La Roja: Beer for peace brewed by former FARC members

By Wally Broderick July 11, 2019
The end product. Photo: La Roja

La Roja stands apart in the current wave of Colombian craft beers – the beer is made and distributed by ex-combatants of the FARC. The brains behind the operation gives us the inside story.

How amazing is it to take part in an idea that becomes a powerful reality? That is how I feel a few months after deciding to head into a settlement of ex-FARC fighters and work on a productive activity – brewing beer – with the potential of giving hope in the form of jobs, and even more importantly, a sense of identity and acceptance.

In fact, it wasn’t my first time there as I really wanted to contribute in some way to the peace process. I’m an English teacher and, given the obvious touristic potential of the locations, the initial idea was to help with the foreign language ability of the former troops. However, the logistics of such a project needed a huge amount of resources and time, neither of which were easily available. 

We needed a more tangible and practical idea, and my limited home brewing experience made me think that it would be great to develop a community beermaking project in a country that is in the midst of a craft beer revolution.

FARC beer
The group hopes that this fermenter is just the beginning. Photo: La Roja

I therefore got in touch with the person who was organising an event at the settlement and we set a time for the craft beer workshop. I took my humble set of equipment: a pot, a 30-litre plastic fermenter and a cloth to strain the brew, and arrived at the Antonio Nariño space for the training and reincorporation of former FARC members on a beautiful mountain near the Páramo de Sumapaz.

And so, I arrived at this exotic location in the depths of the mountains of Colombia, and in one of the community kitchen and dining spaces, or ranchas as they are known in guerrilla lingo, I start telling a crowd of eager students what the basic ingredients of beer are and how this precious liquid is concocted. 

The audience consists of at least twenty or twenty-five people: mostly young men, but some a little older, and a few women of various ages. In general, they were very respectful and fully focused. A few of them came and went, evidently involved in other tasks. The questions were always relevant, and I was surprised at the meticulous detail of their note taking. After about an hour the hands-on practice started. Most of those who stayed till the end of that session are still in the project today.

My travel expenses and the initial equipment and supplies were covered by a small whip-round of those who attended that day, and two weeks later I returned to show how the bottling and priming was done. It was probably one of the most stressful moments of my life. 

Related: Rafting with former FARC members, rafts of possibilities

Although the beer wasn’t ready yet, once it came out of the fermenter it would be clear if it was any good. We opened it, smelt and tasted it, and the result was satisfying. Three cases of beer made by ex-combatants were distributed to friends and supporters. With the funds gathered, an extra fermenter was acquired and the rest is history.

Well, not quite. This is just the start of a story with many chapters to come, the story of a Colombia which is seeking to overcome its violent past and present. Its future is a brew which we all hope will deliver that beautiful reality. La Roja has quickly become a synonym for hope, for redemption, for reconciliation. 

There has been overwhelming support for the initiative and orders are plentiful from all over the country. Keeping up with the demand for the product has been a herculean task and we are in search of funding in order to drastically increase production. For this reason, a crowdfunding campaign will be launched in La Candelaria’s Casa de Citas (Carrera 3 #12B-35) on July 13 from 3pm onwards. Expect plenty of product to sample at an event that includes entertainment by Los Civatos, DJ Dandy Junky and Charles King.