Cocuy Yes, Beer No
Submitted by Carl  Nelson Jr.

Amid the worst economic meltdown in Venezuela's history — a crisis that has forced
thousands of businesses to shut their doors — one unlikely product is flying off the
shelves: the equivalent of Venezuelan tequila.

Called cocuy, the alcoholic beverage was first produced by indigenous groups 500 years
ago. It has long been stigmatized as moonshine for drunks and poor people. But with
hyperinflation driving up the cost of beer, wine and conventional spirits, many
Venezuelans are turning to this drink of their ancestors, which is easier on the
pocketbook.

"We never used to drink this. We drank beer," said Jonathan Yepez, a car mechanic in
the western Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, as he stood in line at a bodega to buy
cocuy. "Cocuy was for old people and grandparents. ... But now everyone — from
adolescents to adults — drinks cocuy."

Cocuy is made from green agave plants that grow in arid regions of the western
Venezuelan states of Lara and Falcón. The stalks and heads of the plants are roasted in
underground ovens, then fermented in vats, with the resulting liquid distilled into cocuy.
Green agave is a close cousin of the agave varieties used to make Mexican tequila and
mezcal, and the smoky-fruity taste of cocuy is similar. Its color varies from clear to amber.
But while Mexico mass-produces tequila, which is consumed around the world, cocuy is
produced by hand in small batches and is hardly known outside of Venezuela. Most
cocuy is 40 proof, but some can be higher.

"We are very proud of this drink," said Jaime Vásquez, a well-known cocuy maker in
Barquisimeto and one of the country's most enthusiastic ambassadors for the liquor.
But the road to respectability has been a long one. For decades, cocuy was outlawed in
what Vásquez described an effort to boost Venezuelan beer and rum producers. Like
prohibition in the U.S., the move forced the cocuy trade underground.

After Hugo Chávez ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999, his government
began to promote and extol local and indigenous products. In 2006, Venezuelan
lawmakers declared cocuy part of Venezuela's national patrimony, opening the door to
issuing licenses to produce it.

Vásquez and other producers began setting up cocuy stores and experimenting with new
varieties and flavors, like peach, pineapple and ginger. One of the most popular types of
cocuy, called "blind snake," purports to have medicinal qualities and is sold with a dead
snake inside the bottle.

But the main reason cocuy is suddenly in vogue is its price.

Due to shortages of raw materials as well as taxes, a case of Venezuelan-made beer now
costs the equivalent of about $20. (Venezuela has almost run out of beer entirely at times
during its economic crisis). Prices for rum and imported wine and whiskey are also
beyond the reach of many Venezuelans. By contrast, a liter of cocuy sells for less than
$2. The price is even lower if customers bring in their own bottles for refills.

"Beer is tasty but it costs a dollar a bottle," said William Hernández, a Barquisimeto cook
who had just gotten off work. Pointing to his newly purchased bottle of cocuy, he said:
"This costs about $2 and lasts a lot longer."

To meet rising demand for cocuy, unlicensed distillers have moved into the market but
what they sell isn't always safe. Unscrupulous distillers sometimes use chemicals that can
sicken drinkers. So far this year, three people in and around Barquisimeto have died
from consuming adulterated cocuy, said Liz Gascón, a local journalist.

Legitimate producers insist that once Venezuela's economy recovers, the best cocuy will
be sold alongside top-shelf tequila, single malt Scotch and cognac. And just as bars
selling artisanal mezcal are popping up all over the U.S. and Mexico, Venezuela is home
to a growing number of cocuy bars.
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
People Turn From Beer in Venezuela
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