Tag Archives: Art Cevesers

Homage to Catalonian beer tourism

Carlos Rodriguez holds his mash fork inside the Agullons brewery, one of the first microbreweries in Catalonia, founded in 2005 at his masia (the typical Catalan farmhouse) in Sant Joan de Mediona. The first thought of any visitor to the gravity-powered brewery, which looks like an overgrown shed alongside the farmhouse, and will make only 500 litres at a time, is: ‘Whoa! Can anything decent be brewed here?’ Fears are driven far away as soon as Rodriguez’s beers are tasted: he may be self-taught, but his English-style pale ales and Belgian-style spontaneous fermentation beers are as good as you’ll find

So there I was at the Barcelona Beer Festival talking to Jason Wolford, a native of Portland, Oregon, about the quantity of chamomile that goes into the chamomile pale ale made at his 8-Bit Brewing in Helsinki, using kit supplied by Oban Brewing of Fort William in Scotland, and thinking: “This is what craft beer is all about.” Except it’s not, of course: it’s also about sitting at a tiny bar in a farmhouse in the small village of Mediona, in rural Catalonia, drinking a hand-pumped cask ale brewed just yards away by a dreadlocked 50-something Catalan called Carlos Rodriguez that, with its straw colour and bitterness, would not be out of place in Strangeways, Manchester. It’s about eating cod ceviche accompanied by a beer brewed with plankton, specially to match the food. It’s about bumping into three separate people I wasn’t expecting to see in the bar at Edge Brewing in Barcelona – a Polish brewer who I had met in Wroclaw four years ago, a young woman from Mallorca I had met on a beer judging course in London, and the English beer writer Melissa Cole, in town to present a session at the festival on beer and food matching. It’s about chuckling at the sight of the pinewood-clad brewing vessels at the Vic Brewery in the Catalan town of the same name, because I last saw them in West London, where they were being used by Twickenham Fine Ales. And it’s about eating delicious goats’ cheese in the bright but chilly open air while drinking equally excellent beer made with the hops grown just to our left and barley from the fields a few hundred yards away below us, malted in the shed behind us, on the farm that is part of the Lo Vilot set-up in Lleida. Plus, of course, much more.

Carlos Rodriguez pulls a glass of his English-style pale ale, slightly cloudy, aromatic and bitter, made with only Maris Otter malt and Sterling hops, and left for a month to mature, in the bar at his farmhouse: were this rural Vermont rather than rural Catalonia, there would be a queue a mile down the road

If beer tourism is a growing business – and the conversation I had with the young woman from Mallorca, who is looking to do a PhD in that exact subject, confirms it is indeed – then even so, Catalonia is probably not yet on most beer tourists’ “must see” list. The Catalan Tourist Board would like very much for that to change, unsurprisingly, which is why they paid for me and nine other beer writers to fly to Barcelona and be whizzed around the countryside in a wifi-equipped minibus on a no-time-to-catch-your-breath tour that took in 10 mostly very different craft breweries, 12 eat-till-your-eyes-glaze-over meals, countless beers (because I lost count – over 120, probably) – and a couple of wineries as well, because Catalonia is also the main production area for Cava, and home to 10 or so wine-producing areas in total (I was not a Cava lover before, but aged Cava, 15 years or more on its lees, I can now say, is very, very fine.) Oh, and a sausage factory. Because sausages. Come on, do you actually need to be given a reason for visiting a sausage factory (llonganissa, to be technical, like chorizo but flavoured with black pepper, not paprika) and marvel at several slatted floors of meaty, porky moreishness, slowly losing half its weight to the atmosphere, and gaining an attractive snow-white mould over its rind, as it hangs up to dry? And eating some while you’re there, since it would be terribly wrong to refuse.

Carlos Rodriguez in the cellar at his farmhouse, where casks of lambic-style beers slumber. Carlos spent time at Cantillon in Brussels learning about spontaneous fermentation, and came back to Catalonia with the intention of creating a local style of wild-yeast brewing. The fresh wort is left for 24 hours in the coolship and then moved into oak casks, where it begins fermenting within two days. The result, after ageing, is sharp and bitter, but with a touch of honey in the background

There is a theory (which I thought up while in Catalonia) that as the craft beer revolution spreads around the world, and people in different countries realise there is more to be drunk than “industrial” lager, those places that react quickest and with most enthusiasm – and skill – to the opportunities for making different, interesting beers are the ones with an existing tradition of “foodiness”, of discriminating palates, dedication to fine eating, to artisanal food production. In the 16 years that the “World’s Best Restaurants” competition has been running, Catalan eateries have won the title seven times, been runners-up seven times, and come third on the remaining two occasions (the now-closed El Bulli restaurant, in the far north of Catalonia, and El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona). Nowhere else comes close to that record. It would be fair to suppose, therefore that Catalans have an excellent appreciation of the gastronomic arts.

