Photo by Melissa Fry.
If you happen to be walking through the streets of Poblenou at just the right moment, you might catch a whiff of a distinctive smell as it wafts through the air. Familiar yet initially indefinable to most, it takes a while to place the satisfying scent of malt and hops. It’s an aroma that Barcelona residents are becoming more and more accustomed to, given that craft brewing has rapidly developed into a big business in Barcelona. Yes, it’s hip to like hops nowadays and craft beer bars, brew houses and breweries are opening at a staggering rate, not just across the city, but across the entire country.
Edge Brewing is just one of the latest exponents of artisan ales and craft beers in Barcelona, having put the city firmly on the map by winning RateBeer’s highly coveted ‘Top New Brewer in the World’ title in 2014. Taking many of its cues from the US, where the craft beer business is booming, at Edge and numerous other city-based brewers, American influence flows, quite literally, through the beer, with hops sourced directly from the States. From their relatively modest, yet expertly equipped factory in Poblenou, both the aforementioned scent and an ever-increasing volume of quality beer are emerging.
Photo by Melissa Fry.
Europe is home to an estimated 80 different beer styles and over 40,000 beer brands.
“Barcelona is at a great crossroads and it’s exciting to be part of something that’s developing, rather than fully formed,” offered Robin Barden, Beer Ambassador for Edge. “That award attracted a lot of attention, not only to us as a company, but to craft brewing and beer in Barcelona as a whole, which is great as it’s a place that maybe people never thought about in terms of brewing ability before.”
Indeed, it feels like everyone currently involved in craft brewing here is getting to play a founding role in shaping the scene, rather than just fitting in. Over the past six years, plentiful options for sampling artisan amber nectar have popped up citywide and, from bars to breweries, an increasing number of people in Barcelona are choosing to make beer their career. But this phenomenon isn’t restricted to the Catalan capital, with brewing on the rise throughout Europe. According to the most recent figures published by The Brewers of Europe association, the number of breweries across the continent has almost doubled since 2008, with 700 new additions in 2014 alone. As stated in Cerveceros de España’s latest annual report, Spain was Europe’s fourth largest producer of beer in 2014, behind Germany, the United Kingdom and Poland respectively, producing an impressive 33,620 million hectolitres of the stuff—an increase of 2.8 percent on the previous year. What’s more, 90 percent of the beer consumed in Spain is made nationally, proving that there’s plenty to keep the beer lover’s palate happy close to home.
By the end of 2014, it was reported that there were 332 active breweries operating in the country, of which 314 fall into the category of ‘microbrewery’; a figure that has risen over 1000 percent from a mere 27 since 2009. Barcelona province has the largest concentration of these microbreweries, with 38 at last count, but this has undoubtedly increased since the most recent reports were published. So why the sudden interest? One factor could be that Barcelona’s existing drinking culture lends itself particularly well to the scene, which is more about sampling small-sized tipples than pouring back pints. In fact, in terms of per capita consumption of beer, Spain comes in at 25th in Europe, a modest position when you consider the volume the country produces.
Source: The Brewers of Europe Report 2015.
RAISING THE BAR
Despite this fairly rapid ascent, craft brewing is still a relatively young industry here. Of course, the sector has been represented on a small scale for several decades. Draft institutions and brewers, such as La Cervesera Artesana, Llúpols i Llevats, L’Ambicus, La Cerveteca, and Cervecería Jazz, have been just a few of the local pioneers, along with the late Steve Huxley, who, originallly from Liverpool, is somewhat of a local industry legend, often credited for Catalunya’s recent craft beer revolution. Off the back of these trailblazers, a new slew of brew pub and brewers is emerging. Brands and establishments such as Mingus, Homo Sibaris, Chivuo’s, Barcelona Beer Company, Black Lab, Garage, and BierCaB—also a RateBeer award winner for Best Beer Bar in Spain—are just a handful of places that have set up shop in recent years. And, an influx of successful international artisan labels have also begun to make their mark on the map. Big brands, such as Brewdog and Mikkeller, have added to the liquid landscape in the past year, making their home in an area Barden affectionately dubs ‘Bierxample’, located above Gran Via, just west of Universitat.
