Meet Underberg’s Amazonian Sister: Brasilberg

The bitter German digestif Underberg has developed something of a cult following in the U.S. But unbeknownst to most, the brand also has an Amazonian cousin, Brasilberg, distilled by a wayfaring Paul Underberg in the 1930s and still going strong today.

On a recent annual visit to my in-laws’ in Volta Redonda, a few hours outside of Rio de Janeiro, I found myself at one of the many mercados in town, browsing through bizarre Four Loko knock-offs and fear-inducing aguardiente. Halfway down the aisle, I paused to find a liter-sized liquor bottle done up in similar packaging as Underberg—the classic German bitter drunk straight from a tiny, brown-paper wrapped bottles. Except this bottle was labeled “Brasilberg.” A far cry from the zippo-sized Underberg bottles cultish fans obtain at German beer halls the world over, I assumed it was merely a bootlegged oddity.

But Brasilberg, I found out later, is the real deal—an expatriate hybrid of the traditional recipe using Amazonian ingredients that is sweeter and has a darker appearance and fruitier, more herbal aromas than its better-known sister.

The German bitter Underberg was founded in 1846 in Rhineberg, Germany, by Hubert Underberg, who turned the brand into one of the country’s most iconic digestifs. A generation and a half later, Underberg was suffering amidst the fallout from World War I, which was just a specter of the horrors soon to fall upon Europe again in a few years. Another war would mean continued trouble for the Underberg distillery’s ability to acquire the ingredients it needed from some 43-odd countries, all of which went into the recipe for the bitter liqueur. After the war began, Emil Underberg, Hubert’s grandson, was hit with the one-two punch of Allied blockades that rendered the import of exotic herbs near impossible and a sudden proliferation of inferior imitators that tarnished the brand’s name. Left without any options to continue operations, the Underberg family decided to shut down its distillery in 1941. (Underberg eventually re-launched the brand in 1949 with its now-famous paper-wrapped bottle, the original recipe intact.)

Familiar European bitter ingredients like aniseed and wormwood grow wild in the Amazon as well as in the Atlantic coastal rainforest around Rio de Janiero—areas that are also full of medicinal herbs that have been popular among locals for generations. These Amazonian plants and roots would make perfectly suitable replacements for Paul and Anna’s missing recipe components, eventually giving Brasilberg its more herbaceous flavor, tucked into softer, sweeter package that stands in stark contrast to Underberg’s dry, tongue-numbing lashing by way of anise and spice.

About a decade before Emil shut the factory doors, his brother, Paul, was wayfaring through Asia and Africa, and eventually settled down in South America, a world away from the turbulent air of Europe. He traveled by zeppelin to Rio de Janeiro in 1932 with his wife, Anna, and sought to distill Underberg there. But the family refused to give him that blessing (though if they had any idea of what was to come to Europe, they might have reconsidered), and Paul was left to improvise. He and his wife became friendly with a congregation of nuns who kept watch over their makeshift factory of imported German distillery equipment as well as what would become their herb room, where Paul and Anna would combine what they could glean of Hubert’s original recipe with a touch of the Amazon. This new take on Underberg had sugar added after distillation, which resulted in a spirit with closer kinship to an Italian amaro than to Underberg, which was largely considered a medicinal bitter.

Familiar European bitter ingredients like aniseed and wormwood grow wild in the Amazon as well as in the Atlantic coastal rainforest around Rio de Janiero—areas that are also full of medicinal herbs that have been popular among locals for generations. These Amazonian plants and roots would make perfectly suitable replacements for Paul and Anna’s missing recipe components, eventually giving Brasilberg its more herbaceous flavor, tucked into softer, sweeter package that stands in stark contrast to Underberg’s dry, tongue-numbing lashing by way of anise and spice.

While the working-class populace guzzled cheaply produced cachaça, Rio’s foreign and business set were the main consumers of Brasilberg, which at the time was simply called “Underberg do Brasil.” It carved out a cult following for itself in the spirit of Hubert’s original bitter, while ensuring its legacy would live on in the case that the rest of the family didn’t make it through another disastrous war.

After Paul’s death in 1959, according to Michael Griesel, brand manager for Underberg, Emil “did everything he could to acquire the company.” After years of refusing Emil’s offers, Anna finally sold it to the family just before her death in 2005.

Brasilberg’s remarkable history fits in with many of the country’s other odd cultural juxtapositions. From Lebanese to Japanese, the well-integrated culinary influences barely register as foreign to Brazilians. The country’s most popular fast-food chain serves Middle Eastern fare beneath a fez-clad neon mascot that is so culturally tone-deaf many foreigners balk at its existence. And thanks to Rio’s Japanese expat community, sushi makes a frequent appearance right alongside black beans and rice at almost all por kilo (by the pound) lunch joints.

This cultural mishmash is quintessentially Brazilian. It’s not born of any clear mission for nationalist assimilation, but rather, is part and parcel of its people’s typically unfussy approach to food and drink. As long as it is supremely enjoyable, who cares where it comes from? To this end, Brasilberg remains widely under-celebrated in its home country. In contrast to the fetishization of Underberg that has happened in the U.S., Brasilberg proudly maintains its spot on store shelves, its secrets known to few.

When I proudly lugged home my find from the market and showed it to my Brazilian uncle in-law, he shrugged and said, “It’s good for the stomach,” rubbing his gut, and then asked if I’d like to have a whiskey.

Stephen Palahach is a freelance writer and drinking enthusiast who lives and tends bar in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in The Mason Jar and Narratively.

FROM AROUND THE WEB