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The Spanish Are Coming!

Feature by | Dec 2012 | Issue #71

Gisberga Brewery

The quest for Spanish craft beer began for my partner, Jessica Garcia-Agulló, and I with a question. Surveying the aftermath of an Italian beer event, Dave Broderick, owner of New York City’s Blind Tiger Ale House, asked, “You’re in Spain. What’s going on over there?”

We set out to answer that question and found ourselves in Catalonia, the nationality within Spain that comprises the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Indeed, we discovered a nascent brewing scene in and around Barcelona, still very much under the radar.

Although Celt-Iberians left evidence of brewing dating back 7,000 years, Spain has been a viniculture since the Roman occupation. But in recent years, craft brewing has begun to thrive, though progress has been hard fought and not without setbacks.

Ex-pat Liverpudlian Steve Huxley, the brewer behind Steve’s Beer, author of Spanish beer bible Cerveza: Poesía Líquida and contributor to Garrett Oliver’s Oxford Companion to Beer, is one of the pioneering champions of brewing in Catalonia.

Steve Huxley

Steve Huxley

Huxley’s Barcelona Brewing Company (BBC) opened in 1993 to tremendous public acclaim until authorities shut him down in 1995, citing his failure to file the proper paperwork (although Huxley contests this). In the final days of BBC, Steve’s brewing courses spawned two craft beer lovers’ associations: Humulus Lupulus and Catalunya Home Brewers, whose founding members went on to open bars and breweries of their own.

“BBC was more than a pub, it was an idea,” says Pablo Vijande, co-founder of Catalunya Home Brewers. “When it closed down, the seeds of that idea had already taken root.”

The first breweries around Barcelona began to open by 2005, some gaining traction in local and international markets. L’Anjub is one of the newer breweries to open. Brewmasters Àngel Torné Tarragó and Xavi Carim Correcher are now collaborating on a beer with Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales in Baltimore, Md.

“In Spain … [there is] no definitive history in beer, so it’s a revolutionary time for them, a time when Spain can define itself,” says Strumke. “I want to be part of that experience when everyone is still full of unbridled passion.”

L’Anjub is a tiny outfit that brews innovative spins on classic styles. In a recent, informal tasting at New York City restaurant Txikito, Garrett Oliver said he particularly liked L’Anjub 1907, a Pale Ale, which he said “combined a clipped mineral edge with some really nice yeast-driven fruitiness.” Lug, an ordinary bitter, is a featherweight hop-slam at only 3.5 percent ABV. Juliett is a roasty Extra Stout that produces a head of creamy froth on a rich coffee and chocolate body.

The latest wave of unbridled experimentation comes from Nómada, Guinea Pigs!, Reptilian, Naparbier and Laugar, all freewheeling young brewers with a gift for spontaneity and extreme beers. Some are brewing with local ingredients like valencia oranges, aromatic herbs and chufa, a groundnut; many are also aging beers in wine and whiskey barrels, like the Wood-Aged IPA from Guinea Pigs!. Nómada is also propagating their own yeast strains.

Some of the best Spanish ales are characterized by floral and fruity aromas with generally restrained bitterness, resulting in complex, balanced beers that compliment food beautifully.

Gisberga’s Ferran Ferrer Escolá

Gisberga’s Ferran Ferrer Escolá

Ferran Ferrer Escolá, of Gisberga, brews two such beers: Trigo, a farmhouse wheat, and a Porter. “Gisberga beers aren’t flashy,” says Oliver, “but they show good technique and a steady hand. They’re very nicely balanced.”

Sagra is a larger craft brewery creating exceptionally fruity profiles in the styles it brews. Sagra Pilsner greets the nose like peach cobbler: aromatic fruit fills a pie-crust malt body balanced with refined bitterness. Sagra also exports a 10.5 percent ABV Strong Ale, Bohío—a sipping beer full of roasted coffee and bitter chocolate designed to marry with chocolate and vanilla desserts.

Back in Barcelona, Gabriel Fort has taken the reins from his father to expand upon the venerable tradition of Barceloneta brewpub El Vaso de Oro. Bottle shops are popping up, like Rubén Zurita’s La Cerveteca, in Barrio Gótico, which also stocks homebrew equipment and a beer-savvy staff that’s happy to share their knowledge of the local scene.

Susana and María, two ladies who go by their first names only, run 2d2dspuma (“2fingersoffoam”), a beer bar, bottle shop and now, a national distributing company.

The craft beer scene is being embraced outside of niche circles as well. Restaurants, which have traditionally been wine oriented, are adding locally produced beers to their menus. Mosquito Bar, an Asian fusion tapas bar, began with an extensive wine list; today, owner Giles Brown offers two reds and two whites, but the beer menu runs 60 beers long. “I’ve found beer more suitable to Asian food tastes,” Brown explains.