All the same, the local craft beer scene has had a long, slow take-off since the Barcelona Brewing Company, the city’s first microbrewery, was opened in 1993 by a wild-bearded expat Liverpudlian, Steve Huxley. It closed after only a couple of years, but the brewing courses Huxley ran inspired a swath of Catalans to become home-brewers and then, in the first years of the new century, to start moving into commercial brewing. Huxley died of cancer in 2015 (his influence is commemorated though his face being on every token at the Barcelona beer festival), but the slow revolution he had helped start was now becoming unstoppable: by 2009 there were 10 or so new small breweries in Catalonia, in just four years numbers passed 40, and by 2016 a survey found more than 100, making in total more than three million litres of beer a year. However, that represented barely 1 per cent of total Catalan beer consumption: Catalans drank just under 37 litres of beer per head that year, but only 40cl of that was locally produced craft – one glass, all year.

The Catalan craft beer glass: only 1pc full, but room to grow

Still, from small beginnings … every Catalan optimist will agree that there is clearly plenty of opportunity for the craft beer glasses to be full more and more frequently. And if the standards generally match those of the breweries we were taken to, all run by dedicated, enthusiastic people, Catalonia can expect craft beer consumption to rise at least steadily, if not rapidly. The problem will be convincing people in Catalonia who only know of industrial brewing, and who regard beer as merely a refresher to help the tapas go down and the conversation flow, that there are beers worth trying for their own sakes.

Unsurprisingly, since the US has been leading the growth in craft beer for the past two decades, the American influence on Catalan brewing is strong to the point of getting close to too much: imperial stouts and NEIPAs are nearly ubiquitous, and former Bourbon barrels, now filled with ageing beer, could be seen stacked in almost every brewhouse we visited. I love a good imperial stout, but they’re almost too easy: push the strength, roastiness, hops and sweetness all up to 11, and you’ll have something that will be cheered by practically anybody, craft beer noob or not. Around a quarter of the current “Top 100 Beers in the World” on RateBeer are imperial stouts, suggesting that making a popular super-strong black beer is not very difficult. (Making a great imperial stout IS difficult, however, and even then will not get you automatic recognition: just look at how comparatively poorly Harvey’s Imperial Double Extra Stout is rated.) But I suppose that if you’re trying to get your local drinking public to become craft beer aware, it’s easier to entice them into the tent with something not too difficult to understand. And imperial stouts do match very well with crema catalana, the local version of crème brûlée …

Sausages. And why not?

However, our quick zoom from the plains of Taragona to the foothills of the Pyrenees suggested there are plenty of Catalan brewers attempting to forge a truly local indigenous brewing culture, using locally grown produce – hops, barley, other grains, fruits, even grape must, to make “grape ales” – and locally found wild yeasts, and using resources such as barrels previously containing local wine, sherry, local spirits and the like. It’s also clear, from the amount of shiny kit we saw, that a great deal of money has been pumped into the Catalan craft beer scene in the past three or four years.

Barcelona now has enough top-rate craft beer bars to be easily worth a long weekend at the least: our own shoot round four or five venues was less a pub crawl than a pub gallop, but I would be very happy to go back and spend much more time (and my own money) in Garage, a long, thin city-centre bar with its own brewery right at the back, which produces a hazy IPA in cans called Soup, or BierCab, another long, thin bar with a fine beer range and an attractive-looking menu, or Naparbar, a mixture of ‘industrial’ and old-style, with 200 beers in stock and an emphasis on lambic and stout.