It is, however, still a little landscape, and it should come as no surprise to most that Spain’s six main breweries, which include Mahou San Miguel, Heineken España and Estrella Damm, account for almost 90 percent of the market in terms of beer production. In fact, the general consensus is that craft brewing’s share doesn’t surpass one percent.
Photos from Edge Brewing.
Yet, despite its small stake in the industry, craft beer has slipped into the popular psyche here in Barcelona. It could be something to do with the current popularity of artisan goods and obsession with production transparency. People are becoming pickier about the provenance of their produce and are less willing to accept whatever they’re given. “If you’ve been living in a city where only two options have been available and then you suddenly have a huge choice, it stands to reason you’re going to at least explore those options and demand more,” Barden suggested. “Beer, before this new wave, was perhaps being enjoyed without much thought, whereas craft beer has a focus on flavour. Now we have a very diverse, inquisitive public who want a variety of options—they want to discover what beer has to offer and know more about it.” Matt Boder of Black Lab, the city’s first brewhouse and kitchen, concurred: “It’s also vital to see the equipment and ingredients as much as possible in a brewpub, because you’re connecting the public with the process. Even without having to ask, people understand a little about how their beer is made and what we do, which is important.”
So what about the big commercial brands? With the public thirsty for more options, even Barcelona’s biggest brewers don’t appear to be immune to the craft beer revolution, adopting at least the appearance of a more artisan approach in their beer making and PR. They, too, boast an ‘open door’ factory policy, designed to show the public their brewing method, and since 2008, Estrella Damm has launched a number of ‘special edition’ cervezas, many of which have the packaging and veneer of a craft offering. Moritz, as somewhat of a middleman between the big boys and the young craft crew, also now sells fresh, unpasteurised beer from its open factory space on Ronda de Sant Antoni.
In Barden’s opinion, this latter part can only be a good thing. “I’d always assumed that Moritz wouldn’t sell the unpasteurised stuff as it draws attention to the pasteurisation of their regular beer, but it’s great if they are.” He continued, “I think they probably would like to be associated with craft beer, as our type of brewing has the ‘cool factor’ that they maybe want to be linked to. It would be more interesting if you could actually see people brewing at Moritz, but in general, I think that move is to be applauded.”
Of course, in this ever-expanding market, branding is key to all of Barcelona’s breweries, big or small. From Estrella Damm emphasising their local identity and sponsoring almost every festival in town, to newbies highlighting their grain to glass, homebrew aesthetic, each uses their own unique selling point to try and attract attention. So where do brands such as city newcomers, yet craft veterans, Brewdog lie? Big enough to rapidly expand worldwide yet still trying to be true to the punk/alternative ethos they fervently promote, it begs the question—at what point does craft beer stop being a craft? Their added advantage has perhaps been in their marketing, which has been at least partially responsible for propelling the brand from a small set-up to a global sensation. But for Alex Rivera of Brewdog, good marketing is nothing without good beer. “Some people seem to think that successful marketing is there to mask a mediocre product,” he mused, “But you can be handsome and clever at the same time, can’t you?”
Photos from Edge Brewing.
In many fields, a move into the mainstream and increase in popularity can signify the death of a core fan base, and it’s interesting to see how this applies to craft brewing. Whilst quantity regulations laid out by the Brewer’s Association in the United States provides a clear definition of a microbrewery, and therefore craft beer, no such classification currently exists in Spain or Catalunya. Nor does this exist in Scotland, where Brewdog began and are still based. Rivero is dismissive of the relevance of quantity in this context. “I think that being larger can give greater assurance that the brewed product is consistently good. In places where the market is still small, many breweries will be able to operate manually, but if you take the US as an example, microbreweries can produce 10 times more than us and still be considered ‘craft’. It just depends to what extent you can continue giving priority to quality.” He continued, “It’s also about the spirit and personal way of doing things, this is what truly defines something as a craft.”
