In recent years the craft beer scene has taken Barcelona by storm, and there are a number of passionate local brewers helping drive this movement. Wet met up with Oriol Renart from the Barcelona Beer Company, and Alex Lazarowicz from Barna-Brew to find out why craft beer has exploded in Barcelona and what beer lovers can expect from the local scene.
Let’s start with a definition: how would you define craft beer?
Alex: “This is the subject of some intense debates—some say it depends on size and others say it’s about how you make it. I would say how you make it is more important. Craft beer is beer made in the most natural way—natural fermentation through yeast, and not only pumping CO2 into your beer, as industrial breweries do. Not filtering and not pasteurising are other features of many craft beers, but not all of them. In terms of the final product, for me the key words in defining craft beer are: flavor, variety and innovation.”
Oriol: “Ha! Okay, let’s get the tricky questions out of the way. I agree that there are many differing opinions on this issue. For us, craft beer is about using excellent raw materials, not pasteurising the final product and being in this industry out of passion, not for purely financial incentives.”
The craft beer scene in Barcelona seems to have really taken off. Why do you think that is? Why was Barcelona so favorable?
Alex: “It really has! Barcelona is a very open-minded city and always in tune with the latest trends, so it is no wonder that it’s leading the growth of craft beer in Spain. On top of that, it has a strong gastronomical scene, which means that the Barcelona public value quality and are more discerning in their tastes. A strong international presence in Barcelona may also have helped make it the most important craft beer city in Spain.”
Oriol: “Barcelona is living through an authentic revolution in the area of craft beer—there are some awesome projects emerging at the moment. After years and years of drinking boring beer, Barcelona is finally waking up. This revolution is exciting. Barcelona has a history of being a city rich in creativity, design, gastronomy—and with some pretty fine weather, too—it just didn’t make sense for us to not have good beer.”
The whole craft beer scene is said to have started in the US back in the 1980s. Do you think things have changed for craft breweries since then? Is it easier or harder to set up a successful business?
Alex: “The US in the ’80s is probably where the Barcelona scene was 10 to 15 years ago. You had a few pioneers who had to make the market so that would mean it was doubly difficult to start out. In the US the market is much more saturated now so it may be more difficult to make a mark. On the upside I am sure that as the industry is established, rules and regulations are much more conducive to setting up a brewery. In Barcelona, authorities are now having to play catch up with the explosive growth in craft beer, so things are not as easy as they could be, but are easier than it was for the pioneers.”
Oriol: “The USA is still the world center for craft beer—without any doubt, the most interesting projects of the moment are happening over there. You can find macro projects like Sierra Nevada, Stone or Samuel Adams, but also some really small projects producing some very interesting things. I believe that in the end, it’s all about passion.”
What’s it like brewing here in Barcelona? Where do you source your ingredients?
Alex: “Barcelona is a great city to work in! We like to have local ingredients and give a Catalan twist to our Belgian-style beers, e.g. our Moreneta Blonde has honey from El Perello, and our wheat beer has locally-sourced bay leaves instead of the traditional coriander seeds. Otherwise, one of the difficulties for this burgeoning industry is the difficulty in being able to source local hops and malt, the key ingredients for beer. While Spain produces cereals, only the big industrial brands have their own malthouses with very limited varieties of malt. Regarding hops, many projects that are planting them are still raw, and as many breweries use hops in pellet form, there is also a need for pellet machines.”
Oriol: “Spain and Catalonia are still best known as wine-producing regions at the end of the day. We still have a lot of catching up to do to have a real beer industry. This inevitably has an impact on the industry and our ability to source materials, equipment, etc. Today we still have to import most of our raw materials, but there are some very solid initiatives that I’m hopeful will bring some significant changes to the industry within the next few years.”
Let’s talk about money. The financial crisis hit hard here in Spain, and people are quite careful with their money these days. How do you manage to convince locals to spend a little more on your beer?
Oriol: “Clients aren’t stupid. My wife, my friends—they’re our clients too. The important thing is choice. You can choose between the same old boring beer, or pay a little more and enjoy something nearly unique. But this is exactly the same as in nearly all industries. You can buy a cheaper piece of fish frozen on the other side of the planet, or you can pay a little more for a nice bit of locally-caught fresh fish. The choice is yours.”
Alex: “There is no doubt there is an added value in terms of flavor and also craft beer being a natural product. If people can, they will pay more for a flavorsome product than a bland one. People also value locally-produced goods and are willing to pay the premium. However, due to the aforementioned difficulties the nascent industry is facing here, there is no doubt that at times craft beer has been priced prohibitively high. Taking this into account, at our brewpub we have tried to set competitive prices in order to encourage locals to try our craft beers.”
Why is it that craft beer tends to be more expensive than commercial stuff—and how do you justify the slightly higher price?
Oriol: “There are clearly two factors at play here: volume and raw materials. A medium-sized industrial chain produces 50,000 times more than we do. For them, the actual cost of beer is almost zero. For real. On the other hand, you have the raw materials—we import expensive hops from all over the world and we do not use substitutes or chemicals.”
Alex: “Agreed. The key issues are the fact that smaller breweries cannot make big volumes of beer, so they cannot reduce their margins like industrial breweries do. Industrial breweries have much more automation and create a much larger amount of beer, meaning their costs per liter are much lower than ours. Add to that having to buy hops and malt from abroad while commercial brands transform raw materials themselves means they have cheaper ingredients and buy in bigger quantities, hence the lower prices. In the end, craft beer values flavor and therefore quality above all else and no corners are cut—the natural process of craft beer production is much slower than industrial breweries.”