Before the Barcelona Beer Festival opened on Saturday morning, we were given a quick ‘speed dating’ session with three Catalan brewers each presenting a couple of their beers. This is Josep Ramon Prats García of Soma Brewing in Girona (named for the drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), pouring Pomba, which was only the second New England IPA in Catalonia. Soma, which started four years ago, began canning one year ago, though the striking and effective plain-and-simple cans can only be found in bars: the brewery has its own refrigerated storage and wants to ensure its beers stay chilled right through until the consumer drinks them. Soma makes only IPAs, and adds hops only 10 minutes before the boil ends, and again in the whirlpool: no early bittering hops are added at all. The idea, Josep says, is to get more fruity aromas, fewer herby and resiney ones from the hops: ‘I’m tired of old-fashioned beers, super-bitter and super-piney. I’m looking for fruit and flavour.’

You’ll have to wait a year now for the next one, of course, but the Barcelona Beer Festival is definitely one of Europe’s best, with a strong selection this year of almost 500 beers (not all on at once) made by more than 275 breweries, from Moscow to California, an excellent gimmick in “guest festival” stalls, this year featuring the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, Big Craft Day from Russia, Bières et Saveurs from Quebec and Craft Beer Perkelei! from Finland, and a series of talks and presentations ranging from meet-the-brewer sessions to beer-and-music matching to demonstrations of beer cocktails. If you can’t wait, Carlos Rodriguez organises a beer festival every year in his home village called Mostra de Cervesa Artesana de Mediona which will be on its 13th iteration this June, and which  looks to be a cracker.

Pep Andreu McCarry of Marina Cervesa Artesana in Blanes, on the Costa Brava, pours Kremat, a 10 per cent abv imperial stout with ‘peber vermell’ – red pepper – from Kampot in Cambodia, eight different malts, flaked oats and muscovado sugar. Marina also produces Sour Skull, a blend of 75 per cent ordinary stout at 5.56 abv and 26 per cent imperial stout which spends three years in red wine barrels, by which time it reaches 7.8pc abv, and becomes sharp and, to my palate, just a little too far out

Seven craft beer breweries in Lleida, the westernmost of Catalonia’s four “provinces”, have put together the “Lleida artisinal beer route”, with a passport scheme that, when stamped by all seven, entitles the passport holder to “a special gift from the Association of Artisan Brewers of Lleida” – nature of gift unspecified. Unfortunately, the  website is entirely in Catalan, and entirely unhelpful about the best route to take to get round all the breweries, and all the promotional material appears to be only in Catalan as well. Nor does it look as if anyone has updated the website since 2016. The Facebook page shows some more recent activity, but this looks like an excellent idea that is failing through lack of dedicated effort.

Our last speed-date brewery was Cervesa Guineu (which means ‘fox’ in Catalan), at ten years old one of the longest-established small breweries in Catalonia, who put up beers including Black Barley, a 14 per cent abv beer given a three-hour boil, which accounts for the colour, enough hops and added hop resins to give 100 IBUs and a long fermentation and then aged in Oloroso sherry barrels and bottled completely flat. It had a really rich, oily mouthfeel and a lovely long finish

I never put my hand in my pocket the whole trip, so you may decide to regard me as an unreliable traveller for accepting a massive freebie. I don’t believe being given something free compromises you from telling others about it, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t be able to give some deserving people some publicity, or let you know some of the interesting stuff that’s happening in a part of the world you might not associate with advances in great beer. If you like beer tourism, Catalonia should definitely be on your “check it out” list. If you’re going to Catalonia on holiday anyway, don’t miss out on the beer scene. As yet, to my knowledge, no one has written a guidebook to the craft beer bars of Catalonia, but if you contact any of the brewers I’ve mentioned here I’m sure they will make recommendations in their local areas.

Many thanks indeed to Ariadna Ribas and Elisabet Pagès of the Catalan Tourist Board for all their considerable hard work in organising this trip, and look after everybody so well,  it was a great experience, and grateful thanks to all the brewers, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers for their hospitality and generosity – may you all continue to thrive and prosper.

