Meet Pamplona's veterans of Spanish craft
Saturday 11 February 2023
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For all the evidence of beer being brewed along the Iberian Peninsula long before the birth of Spain as a country, it was the growth and development of brands like Estrella, Moritz, and Mahou-SanMiguel during the 19th century, that rendered Spain one of Europe’s biggest beer drinking nations. Through global and civil wars, these breweries, which started as small and often family-run businesses, either merged with or acquired competitors, until eventually the market was monopolised by macro breweries capable of servicing their region with beer at a price low enough to become one of the nation’s most accessible beverages.
Spain has come a long way since then, but the legacy of low-priced lager, in combination with dated licensing laws, means that craft has struggled to find footing here; today just 1-2% of what beer is consumed domestically can be attributed to craft breweries. Steve Huxley’s Barcelona Brewing Company might have sparked the story of craft beer in Spain as far back as 1993, but it would be more than a decade after the brewery’s brief but bright lifeforce was snuffed out by authorities citing ‘insufficient paperwork’, that the mantle of craft would be picked up again by the likes of DouGall’s, in Cantabria, and Naparbier, in Navarre.
Unlike DouGalls, which was influenced by the culture of British brewing, Naparbier, as the name suggests, set out to make German-style beer using produce from its local region, Navarre, or more specifically, Pamplona. The brewery’s co-founder Juan Rodríguez learned about the foundations of beer from German breweries he frequented while visiting family there, and even imported his first home brew kit from Germany because he simply couldn’t acquire one domestically; a sure sign that small scale brewing was then niche, if not actively discouraged in Spain. It wasn’t until some years after this interest in beer had piqued, and his ability to brew developed, that Juan and three friends used redundancy money from mass lay-offs at their company to found Naparbier in 2009.
I’m not ashamed to admit that when I speak to Juan, along with Naparbier’s sales manager Maite Istúriz, I hang on their every word. Juan says that when Naparbier first started out, 14 years ago, the brewery was one of, perhaps, ten craft breweries in the whole of Spain. Now there are over 600. This cataclysmic explosion of breweries seems to have been forecast for some time, not just because the movement towards higher quality, smaller batch brews makes sense for a nation of prolific beer drinkers, but because of the reputation Spanish craft brewers began earning themselves internationally.
Naparbier is a wonderful example of a brewery that has garnered such international acclaim while fighting hard yards on its home turf. Export has been extremely important to the brewery, given that a challenging market at home would not have made them the sales Naparbier needed to survive. A byproduct of this has been the recognition Naparbier has gained from the likes of Mikkeler, To Øl, Nøgne Ø, Mahrs Brau, Lervig, Barrier Brewing, Evil Twin, Garage, and Track, to mention but a few big name breweries who have collaborated with Naparbier over the years to produce a wide range of styles.
Juan would be the first to say that such collaborations, as well as healthy exports to Japan, the US and EU, are a vital lifeline for Naparbier, but that’s only half of where the brewery’s focus lies. “We like exporting and hope to continue supplying other places and markets, but we’re extremely conscious of being responsible with what’s around us,” she begins. “Our whole policy is based on respect and collaboration, so we want to share our success with the economy in our area by buying local raw ingredients wherever possible, working with local artists for our can designs, and helping other people to grow too. Stepping on heads has never been our way.
Collaborations, as well as healthy exports to Japan, the US and EU, are a vital lifeline for Naparbier
“What we’re trying to convey to the public in Spain, is that our beer is focused on the product itself, from the quality of the raw materials that go into the beer, to the high standard of laboratory testing that’s conducted on site and every stage of a brew. Our beer is a different thing to what’s made by big breweries because we're always focusing just on that quality, we follow a recipe that is eco-friendly, is local, and is responsible. We’re always trying to focus on that and convey it to the people. And you know, the people who are interested in beer and don’t mind paying a little bit more for what they drink, they really appreciate it.”
Price point is an issue that comes up again and again throughout the conversations I have with breweries here. While, as already mentioned, big beer producers have the infrastructure that allows them to produce beer cheaply, Juan points out that Spain is also a wine drinking country. “In Spain, wine is considered something worth paying for, while beer is thought of as a cheap drink. Now, that perception is slowly changing, and we're finally starting to see more people drinking beer, so much so that beer and wine are almost consumed in equal measures here. The catch is that wineries don’t get taxed the same way beer does, because the government pushes wine as a traditional product of Spain.”
While I am always saddened to hear of craft producers in an industry like our own, coming up against institutional and systemic barriers to growth and development, Naparbier has faced its challenges valiantly. “I came to Naparbier from a different industry,” says Maite, “and when I started working in the brewery my mind was blown by the way the craft beer community collaborates with ‘competitors’; we share recipes, ingredients and information if people need them”.
To this, Juan adds that craft “also depends on the people themselves, the brewers who started all this did so in part because they came from sectors where they didn’t like the working practices. So that first wave of craft breweries in Spain were really focused on collaboration, helping each other, and working together to make the beer scene better. We knew the only way to make something big out of craft beer was by learning from others, and sharing what we have learned as well. As we’ve grown, and gotten better at what we do, getting to teach, learn and collaborate has remained something important to us”.
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