Let’s get technical. How do you guys brew?
Alex: “We have a brewhouse of 500 liters and four fermentors of 1,000 liters, meaning we make double brews to fill them up. This enables a more consistent flavor from batch to batch. For our bottles we do second fermentation in the bottle, and onsite we serve the beer through kegs or, as in the case of our Pils Parlament, in a big stainless steel serving tank.
“Having been inspired by Belgian beers, we use them as our starting point, adapting them for the local climate and culture, and making them more drinkable than some of the heavier classic Belgian beers. Our goal is to make balanced beers with a local twist—for example our Brune is inspired by the Catalan sailor drink rom cremat (literally “burned rum”) which includes orange, coffee, cinnamon, and burnt sugar. Upon opening our brewpub we launched the Pils Parlament, which is a very crisp and fresh Belgian pils, which despite being a style that non-craft drinkers are used to, shows off the value of brewing craft due to its superior flavor. Our latest beer was the Belgian IPA, inspired by Magritte’s famous painting, “Ceci N’est Pas una IPA.”
Oriol: “Ha! This is a pretty complex question to answer in a few lines so I’ll keep it short. What I can say is that we produce the class, old-fashioned way—the way the true brew masters have been doing for centuries. But I think that the best thing is for anyone who’s curious to come down to the brewery one day and I can explain it to you better in person.”
How many bottles or liters of beer do you produce a year? Is it all consumed here in Barcelona?
Alex: “In our case it is difficult to put numbers on as we opened in early spring this year, but we have the potential to produce 52,000 liters per year.”
Oriol: “At this moment we have a small problem: we’re selling more than we can produce. For this reason we’re currently building a new brewery warehouse. We sell both in Barcelona and in the rest of the world. To give you an idea, our biggest customer is South Korea.”
Can vs bottle: where do you stand?
Oriol: “Nice question. I am an absolute fan of canned beer. I think it’s the future. It is one of the steps we want to take in the next few years.”
Alex: “Given our Belgian origins, definitely on the bottle side. Re-fermentation in the bottle was a practice first introduced by Belgians. We also think that in order to grow the local market for craft beer, bottles are better than cans, as non-craft drinkers have bad associations with canned beer.”
Another thing that’s popular here in Barcelona is the dining scene. What do you think of the idea of pairing food and beer? Can you give us an example of a particular pairing that works well?
Alex: “We love beer and food pairing! In fact at the bottom of our menu we have highlighted which beers of ours pair with which dishes. For example, I like our Moreneta Blonde with our grilled artichokes served on goats’ cheese with honey and orange zest. The Catalan wine industry is booming and producing some spectacular wines, so it’s understandable that wine is often still the preferred accompaniment to a meal. But we believe that with the quality and flavors of craft beer, it can be elevated beyond the typical pre-meal aperitif that it traditionally is in Spain, and start to be taken seriously as a match with food.”
Oriol: “In our taproom in Calle Muntaner we love to marry food and beer! There are some pretty brutal combinations such as cochinita pibil (pulled pork) sandwich with a Miss Hops IPA. Another favorite is the Señor Lobo stout infused with chocolate and orange, paired with a rich chocolate cake. It really works!”
What advice can you give to someone who’s never tried anything other than a basic lager and knows nothing about craft beer? What would you start with and how would you go about it?
Oriol: “I love this kind of challenge, but they’re easier than they look. If someone tries a “non-extreme” craft beer, it’s almost impossible that in a very short time you won’t become a fan of craft beer. It’s like someone who all their life has drunk really young, underdeveloped wine and you suddenly give them a good Penedés or Ribera to try. No way. You’ve won. The only thing that needs to be done is to create products that are easy for these new consumers to try.”
Alex: “I think it really depends on the person—when I left my home city of London it was just before their craft beer boom, and I can’t say I enjoyed my beer-drinking back then. Moving to Brussels was an awakening for me, because suddenly I was introduced to numerous different styles and so much flavor. I just jumped right into it and tasted as much as I could. However, for someone who is used to drinking cañas in Spain, I would suggest trying a craft lager—like our Pils Parlament—first to see the leap in quality within the same style, and then move onto a more full-bodied blond—a Belgian blond if you like your beers smooth, or a pale ale if you like them a bit more bitter and light. I would also suggest to just keep trying—one of the best things about craft beer is that you can always try something new, and as they say, variety is the spice of life!”
What’s the best beer you’ve ever had that wasn’t one of your own? And what’s the craziest or “most interesting” beer you’ve ever tried?
Alex: “Ha ha, you got me there, because honestly our Moreneta Blonde would be the beer I would choose if I could only have one for the rest of my life! As I said, there is so much variety in the craft beer world it really depends on the moment and your mood. Three favorites of mine are: Zinnebir by Brasserie de la Senne, Gulden Draak by Brouwerij Van Steenberge, and the Viven Imperial IPA. The craziest I have tried is by TRO Ales, called Habanero Chingon—light beer but with a crazy amount of chillies, so be prepared! The Abbey de Saint Bon Chien was the most interesting as this barrel-aged beer took me from spicy, to sour, to fruity all in one mouthful!”
Oriol: “Another difficult question I see. It’s almost impossible to answer. But if you made me choose just one, I’d go for an Alchemist Heady Topper. But the truth is that I like any beer which is well done, from a hoppy lager, to a triple IPA, or even a stout aged in a bourbon cask. It’s all about passion… and I’m seriously passionate!”