La dolça vida
Chris JJ Heaney enjoys the legendary Catalonian hospitality, and takes the temperature of the local scene at the annual Barcelona Beer Festival.
Pictures: Zsolt Stefkovics
Friday 25 May 2018
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Stepping off the plane in Barcelona to a balmy 18°C and pleasant sunshine is a good sign for the week ahead. Catalonia has long been celebrated for the warmth and hospitality of its people and the unsurpassed quality of its food, but I’m here to dip my toes in the relatively nascent craft beer scene. With the absence in recent history of any real ‘beer culture’ and a market dominated by macro-brewed golden lager – served cold, consumed quickly and costing next to nothing – I wonder how well the seeds of a ‘craft’ ethic will have taken root.
It doesn’t take long before I am exposed to the famed Catalan hospitality; in advance of an evening of planned brewery visits, we stop for lunch at Bodega Bartoli hosted by self-proclaimed local food insiders ‘Aborigens’. Cesc and Alex make great conversation and their love of their native food and drink is evident as we share plates and discuss everything from classic BBC sitcoms to politics and of course Barcelona’s infuriatingly successful football side.
The early evening is spent at Edge Brewing, one of the more established craft breweries in Barcelona, founded in 2013. Unsurprisingly, as it was founded by Americans, it has taken a lead squarely from the US scene, with predominantly hop-forward beers showcasing new world hops and clean American yeast profiles. The taproom is a very convivial space and, on the eve of the first night of the Barcelona Beer Festival, is buzzing with industry heads and beer enthusiasts.
While such individual examples are plentiful, if anything here proves the enthusiasm with which craft beer is being embraced, it is undoubtedly the Barcelona Beer Festival. Established in 2013, the festival has been pushing the boundaries for artisan-produced beer in the region since its inception and, after welcoming a record 32,000 guests last year, proud founder Mikel Rius tells us he expects another record-breaking weekend.
Hoards of drinkers descend on the venue in the city’s La Farga de L’Hospitalet on the weekend to enjoy brews from near and far. Brewers themselves were on hand and eager to chat as their beer was poured, with humility and clear excitement. In fact, excitement and novelty seem to permeate the atmosphere; despite being a longstanding event, there is a strong feeling that everyone here is revelling in this burgeoning cultural shift.
I must include some highlights; although we sadly did not visit any of these breweries, the quality of the beer is definitely worthy of attention on a world stage. First up, Soma Brewing, whose New England style hazy IPAs have topped Spain’s Untappd chart. Both the Pyramid and Combo were delicious, forward-thinking beers. A recent collaboration with Garage Brewing (also hot property right now) dubbed ‘Montessori’ was a definite winner in the low-bitterness, big aroma, so-called ‘juice-bomb’ stakes.
I also enjoy the beer from Cervesa Marina, hailing from Blanès. Longstanding figures on the Catalan beer scene, their history has seen collaborations with Steel City and La Pirata. Top of the list was Sour Skull, an 8% Black IPA aged for a year in French wine barrels with additional Brettanomyces; not in any way subtle, but hugely complex with lots of tannins and rich wood character while also maintaining a pleasantly fulsome body. Notable mentions also go to Guineu, Laugar and Cyclic Beer Farm, all of whom had some delicious beers on show.
One thing a beer festival is sure to do is whet your appetite for drinking beer, and so an evening of doing just that lay ahead with visits to BierCaB, NaparBier’s Barcelona brewing space and bar and neighbouring Garage Beer Co. BierCaB boasts a tap list to rival any I have encountered worldwide and is accordingly bustling. There are fresh IPAs (both East and West coast styles), Hefeweizen and Berliner Weisse, all of which were pleasingly well executed.
Garage is already making somewhat of a splash in the beer community, particularly with its stand-out cans. Very much a purveyor to the ‘haze craze’ crowd, its Soup IPA is lauded everywhere it reaches. Garage’s bar in the city has all the atmosphere of a cutting-edge brewery tap, and much of the clientele has, like our party, just spent the afternoon at a beer festival.
Journeying beyond the cosmopolitan metropolis of Barcelona, we see Catalan culture from a different angle. The scenery is stunning, with extended vistas of mountains, rolling hills and fields all the way to the sea. A particular gem on our travels is in the small, unassuming area of Sant Joan de Mediona, Alt Penedès. Here we pay a visit to Ales Agullons. Based in an historic farmhouse that once managed an estate producing wine, Carlos Rodriguez is now experimenting with 100% spontaneously fermented beers as well as mixed fermentation in the barrel, cellared in the same space where once wine would have been stored. He has even had his own resident strain of brett isolated and catalogued: brettanomyces agullonensis.
An afternoon visit to family winery Suriol has us learning about Cava production by the méthode traditionelle. We walk the vineyards and witness a dramatic demonstration on how to ‘degorge’ a bottle before a Catalan festive lunch of calçotada; a thoroughly entertaining tradition that has a real essence of family and community.
Outside Barcelona, I am delighted to find that craft beer is still thriving, even where it is much harder to generate and sustain demand. In the western province of Lleida we visit Lo Vilot brewery, remarkable for the fact that it is practising Full Circle brewing; not only producing the beer itself, but also growing the raw ingredients that are its constituents.
A visit to the farm close by and we can see where the hops and barley are harvested and then processed. They also propagate all of their own yeast. There is a small barrel project going on in the corner and we are told that this is something they look forward to expanding in the future. The beer itself is quite unique and certainly has the profile of the terroir.
One of the most exciting stops of the week comes in Suria at Cerveses La Pirata. Head Brewer and founder Aran Léon is charismatic and animated with a real sense of fun when describing his job. He likes to travel, he tells us, and the success of La Pirata has led to many invitations to collaborate, pour beer and showcase his work. Despite his notable success outside of the country, Aran tells us he is putting a real focus on selling to the local region and helping educate people on beer culture, something he feels still has a way to go.
So, craft beer is definitely gaining a stronghold in the hearts and minds of many Catalans, but to what extent is this impact felt on a commercial level? One of the very first craft breweries in Catalunya, Cervesa del Montseny is a forefather of the young scene here and has now increased enough both in size and popularity to have gained a foothold in supermarkets. Having recently moved on to canning a couple of its core beers – Lupulus Pale and Anniversari IPA – sales manager Ferran relates that the 30hl brewhouse is just about keeping up with demand and the beer on the shelves is always guaranteed to be of optimal freshness.
Art Cervesers, a similarly long-running outfit, is more driven by playing with style. Set up within Can Partegàs, a farmhouse in the heart of the Vallès plain, Art Cervesers is about ‘capturing a philosophy of life through beer,’ taking inspiration from the surrounding land. The small 5hl brewhouse is used to produce a range of beers, all slight reimaginings of classics including märzen, weiss, IPA and steam beer.
I have encountered a host of different approaches to beer here in Catalonia, yet one thing shared by everyone I have met is an ardour and devotion to their craft that is palpable, coupled with a joyous affection for their homeland. It may be true that the consumer market has a long way to go, but the beer is there, and everything is in place for a big boom to occur. For a people who love to consume food and drink and demand the utmost in quality, Catalonia is on the cusp of huge progress in European beer.
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