“Thanks to [Spanish chef] Ferran Adrià’s collaboration with [Estrella] Damm’s Inedit, more people are willing to accept beer as a gastronomic accompaniment,” says Guillem Laporta, who is one of the two brewers of Sants Beer, a gypsy brewery that specializes in hoppy, often not very carbonated beers. Laporta is also the beer sommelier at gastropub HomoSibaris, which showcases Iberian crafts alongside Cantillon, Meantime, BrewDog and a wide selection of American beers. “Restaurants are gradually offering high-quality beers as pairing suggestions on their menus,” Laporta says.

Quique sampling beers at Dougall’s

Quique sampling beers at Dougall’s

For all the progress in this young scene, the supply chain is still problematic. “Everything is imported in small quantities as though Spain were an island,” laments Enrique Cacicedo, co-owner and manager of Dougall’s Brewery in Cantabria. Most of the national supplies of malted barley, Nugget and Celaia hops are sold to the corporate breweries before they are even grown. But self-sufficiency arises from necessity: Grassroots craft brewers’ association Gécan is working for access to more varieties of locally produced ingredients; Catalunya Home Brewers evolved into Plus Malta, which imports raw materials for brewers and supplies kits to homebrewers; Ca l’Arenys manufactures much of the equipment for small breweries, and contract brewing affords opportunities for gypsy brewers.

Boris de Mesones, Spanish beer critic and master brewer at Modern Time Brewpub in South Korea, believes that “Spain has a big advantage in that there is no brewing tradition, so there are some very unique beers being created. Once Spain has worked out the kinks in their systems and supply lines, these beers will be among the best in the world.”

Garrett Oliver agrees. “I think that Spain is going to be one of the next big stories in craft beer. Spanish food culture is a vibrant blend that’s brought the world a lot of spectacular cooking, and that same spirit is starting to show up in the beers. They’re not afraid of acidity or bitterness—some of the most interesting Spanish beers I’ve had have been sours,” he says, referring to Agullons’ barrel-aged Lambic-style blends, Setembre and Barrica.

At the 19th annual “Great Match: Wine, Food, Design” trade show in New York City in October, Spanish craft beer stood alongside great Spanish wines for the first time. Guest Leila Carbonell declared, “I came for the wine, but I stayed for the beer.” Angel Martin Acebes, chief of the Spanish Trade Commission, was also in attendance. Perhaps he summed it up best: “We had no idea this was going on in Spain, and a door to a new world of taste has opened for us.”

Beer Festivals in Catalonia

March: Barcelona Beer Festival (BBF) – Barcelona International CAMRA event organized by Joan Fiol, Mikel Rius, Salva Marimón and Ruben Zurita

April: Birra Sana – Blanes Beach, Gerona Catalunya organized by Marina brewery

June: Mostra de Cervesa Artesana – Sant Joan de Mediona, hosted by Carlos Rodriguez and Montse Virgili of Agullons Brewery

July: La Fira Del Poblenou – Barcelona organized by beer bar Nuestra Cervecita de Cada Día

October: Vine A Fer Cervesas – Barcelona, a platform for inspired homebrewers, organized by Pablo Vijande

December: Fes-T’Hi winter ale festival – Vilanova I La Geltrú, organized by Pep of Singlot Bar and la Font del Diable Brewery

Spanish Beers Available in the US

Iberian Beer United, LLC imports
Gisberga Trigo – 4.8% Farmhouse Wheat
Gisberga Porter – 4.8% Porter
L’Anjub 1907 – 5.5% Iberian Pale Ale
L’Anjub Lug – 3.5% Ordinary Bitter
L’Anjub Juliett – 6.3% Extra Stout
Sagra Pilsner – 5% Iberian Pilsner
Sagra Bohío – 10.5% Special (Old) Ale

Shelton Brothers imports
Agullons Bruno – 5% Pale Ale
Agullons Pura Pale – 5% Pale Ale
Agullons Runa – 5% Brown Ale
Cervesera del Montseny (CCM) Lupulus – 5.4% Iberian Ale
Cervesera del Montseny Malta – 5.1% Pale Ale
Cervesera del Montseny Negra – 5.2% Stout
Ca l’Arenys Guineu Montserrat – 5.7% Stout
Ca l’Arenys Guineu Riner – 2.8% session

Sublime Imports, LLC
La Socarrada – 6% rosemary-honey Golden Ale

Prokure, LLC
La Rosita – 5.5% Blonde Ale brewed with honey