes to get to but it’s worth it. Go east on Carlos Calvo and then turn right on Defensa, San Telmo’s main drag. If you’re tired or tipsy, I wouldn’t blame you if you took a cab. We’re going almost to the edge of San Telmo, just a block away from the barrio’s biggest green expanse, Parque Lezama.
Sixth Stop: Rosa de los Vientos
Rosa de los Vientos, located at Defensa 1376, is a tapas bar but it’s also the only bar in San Telmo that serves beer on tap from The Mula, another Argentine microbrewery. (I’d send you to the website but it’s been under construction for what seems like years.) Like El Federal the draught selections are limited to blonde or golden ale (rubia) and something called Dry Stout (negra). The rubia is just fine, a cut above El Federal’s similarly light offering. The not-that negra isn’t a stout by any standards that I know of but it is less sweet than most dark beers you’ll find in Argentina. But what sets Rosa de los Vientos apart from the other places we’ve visited is the small but interesting selection of bottled craft beer, a feature that Gibraltar has recently retired. More selections from The Mula are available, including an odd IPA which isn’t but there’s also a handful of beers from breweries I’d never heard of. Chief among these is El Buho, or The Owl, which is a company based in Cordoba.
Thirsty? Test out the beers for yourself while learning about local beer history and styles on the San Telmo Craft Beer Walk, where you will try 10 different beers at 4 different breweries, and talk with bar owners and brewmasters.