Photo by Tara Stevens
Les Clandestines Brews
The sticky, sweet smell of fresh marijuana fills the air outside the small brewery of Ca l’Arenys when we pull up outside. “Hops” says my friend Jazz Brown of Mosquito Tapas, sniffing the air and pointing to a thick, tall plant clawing its way up a telegraph pole. I take a step back, surprised.
Brown has been championing Catalan craft beers for some time now and as such I’d decided to take him into this unchartered territory as my guide. Hops I learn come from the same family as cannabis, though without the psychoactive properties. And beer, if the enthusiasts are to be believed, is the new wine. And believe me, the enthusiasts are many.
In front of me is a copy of America’s Bon Appetit, and Britain’s Olive magazine, both of which feature lengthy articles on artisan beers this month. Olive is covering the multitude of English microbreweries that have sprung up across the country, particularly in the North, these past years. Bon Appetit’s journalists have been dispatched to the Trappist monks of Belgium. Both herald a new dawn of beer that is versatile, varied and as food friendly as any wine.
And so here I am, on a drizzly spring day in Catalunya, driving through dazzlingly green, rolling countryside in search of a new breed of master brewer. First stop, Ca l’Arenys, who make a brand called Guineu under the loving gaze of Guzman Fernandez, the rising star of modern Catalan beer-making who says simply of his technique: “maximum taste, minimum alcohol.”
It’s music to my ears, for while high alcohol wines have their place, the density of flavours can murder a plate of food. Fernandez’s Riner low-alcohol ale amazed judges and onlookers alike at the Great British Beer Festival in 2009 for its smooth, bitter taste and creamy texture.
Like wine, the beer-making process is pretty much the same wherever you go although there is one key factor it’s worth looking out for: brown glass indicates quality, green, mass production of the kind that doesn’t care. Thereafter it’s down to individual skill at divining the four elements of flavour: malt, hops, the type of yeast and water.
Fernandez, like most of the brewers I met that day, learned his craft at home with buddies. Their passion for the craft grew, and the seeds of a culture were simultaneously sown. It wasn’t long before he started experimenting, approaching beer in the same way as boutique winemakers, and, together with several partners, Ca l’Arenys was established as a legitimate business seven years ago with the launch of a lager called Rosa.
As a beer virgin, lager has always implied to me something cold, pale and fizzy. In fact, that’s got nothing to do with it. Lager can be dark, and likewise ale can be pale, the distinction is in the brewing process and the type of yeast: in a nutshell lager is bottom fermenting, ale is top fermenting and lambic beer, which until recently was only made in Belgium, relies on spontaneous fermentation from wild yeast and bacteria resulting in a bone dry, acidic finish, making it excellent for food. It’s also the basis of trendy Belgian fruit beers like Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus made with fresh raspberries.
Ca l’Arenys now stocks 20 different strains of hop from around the world, and Guineu offers a range of six different beers, each with a distinctive personality ranging from the grassy lemony tones of Sitges, and smoky, peaty Coaner, to creamy, English-style Antins or the fruity, Belgian-style Rocaters, right through to the treacly Montserrat, which Fernandez tells me is fantastic with chocolate. I turn it into a beef stew later that night in the style of a Belgian ‘Carbonnade’, and that’s pretty good too, if I do say so myself.
Meantime, a recent archaeological dig by the University of Barcelona in Garraf unveiled evidence of an ancient beer-making technique using madroño (like a big, wild strawberry), artemisa (of the same family as wormwood, the hallucinogenic property of absinthe) and rosemary. Together with Fernandez, a project has been launched to recreate it under the name of Ardenya, which they hope to release soon.
If Ca l’Arenys is the Moritz of the craft beers of Catalunya, Carlos and Montse Rodriguez i Virgili’s garage brewery Agullons is the little guy. Set in a rambling 17th century stone masia, with its own barrel room, bar and dining area for guests, they make three Belgian-style beers: Puro Pale (mellow, mild and dangerously drinkable especially when Carlos is pumping straight from the barrel), Bruno and La Runa. And a unique aged beer called Setembre, which undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle resulting in an amber coloured brew with a tart sweetness and peachy overtones that have critics worldwide salivating.
Between them Carlos and Montse make about 1000 litres of beer a week, and serve occasional beer-themed lunches featuring such homemade delights as beer baked ham, and pale ale breads. It’s very much a lifestyle for the couple who began brewing nine years ago, but have only been selling for two.
They got something right, because theirs is now the best selling ale on the market, largely thanks to Carlos’ particularly generous sprinkling of that secret ingredient known as passion. When he talks about his beer he does it almost with a tear in his eye. He talks about the connection between people and place, a masía and the land, hops and water, explaining that historically beer has been distinguished by regions known for their water. But the proof he argues is in the drinking. “I’m no beer expert,” he said humbly. “I’m a beer lover, and I love what I make.” It’s almost impossible not to get hooked.
Somewhere between these two extremes is Las Clandestines, a boutique brewery and the only one with a 100 percent organic beer, established by childhood friends Xavi Branchat, Miguel Angel del Castillo and Arturo Folch. Like their contemporaries they’ve been brewing together for the past six years, mainly supplying local parties though with such unbridled success that demand called for a more formal set-up. Their first beer appeared in the spring of 2008 and they now make four types including a winter beer made with honey, and a summer beer called Farigola inspired by the wheat beers of Belgium. Of all the beers I tried it is my favourite and arguably the most accessible for novices. A liquid amber colour with floral, fruity aromas and the faint tang of granary bread it reminds me of summer days lazing around at the pub in England.
For now, their hops come from New Zealand, which produce the gentle, aromatic beers typical of Germany, but they are also experimenting with growing their own. “What’s the point of buying organic hops from America or New Zealand when you have to fly them half way across the world to get them,” argues Branchat. “We’ve got the perfect micro-climate for it here, though it’s difficult to get the permission to grow.” Regardless, they have a half-acre or so on the go, and await this year’s harvest eagerly. If it’s successful, Les Clandestines could become one of the most important boutique breweries in the land.
Theirs may be the smallest production of the lot with little presence in bars, but encouragingly they do supply many small regional festivals and concerts by the barrel, and what’s more they can do it for the same price as Estrella.
And this, in an age where everything looks the same, has got to be a good thing.
Passatge del Riu 12, Valls de Torroella, (Manresa).
Tel. 93 868 2974.
Cl. Ms Els Agullons 1, Mediona, (Alt Penedès).
Tel. 649 505 033
Carrer Major 26, Montferri (Alt Camp).
Tel. 977 620 701.
Where to drink craft beers
Mosquito Tapas. Carders 46, Tel. 93 268 7569,
Cervecería Jazz. Margarit 43, Tel. 934 433 259 ,
La Cerveteca. Gignàs 25, Tel. 93 315 04 07 ,
2D2Dspuma. Manigua 8, Tel. 654 241 581.