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DETOUR // Coming of Age

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Barcelona’s Craft beer revolution

Story and photograph by Kimberly Bowker

In one of Barcelona’s many outdoor squares, friends and lovers lean on checkered tablecloths chatting about life as the sun falters into the late afternoon sky. The Homo Sibaris Celler Cerveser beer and bottle shop (or a type of Spanish bodega), opens its doors into the transitioning day and into a craft beer culture beginning to define itself within age-old traditions.

Waves of Spanish expressions lilt across the bodega as customers talk and nibble on different tapas dishes—a bowl of unpitted olives; crackers and cheese and cured ham; fried quartered potatoes with a side of mayo or hot sauce. Instead of the usual American bar snacks of peanuts and potato chips, Spain is pairing new richly colored beers with a heritage of good food and good company.

Eduardo Martinez, with easily disheveled hair and an even easier intensity regarding beer, shuts his eyes as he smells the dark stout and stands among friends in the bodega. When Martinez, manager of Barcelona’s Cerveza Fort brewery, smells a beer, he intentionally inserts his entire nose into the tasting glass. He shifts and swirls the brew into its best presentation, patiently inhaling the aroma with closed and dancing eyes—as if consumed by that moment when life is as exactly as it could be.

The craft beer revolution is still young in Catalonia and Spain: The beers are sometimes raw and unrefined, the popularity of craft beer continues to gain momentum, and the microbrew culture is still defining itself. But within the early stages of a craft beer revolution comes room for potential, possibility, and, of course, passion.

Beer is a means of expression, according to Martinez. “I don’t have a favorite beer. I have a favorite moment.”

And for Spain, in terms of craft beer, that moment is now.

Reportedly, evidence of one of Europe’s oldest beers—dating to around 3,000 B.C.—was dug up in the archaeological pits of Catalonia, Spain. Surprisingly, the same country that boasts one of the oldest beers on the continent only recently began to embrace the variety, depth, and possibility of contemporary microbrews. India pale ales, ambers, stouts, lagers, and seasonal brews are just some of the currently popular cervezas artesanales in the country.

Industry workers in Barcelona agree that the Spanish craft beer culture is new, and growing. The beers and breweries are young, and brewers continue to experiment with different means to integrate local and identifying characteristics into established beer styles. Many consider the autonomous region of Catalonia—which includes Barcelona—to be the forerunner of the craft beer industry, as Catalonia has the reputation of leading Spain in other industrial and entrepreneurial undertakings.

“If beer is in fashion in America, then why not in Europe? Why not Spain?” questions Guillem Laporta, a partner of the Homo Sibaris bodega. He believes that the craft beer industry in Spain is still in its early stages, but that it’s not starting from scratch. Laporta belonged to an organization of Spanish homebrewers, established about 18 years ago, that helped introduce craft beer to Barcelona. The rather underground movement briefly culminated in a location that served craft beer to customers. Laporta noticed that when patrons returned, they would comment “What happened to me? I could drink beer in any place, and I can’t anymore.”

The customers could taste the difference, and they returned for the craft beer.

Estrella Damm, a large Barcelona-based brewery, began producing beer in 1876. The Spanish brewery traditionally offers pale lagers and pilsners. When cerveza is listed on a restaurant menu, it is often the lightly golden Damm beer that is served on the table. The industrial Spanish beer could be compared to a Stella Artois or a Heineken.

In the early 1960s, Damm collaborated with one of Barcelona’s oldest bars to brew a special beer. Cervecería El Vaso de Oro bar is located by the city’s Port Vell waterfront, near the statue of Christopher Columbus pointing in the wrong direction. The märzenbier is a pale lager specifically served at the bar. Its bubbles are so fresh and complementary that, even when paired with thick anchovies, it’s full of the pleasure of an unintentional discovery.

Gabriel Fort’s father opened Cervecería El Vaso de Oro more than 50 years ago. Growing up surrounded by good food and beer, Fort decided to start producing his own beer. Cerveza Fort, owned by Fort, is one of the many small breweries that has appeared on the Catalonia beer scene within the last few years.

“We need a tradition—in this country we don’t have a beer tradition,” says Fort, whose main focus lies in brewing good beers in an effort to change that conception. Events such as the Barcelona Beer Festival, held for the first time in 2012, are another way to disseminate knowledge about craft beer and culture.

The slow start of a craft beer revolution may stem from modern Spanish history. Francisco Franco served as dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, limiting exposure to international influences, until the country transitioned to a democracy after the ruler’s death.

As the country was freed of a dictatorship, Spanish citizens traveled and
brought back expanded views, according to Nereo Garbin, administrator of Cerveza Artesana HomeBrew.

In the 1980s, following Franco’s rule, wine production became a popular and lucrative industry. As the wine market grew, the trade became replete with vineyards. About five years ago, according to Garbin, many Spanish vineyards closed as the industry stabilized.

Garbin believes that craft beer is following a similar pattern. With Spain’s high unemployment rate (more than 27 percent according to CNN.com), many people are looking for business opportunities and projects—such as starting a brewery.

“Now it’s a moment where a lot of microbreweries start and people follow what the media says, but in a few years the only microbreweries that succeed will be the ones with a good product,” Garbin commented. His company, which sells brewing equipment, also offers monthly workshops that teach brewing techniques and history.

Spain’s craft beer lifestyle now sits in an interesting juxtaposition—one that the U.S. did not necessarily have to face during the early stages of its craft beer revolution. Due to the political and economic reasons, Spanish microbrews are becoming more fashionable just as many breweries and beers are appearing on the marketplace.

Victor Cerdan, partner and CEO of the Cerveses Almogàver brewery in Barcelona, acknowledges that there is more supply than demand in the Spanish craft beer industry. Competition can be a good thing, though, improving the product and raising public awareness of the possibilities that lie in a cerveza artesanal.

“We have a very good gastronomy,” Cerdan says about the Spanish culture. “We have good wine, good food, but something is missing. We are trying to put good beer on the table.”

Many in the business hope to normalize definitions in the brewing industry, which lacks unifying Spanish associations and clarity about brewing classifications. Nearly everyone in the industry also endeavors to make good craft beer accessible to all. Some Catalan breweries, like Almogàver and Fort, are striving to professionalize the trade.

Laporta partnered to open the Homo Sibaris bodega in 2011, after realizing that he spent more time brewing beer than studying at university. Homo Sibaris is a play on words that refers to the process of evolution—from the development of early homo sapiens to a sophisticated people drinking good beer. Just as we are evolving, so too is the Spanish beer culture.

“Beer comes together with humanity,” Martinez and Fort of Cerveza Fort explain. When the friends gather at the bodega, drinking good beer and eating good food, laughter is fast and the words are honest. It’s like a first love, a first time traveling, or a first sip of well-made beer. You can feel the heart. You can taste the possibility.