The Basque geniuses with great beer and a terrible name
Saturday 17 December 2022
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Ones to Watch
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Only in a corner of the world as famous for its cuisine and produce as the Basque Country, could a brewery pull off a name like Gross. “We almost started out as Gros, after the neighbourhood that founder, Andoni Galdoswas, is from,” says head brewer Beinat Gutierrez. “But someone somewhere along the line suggested we add an extra ‘s’, to include the initials of San Sebastian. They decided the extra ‘s’ looked better, but they didn’t really think about how that would sound.”
He cracks a smile, telling me about how tragicomic the brewery’s Untappd profile is, purely on account of puns relentlessly being made on the brewery’s name, and how the team has rolled with the unintended consequences of calling itself Gross by occasionally designing labels that are intentionally off-putting. The brewery is in a good-humoured back and forth with drinkers of its beer, but don’t get confused; not taking titles too seriously doesn’t get in the way of making brilliant beer at Gross.
Despite the hyperlocal emphasis embedded in the brewery’s name, Gross actually started out, in 2013, by contract brewing using facilities, as Beinat puts it, “all over the place”. This got the brewery started, and established its brand in the Basque Country, northern Spain and the South of France. But before long Gross recognised the need to make a decision about the direction its future would take. It didn’t want to keep contracting forever, so in 2017, the Gross team decided to set up a brewery of its own and moved into the space it’s still in today.
It started out with just three tanks, making just one or two beers at a time, gradually building towards the size it is today. Now, Gross double batches everything on its 15hl brewhouse and has adequate fermentation space in its six 30hl fermenters. In the next year, it will add one more fermenter, a centrifuge and two bright tanks, to bring the brewery to maximum capacity.
“We want to stay where we are right now because the [adjoining] taproom is working so well,” says Beinat. “We’ve been hitting record sales for the last few months, but yeah, if we stay here we don't have any more space to grow. We had the idea to maybe have a second brewery somewhere, and keep it small like this, with a taproom, but we’re waiting to navigate this winter. There will always be places to open a brewery, so we don’t mind waiting some months.”
Beinat tells me the support of the local population and economy has been an important part of Gross’s growth; “Basque people are incredibly proud of produce and products from here, so although we’re quite a small town, bars are most interested in tapping local beers. Because of this we have a lot of great breweries in San Sebastian and, of course, in the summer we get a lot of tourists who are always willing to drink good beer.”
This strikes me as particularly interesting given a comment Beinat later makes about craft in Spain more generally. He tells me that although Spain has always drunk generic beer in volumes that aren’t insignificant, the country’s craft scene has only begun to take root in the last decade. I ask if this might be due to beer having to compete with the wine world in Spain, and while he’s not entirely sure that’s the case, Beinat is solid in his belief that the next generation of beer drinkers is what’s driving change in Spanish craft. “Even in the last ten years, people would be fighting just to get their beers into the one craft beer bar,” says Beinat, “and you’d have to search it out if you wanted it.
“Now trends are suggesting that young people are more into beer than wine, and we really want to support that, and so we try not to only sell beer, but have food and music at the taproom, and host parties here as well. For our Oktoberfest event, we had way more people than we expected; we prepared to give out maybe 400 steins, but we ran out, and had to start handing out regular glasses, to the point that we had 6/700 participants. We ended up emptying all our serving tanks.”
Today, Gross is most widely celebrated for its IPAs, though in the past year it has also embarked on the serious undertaking of making craft lager. Beinat studied to be a brewer in Germany, and worked there for five years before moving to Stu Mostow, in Poland, where he continued to work with more traditional styles of beer, eventually bringing that experience to Gross.
Through 2022, Beinat has helped to expand Gross’ export portfolio, getting small volumes of beer into Romania, Denmark, Poland, and Italy. The ambition is that the relatively small volumes currently being exported can be scaled up to create and meet demand in the coming years. And of course, if we’re going to talk about what Gross beers are ending up in other countries, we have to talk about its order for Beer52.
Gross is contracting its Turbidence NEIPA for this box, trusting the good folks at 71 Brewing, and Beer52’s Head Brewer and Winemaker, Carlos de la Barra, to bring you a beer that tastes like the Basque Country. Given that Gross started life this way, I ask Beinat if it feels different to do it again now, at a different stage of the brewery’s lifetime, and with a little more maturity under its belt. “Put it this way,” Beinat says, “we wouldn’t do this with just anyone. We know ourselves a bit better now, we know what we’re doing.
“I know Carlos, I know he did a great job with Omnipollo, and it’s the hands that deliver your beer that you have to trust in. It’s also the case that 10 years ago, not as many breweries were making the kind of styles we brewed. Nowadays people are more comfortable with West Coast and New England styles, and have the equipment to support that.”
He tells me that some of Poland’s biggest breweries contract their beers across several different facilities, so he's coming from a background where contract brewing, a trend we’re still getting our head around here in the UK, is commonplace. In fact, Beinat is so comfortable with being on both sides of the process, that he explains the pain, passion, excitement and frustration of contract brewing in a way that’s so perfect that I can’t help but laugh.
To explain the feeling of handing over a recipe, even to trusted hands, he says: “I could give you the recipe for my mama’s paella, but you’re never going to make it the same as her”. On the other hand, he says contracting for other breweries can feel like “someone else coming to cook in your home”. That said, Beinat admits that once you trust the people you’re working with, these problems are the same ones you face at home in your own brewery: “you can’t work 24 hours a day, so there comes a time you have to go home and let the team take over,” he says. “If you trust people, they’ll surprise you, most of the time.
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