The edgy entrance to Edge Brewing in Barcelona, voted number one new brewery in the world by Ratebeer members in 2014
Robin Barden, left, ‘ambassador de cerveza’ (I am so stealing that title) at Edge Brewing, who has a doctorate in tourism, and Riley Finnigan, right, Edge’s current head brewer. Barcelona, Robin says, has ‘a strong beer scene, a strong music and arts scene, and craft beer fits right in.’
Bourbon Milky Way, an ‘imperial bourbon barrel aged milk stout’ that is a collaboration between Edge and J Wakefield Brewing of Miami. Every Friday Edge opens its bar at the brewery for tastings, and on the Friday of the Barcelona Beer Fesrtival it has become THE place for brewers from around the world to meet up
The exterior may look hipstery, but the interior is as professional as you’d want: all the kit was brought from the US to Barcelona by Edge Brewing’s co-founder and former head brewer, Alan Sheppard
Of the many carefully thought-through pairings of food and beer we were offered, El Racó del Cesc (‘Frankie’s Corner’) in Barcelona, where the chef is Tony Romero and the beer sommelier is Edgar Rodriguez, just about pulled off the most interesting of all, starting with this cod ‘esqueixada’ ceviche along with a beer brewed by Marina containing plankton, to bring a salty oceanicity to the glass. The first iteration of the beer was apparently green – too much plankton …
Next course, egg cooked slowly for 20 minutes at 50ºC (which keeps the yolk runny) and then fried, with pork belly and potato cream, and a witbier from the Gruut brewery in Ghent
Monkfish with tuna ‘callos’ and peas, served with Indiana, an ‘IPA Catalan’ made with carob flour and dry-hopped with Cascade
Veal cheeks lacquered with old mustard, sweet potato purée and roasted cocoa bean served with Doppelgänger, a Doppelbock from Cervexa Menduiña in Galicia
Catalan foam cream with caramel ice cream, served with the justly revered Xyauyù Barrel run barrel-aged barley wine from the Italian Birrificio Baladin
Under the big skies in the hop garden at the farm run as part of the Lo Vilot brewery, in Ponent, the far west of Catalonia, with, right to left, Oscar Mogilnicki Tomas, an engineer, who designed the brewery’s kit, Quiònia Pujol Sabaté, a biologist by training, and a gentleman whose name I thought I had recorded, but now cannot find … apologies to him. Quiònia and Oscar, who started brewing just three years ago, have tried out nine different varieties of hops, and discovered that while American C-hops – Cascade, Centennial – do well in the local climate and local, high-alkalinity soil, others, such as Goldings, won’t grow. The idea is to eventually be entirely self-sufficient in produce, with all the hops and barley for the brewery’s beers grown on the farm.
The combined steeping tank, germinating vessel and malt dryer at the Lo Vilot farmhouse, designed by Oscar Mogilnicki and built to his specification. It supplies all the base malt for the brewery, with only speciality malts having to be brought in.
Psicocherry, a sour fruit beer made with local cherries and fermented with lactobacillus as well as normal brewer’s yeast – delicious with locally made goat’s cheese. The brewery makes other fruit beers using local apricots, quince and so on. Lo Vilot wants to make a beer cheese, but the cheesemaker is worried about contaminating his own bacteria …
CTetze, which is another Catalan brewery only two years old, makes seven different beers, including Solana and Obaga, a golden ale and a brown ale respectively, named for the local expressions meaning the sunny side and the shadow side of the mountains; Fallos, a blonde ale named for the local midsummer festival, with half the boottles showing a man in traditional local costume and half showing a woman; Impala IPA; and Mr Owl, an American pale ale, paired here with pork and rosemary. Why the English name? Apparently the Catalan word for ‘owl’ is also a rude and somewhat sexist slang expression …
Joel Bastida, one of the founders of the CTretze brewery in La Pobla de Segur, a village 1,700 feet up in northern Catalonia, in sight of the Pyrenees, and named for the C13 road, which passes through the village. If they don’t make a collaborative beer with the N17 breweery in Sligo, also named for a local road, there’s no justice …
‘Licor Cervesa’, a 24 per cent abv pale ale liqueur made by CTretze in co-operation with a local liqueur maker, and flavoured with mint and other herbs
Haul away, me bucko: emptying a mash tun at Cerveses La Pirata in Súria, central Catalonia. That grain was from a mash that will eventually be an imperial stout, hence the dark colour, and it was still surprisingly sweet. It will be given to local farmers for their horses. The brewery would have you believe that pirates are so called from the Greek ‘πῦρ’, ‘fire’, because they set fire to the ships they robbed, to eliminate any evidence against them. Pirate IS a word of Greek origin, but it’s ‘πειρατής’, ‘someone who attacks or assaults’. La Pirata actually gets its name from not being entirely legal when its founder, Aran León, began selling his home-brewed beers to friends a decade or so ago