This opinion is echoed by members of the community in Barcelona, who are adamant that if the process and passion is there, and quality is strictly monitored, it definitely constitutes a craft beer. According to Boder, “Becoming a more industrial or automated process doesn’t mean that the beer no longer qualifies as a craft product, it just depends on the philosophy of the company.”
The key, it seems, is bringing quality beer to the masses, whether on a city-wide or global scale. This notion of solidarity within the scene and exploration of new flavours is perfectly summed up in the annual Barcelona Beer Festival, a gathering which brings together brews from across Catalunya, the continent and beyond. Along with July’s Poblenou Craft Beer Festival, and other smaller-scale gatherings, this festival celebrates Barcelona’s increased interest in craft brewing and the extensive variety of brews now being produced in the local area.
Now in its fifth edition, the BBF returns to the Museu Marítim de Barcelona next month, with 60 taps and around 300 different beers on rotation. Mikel Rius i Vicente, one of the four organisers of the Barcelona Beer Festival, feels that the event has been at least partially responsible for the city’s current scene. “We’ve spent many years saying that craft beer was going to take off here, and it’s clear there’s been an exponential growth. I think we’ve added our grain of sand to the mix and helped put Barcelona on the international brewing map. But like so many others, we’re just another player in this exciting revolution.” If ever there were figures to back up the official data from Cerveceros de España regarding the country’s increased interest in craft brewing, it would be those of the BBF, who have sold out each and every edition to date. “We couldn’t accommodate any more people”, said Vicente. “The first year we welcomed 10,000 people, then 20,000 came along to the second festival, and for each of the last three years, some 30,000 people have been in attendance. Given the demand and the increased quality, we’re working to try and increase our capacity for 2017.” Which is a good thing since it’s not just residents they need to cater for. In 2015, 21 percent of attendees came from overseas, of whom 43 percent travelled here specifically for the festival.
Will it all end in Biers?
The disparity between the sales figures would imply that the biggest challenge facing the craft brewing industry comes from the established mainstream labels. But is this really the case? In fact, with so many new artisan options opening up, isn’t it possible that the market could become saturated with too much craft competition?
It’s a tricky one. Whilst the cultivation of new brands and tipples is actively encouraged here, the niche appeal of craft brew pubs could be somewhat in contradiction to the vast array of choice being offered. Elements such as food and special events are being relied on by some to set themselves apart. After all, craft brewing’s entry into the mainstream means that even the most generic of establishments often offer affordable artisan options. “It used to be that if you wanted to get a good beer, you would cross the city just to get to one of the few craft bars,” considered Barden, “But now, great beer is much closer”. Perhaps there can be too much of a good thing, but for now, at least, it seems there’s room for everyone, with a community spirit prevailing over competitiveness. “I just see it as contributing to not only a growing field, but an increasingly diverse universe,” stated Barden. “We all just have to differentiate ourselves a little bit.”
And there’s plenty in the pipeline for the future. More international brands are set to open up in the city this year, whilst Edge are planning for new collaborations and a heightened local presence, given that most of their beer is currently exported. Black Lab are also looking into the possibility of distilling spirits in their bar-come-factory, as well as incorporating local ingredients and techniques, such as brewing in local wine barrels to infuse the flavour onto the beer. And as hops begins to be cultivated on a small scale in Catalunya, there’ll no doubt be a few batches of beer with a distinctly different flavour coming to the city’s bars sometime soon.
CRAFT BEER BAR CRAWL.
Black Lab Brewhouse & Kitchen. Plaça Pau Vila 1.
Garage Beer Co. Consell de Cent 261.
Brewdog. Casanova 69.
BierCab. Muntaner 55.
Belchica. Villarroel 60.
Cervecería Jazz. Margarit 43.
La Cerveteca. Gignàs 25.
Ale&Hop. Basses de Sant Pere 10.
Mikkeller. València 202.
Chivuo’s. Torrent de l'Olla 175.
La Cervesera Artesana. Sant Agustí 14.
Lambicus. Tamarit 107.
Kælderkold. Cardenal Casañas 7.
La Resistència. Viladomat 107.