BEER TRAVELLER: CATALONIA TRANSFORMED

Pete Brown celebrates and salivates over the Catalonia’s evolving beer transformation

It doesn’t work on everyone, but beer has the power to perform a kind of transformative magic. One minute you have an average interest in the impact of flavour on your palate, enjoying the odd glass of wine or pint of lager. The next, you’re on your way to jacking in your job to make, sell or communicate about beer and converting the cupboard under the stairs into a cellar space.

It happened to me in 2004 in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve seen it happen to a great many people since. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to witness the actual moment: a handful of times, I’ve been the perpetrator of it. I’ve seen it happen to men and women, close friends and strangers. And now, I think I’ve just seen it happen to an entire region.

Barcelona has always been one of my favourite cities to get drunk in. For a long time, the only beer available was Estrella, but that wasn’t the point: it was the manner of its drinking that was so appealing. In the Boqueria — the best food market in the world — Estrella was served ice-cold from the bar of a little kiosk where fresh langoustines wriggled on a hot plate a few feet away. In side-street bodegas, Estrella was served in tiny glasses — or cañas — to accompany plates of padron peppers, octopus or heroic portions of patatas bravas. And in the twisting warren of the old Bario Gotic quarter, Estrella was drunk in pints in a selection of randomly themed bars.

Four years ago, I was back in Barcelona and looked again for these bars. They’d all gone, replaced by generic craft beer bars from central casting. All sold beers from Meantime, Brooklyn and BrewDog, and all had stripped wooden floors, bare brick and a smattering of heavy metal sights and sounds. I could have been in London, Manchester, or Nottingham. Sitting on a bar stool sipping a pint of Punk IPA, the ghost of the Starsky & Hutch theme bar that had once stood here whispered in my ear, ‘This is what you wanted, isn’t it? I distinctly remember you complaining that it was just Estrella last time you were here’.

If this was victory, it felt hollow.

In March 2018, I’m back for the seventh annual Barcelona Beer Festival, in a vast convention centre reminiscent of the Great American and Great British Beer Festivals. There are brewers and drinkers here from both those countries. I suspect they’ve not come all this way to try beers from Brooklyn and BrewDog.  

‘There are now 100 craft breweries in Catalonia,’ says festival organiser Mikel Rius. ‘This is not about a movement from the city. It’s all around the rural area of Catalonia.’

The day after the festival, we’re driving up into the hills through stunted, winter-pruned vines. At one chilly peak in the centre of a region most famous for Cava, Tempranillo and Grenache, we meet Carlos and Montse Rodriguez. They quit the city for an almost ruined former winery around the turn of the millennium. In a cool stone room that smells of cats and has a bar that looks like it was stolen from a Devon country pub, Carlos serves us some of the best traditional British cask pale ale I’ve tasted in many months. In the cellars next door, this self-taught brewer is re-fermenting his beers in local red wine barrels with a wild Brettanomyces yeast he isolated and cultivated from the air around us.

Catalonia has lots of wine barrels. That’s why at least a third of the breweries here have a barrel ageing programme. But it doesn’t have much in the way of hops and barley.

That’s why Oscar Mogilnicki Tomas and Quiònia Pujol Sabaté have put together the ‘Full Circle Project’, with the aim of growing everything they need to produce a beer not just in, but entirely of the region. He’s an engineer, she’s a biologist, and together they’ve built the Lo Vilot brewery by hand. The number of different skills they possess between them defies comprehension, as does the consistency of their range of beers including sour fruit beers, IPAs, Pilsner, wheat and Belgian-style ales.

Back down in Barcelona, over a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian-style dubbel, someone asks the American-born head brewer of Edge Brewing what attracted him to the idea of working in the one of the world’s most beautiful cities.  

‘You’re from a scene from the US — which had lost its beer culture — brewing in a country that never had a beer culture to start with. So, you’re doubly removed in terms of creative freedom,’ he replied.

Days later, after gorging ourselves on homemade salami, barbecued spring onions dipped in romesco sauce and the simple brilliance of rustic bread rubbed with garlic and ripe, fresh tomatoes before being drizzled with olive oil and salt, all offered at every one of the dozen or so breweries we visit, I decide this creative freedom is one half of an explosive combination.

Catalonia may have never had a beer culture, but it’s always possessed a proud sense of gastronomic independence, a genuine love of food that is as amazing as it is simple and democratic. Craft beer was a perfect foil, a natural fit. After that initial wide-eyed genuflection to the global titans of craft, the Catalonians simply got on with the job of making beer their own.

They’ve only just started, and already they don’t seem to be able to brew a bad or mediocre beer. On my next visit, I suspect it may be my turn to have my original beer epiphany all over again.

This article was written after a trip organised and paid for by the Catalan Tourist Board. You can find out more about Catalonia’s gastronomic heritage at www.catalunya.com