On a gorgeous beach somewhere in South America, T.J. Bennett once found himself missing really good beer.
Not the yellow, fizzy, 3.5-percent alcohol lagers at the corner store that he can only tolerate served freezing cold under a scalding hot sun overhead.
It was more like the flavorful, hoppy beers from his former life—brews with body that he drank during his days in Northern California, where he grew up and first earned his chops in the restaurant and hospitality business. Over the course of 20 years, he climbed the ladder from chef to owner-operator of small hotels and bars in the United States, then Panama and, most recently, Ecuador, where he lives with his wife, Whitney, and their son, Kaius.
The restaurant world was good to him, but he craved a change of professional pace, a career that ensnared his passion. He dug deep, and the Montañita Brewing Company was born: the first oceanfront microbrewery in Latin America, serving handcrafted beer and hard ciders, as well as the polarizing kombucha tea at area craft fairs.
His beach bar is constructed mostly of locally grown bamboo, with hand-carved tiki-style accents and a sand floor rounding out the mellow atmosphere. It sits steps from the best point break in Ecuador, “La Punta,” home to several surf competitions every year. A kitchen in the middle of the bar serves sushi from the freshest fish around.
But behind the scenes is where the real magic happens. Fate led T.J. to German mechanical engineer Joachim Schulze, a beer master who happens to live in Ecuador, who built him the “BMW of beer machines,” according to MBC’s website. The fully customized, automated system brews confidently in the back, with the best ingredients T.J. can find—which is no easy task.
Most of his non-GMO and organic grains are imported from Belgium, and some come from Germany, Argentina, and Chile. He hasn’t forgotten his West Coast roots, though, and when his friends from California and Oregon come to visit, they always have a couple pounds of hops in tow.
The NIMBY caught up with the brewer during a rare moment of peace, and he dished on what makes him and his beer tick, the climate for microbreweries in Ecuador, and the words he wishes he’d heard as a younger, more impressionable entrepreneur.
The NIMBY: When and where did you brew your first beer?
T.J. Bennett: 2012. I was 35 years old, here in Montañita. I never brewed beer in my life. It was good. I tried to come as close as I could to a clone of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After five years of ex-patting, I missed the taste of California.
What do you enjoy about brewing?
I enjoy the calmness of brewing—maybe it is because we brew on the beach in our flip-flops and shorts. I enjoy the aromas of the malts steeping, the subtle hop notes in the air when the salty breeze flows through.
What inspired your move from California to Panama, and then Panama to Ecuador?
My inspiration to leave California was in 2001 when I visited Peru. The smells, hospitality, colors and smiles said to me that I
needed to be in Latin America. So I made a five-year plan/goal. I was looking to move to a slower pace of life, cheaper investments and eventually have my own business—my goal was a bamboo beach bar.
I had a consulting job offer in Panama, which was my “in,” or “out,” depends how you look at it. After two years on the tropical islands of Bocas del Toro, I was ready for a little less humidity and bugs. Months of researching, and Ecuador kept coming up. We came and fell in love, and have been here ever since.
There must be an artistic process involved with choosing what to brew, how to brew it and what kinds of hard cider to make. Can you walk us through that, without giving away any trade secrets?
The process of my brewing methods, in the beginning, was to make beers that I missed from back home. Browns, stouts, pale ales, some wheat and a lot of IPA. I do not have the access of all the brewing ingredients—malts, hops, yeasts, and additionals—as one could have back in the States. So I use what I have and aim for something I am familiar with. I would make a different style of beer a couple times a week and tweak my existing recipes, always trying to make it the best.
When it comes to ciders, it was a little easier to decide: What’s in season? I do not use any apples or pears, since they do not grow here. Instead, I use fresh organic mango, naranjilla, lime, passion fruit, Andean blackberry and taxo. I started with single fruits to fruit combos. Then I started adding spices from the jungle, which then led me to infusing the ciders with chilies, roasted jalapeños, habaneros, aji caciques, chipotles—I even made a cider with wasabi. It is fun to play around.
The buzz surrounding your kombucha is electric. What do you think of the criticism surrounding it? Skeptics argue the bacteria in the fermented brew can be dangerous.
I’ve been brewing kombucha for six years, but just personally. I intended to have it on tap at the bar, but the more I made, the more my wife and I drank. This year, I started to make 100-liter batches with the hopes of going on tap. I have only had the experience of taking them to a couple local artisanal markets and explain to people what this is.
It was a learning curve, and the thought of vinegar water made with mushrooms didn’t make people super intrigued, until they tasted it. Most people have the same story: “I’ve tasted it before,” “My friend makes it,” “ I heard it was disgusting,” “Oh that stuff is horrible,” et cetera. I gave away free tasters, and people were hooked. They kept coming back to the booth with friends and buying bottles.
After selling all the cider and beer, I packed up to go back to the brewery. I had people follow me home with gallon containers to fill up with kombucha. I went to the artisanal market last week and sold out of all the booch in 20 minutes.
How does the microbrewery industry in Ecuador compare to that in the United States?
When I started MBC, I only knew of one microbrewery in the country—and I looked everywhere. I later
found out there were two others. Fast-forward four years, and I would guess there are about 40, another 15 bottling for supermarkets, and four-dozen home brewers, and growing. This is coming from a non-craft beer society/country the size of Colorado. One cannot compare the industry from here to the U.S.A., where craft beer has been around for a lot longer—and so has the palate.
How does owning and running a brewery compare to working in the restaurant business in California?
Brewery versus restaurant? We can go on and on about how awesome it is being self-employed, or how rolling out of bed and walking to the beach, barefoot, to open the brewery is the best commute ever.
I’ll say there are similarities to making beer and making food: purchasing the finest ingredients, playing around with recipes, tasting, evaluating, making an amazing product, and seeing that look on someone’s face, enjoying your long, hard artwork. I think I have been successful in this field having spent my whole life in a kitchen.
Differences? Less stress, more money, less turn-around, less overhead. If only I knew all those years ago.
Do you see yourself staying in Ecuador for the foreseeable future, or do you dream of moving elsewhere someday?
I really do love this country, the people and diversity, but “forever” is a long commitment. This is the longest I have lived in one town, consecutively, in my entire life. It is a big world out there. Who knows? For the time being, this is home.
If you could give one piece of advice to amateur brewers, what would it be?
Advice? Dare, risk, dream! Well, honestly, I just read that off my Rogue Nation t-shirt, but it is some pretty solid advice.
About eight years ago, I read a quote from Ellen Goodman: “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”
It reminded me I was never normal. It reminded me I was where I needed to be … for now!
- Andean blackberry
- brews with body
- ellen goodman
- la punta
- Montañita Brewing Company
- passion fruit
- restaurant industry
- rogue nation
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
- South America
- west coast