Aran León in the bar at La Pirata, which is open every Friday: the operation was a gipsy brewery until 2015, when it finally opened its own production plant with kit from Premier in the United States. Some 40 per cent of production currently goes abroad, to France, Italy, Belgium, Poland and the UK, and only 20 to 30 per cent of sales are in the Barcelona region. Production was 2,000 hectolitres last year, and is growing by 70 to 80 per cent a year.
Aran was a sociologist before he became a brewer, and some of La Pirata’s beers have names from sociology: Panoptica, from Jeremy Bentham’s ideal prison, and Liquid Fear, the name of a book by the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman
A giant Johnny Rotten looms sneeringly down from the wall of the brewery in Sant Joan de les Adadesses in Girona, north-west Catalonia, called La Calavera (‘The Skull’) Brewing Coop
La Calavera specialises in barley wines and wood-aged beers. Sedition (historians of punk will recognise Seditionaries as one of the names given to the boutique in the King’s Road, Chelsea where two of the Sex Pistols had worked) is a 6.2pc abv sour ale brewed with Brettanomyces and aged in Rioja wine barrels, hence the pink tinge, with the final bottled version a blend of 18-month-old and nine-month-old beers
The ‘First Aid Kit’ set of three imperial stouts, one ‘plain’, one blended with vodka and the last blended with Bushmills whiskey (and called ‘Irish Republican Stout’, though you won’t meet very many republicans in the village of Bushmills, which has a population of around 1,300, more than 1,250 of whom are Protestants …)
La Calavera, which was founded in 2012, is linkd to a restaurant in an old farmhouse just down the road called La Barricona
In the former farm store at La Barricona are the barriques … just some of the casks in which La Calavera is maturing different ales
No Gods No Masters, a kettle-soured red ale which is soured again with Flemish red ale yeast as it is aged in the cask before being bottled
One of the rather natty tasting glasses used at La Barricona
The Vic brewery, in the town of the same name halfway between Barcelona and the Pyrenees, is based in an old mill, El Moli del Llobet, hence the brewery trademark, a millwheel
The line-up of Vic beers: nicely informative labels. Half the 180,000 litres a year the brewery currently produces goes into keg, half into bottle, and half of all production goes abroad, to France, England, Finland and the Czech Republic. The co-owner’s brother is a wine-maker in the south of Catalonia, which has helped get contacts with distributors.
Jordi Padrosa, co-founder with Rafael De Haan of the Vic brewery, stands by the kit I last saw being brewed on by Twickenham Fine Ales in West London. Before that it was in use at the Springhead brewery in Nottinghamshore, which makes it around 30 years old – and still making good beer …
Cervesa del Montseny, named for a mountain range (and national park) in the centre of Catalonia, started with second-hand kit from the Wolf brewery in Attleborough, Norfolk, and ten years later brought a whole new kit from Premier Stainless Systems in the United States.
If you’re going to barrel-age beer – and most, if not all, Catalan breweries do – it makes sense to put your name on the barrels …
Montseny’s excellent chestnut brown ale includes toasted chestnuts from 1,000-year-old chestnut trees in Montseny National Park in both the mash and the boil. A touch of smoked malt helps brings lovely aroma to a 7.8pc abv beer that would pair with a wide range of foods, from cheeses to game to sausages to desserts
Portrait of a Spanish beer drinker, from the office wall at Montseny
Can Partegàs, another lovely old Catalan farmhouse saved by being turned into a brewery, Art Cervesers, in Canovelles, not quite 20 miles north of Barcelona. The team behind the brewery had problems at first getting permission for the conversion, because the attitude of the authorities was that beer was not a rural product. However, eventually, helped by the fact that they added a strong element of education to their offer, which helped bring in government grants, they were able to open. It claims to be the only craft brewery in Spain not buying in yeast: Art Cervesers has its own yeast bank, and each of its beers is made with its own specific yeast.
Art on the walls … the brewery bar, inside the high-cielinged farmhouse
The Art line-up: the ‘steam pilsner’ is started with Californian Common yeast at 15ºc, with the fermentation temperature then lowered to a more ‘classical’ level, and the beer is dry-hopped with US hops. The Orus is designed to be a ‘classic’ Märzen, while Blanca, the wheat beer, has 25pc of Catalan spelt in the grist, adding to the lovely banananess brought by the yeast. Indiana is a ‘Catalan eyepa’ (sic), more like an English IPA in style, despite the name
More lovely shiny new kit …clearly a great deal of money is available for those looking to expand into craft beer in Catalonia
Personalised brewery drain covers … there’s posh