Last month I went on amazing press trip to Catalonia. We visited about fifteen breweries in six exhausting days – and I quickly spotted an interesting trend…
I blame Beavertown. While their beers are always excellent, part of their astonishing success surely rests on the brand world created by Creative Director Nick Dwyer. It’s modern yet retro, shocking yet fun, and was, when it first appeared, utterly unlike anything else in the beer market. Beavertown’s packaging set a standard for craft beer that many of the brewery’s contemporaries have risen to, and others have aspired to.
So we got to Catalonia on Friday 16th March, just in time for the Barcelona Beer Festival the following day. I’ve written in the latest issue of Original Gravity about how exciting and inventive the beer scene is over there, and how it’s not just in the centre of Barcelona (which now has over thirty breweries) but throughout the entire region.
We met several brewers at the festival itself, and then spent the next four days travelling around the whole of Catalonia, from the wine region just outside Tarragona in the south, to the foothills of the Pyrenees in the north. I don’t think we tasted a single bad beer, and there were very few average ones. Craft beer culture may be new to Catalonia, but it’s always had a strong gastronomic sensibility that’s democratic rather than exclusive, and craft beer has fitted into that as if it was always meant to be.
We experienced everything from traditional British-style cask bitter, to Belgian-style dubbels and fruit-influenced sours to the inevitable New England-style IPAs. But while the beers themselves were astonishingly diverse in their scope, a consistent pattern in their design quickly emerged.
Sour Skull from Cervesa Marina is a blend of stouts aged in red wine barrels for three years. It’s astoundingly bright and zingy on the palate, with a hint of balsamic vinegar and a lot of wood – you can taste the age. You just want to roll it around your entire mouth and keep it sloshing. The label has a giant, cracked skull rearing over the name.
But Cervesa Marina is pretty found of skulls generally.
They’re not then only ones. NaparBCN is a very classy craft beer bar in the heart of Barcelona. I would love it if there was a bar like this just round the corner from me, but then I’d love it if the buildings around the corner from me were as elegant as those in the centre of Barcelona.
There’s a consistent theme to Napar’s promotional activity.
From Napar, we went to a beer and food pairing dinner at Raco d’en Cesc, which has an astonishing reputation based largely on the talents of its sommelier, the talented Edgar Rodgríguez. As beer dinners go, it will always remain in my memory as one of the very best – both for some of its individual parts (the best egg I’ve ever tasted, my first opportunity to try the legendary Xyauyù barley wine from Baladin) and for the way the whole lot was woven together into a wonderful journey for the palate. If you’re ever in Barcelona, please try to get a reservation there. You won’t regret it.
Towards the end of the meal, we were served veal cheek that had been slow cooked for eighty and a half hours, paired with a Doppelbock:
Doppelgänger, from Cerveza Menduiña, took the richness of the dish as far as it could go, creating a pairing that was sticky, sweet and heavy. The beer label also bravely branches out from the norm, into skulls of other animals.
Up in the Pyrenees, where we were surprised by a sudden heavy snowfall, we saw this theme developed to reflect then local wildlife by CTretze in the small village of La Pobla de Segur. These guys are using beer and food, plus regular live music in their wonderful state-of-the-art brewery and taproom – and animal skulls of course – to try to put their brewery firmly on the tourist trail.
One brewery that’s already making waves in the UK is Cerveses La Pirata. The beers are stunning, particularly the west coast-style Imperial IPAs. These guys really understand hops.
They also understand that if you style yourself around a pirate vibe, skulls become central to your concept. I think that’s why they chose the name.
Not far down the road from La Pirata, we were next welcomed by La Calavera, named after La Calavera Catrina, a key symbol in Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations
The name translates as ‘Dapper Skeleton’ or ‘Elegant Skull’, and the guys at the brewery have embraced this theme wholeheartedly, fusing it with other craft beer tropes such as punk (there’s a giant mural of Johnny Rotten on the outside of the building) outrage (past beers include ‘American Motherfucker’ and ‘The Original Piss of Cat’) and simply not giving a shit. Their Medicinal Stout has some of the best packaging I’ve seen in a very long time.
And the theme of “Ooh, I bet the Portman Group wouldn’t like that” is developed quite wonderfully in the secondary packaging.
On our final day, we visited Cervesa del Montseny, one of the oldest and largest breweries in the region. As befits one of the few breweries that sells into supermarkets and is introducing craft beer to new drinkers for the first time, the core range packaging is quite conservative. There are two markets in Catalonia: the beer geeks who are in touch with international trends, and the majority for whom serious beer is a new thing. The brewers seem proudest of their range of Imperial stouts, which are indeed excellent – my favourite is the one aged for eight months in fifty-year-old brandy barrels from southern Spain, which presents laced with marzipan, fruitcake, liquorice and a spiritous warmth. Given that these are the beers for the craft aficionado, for this range, some design concession have been made.
I wish more of these beers were available in the UK. Hopefully, some of them soon will be. Catalonia has, in the space of a few short years, become one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic craft beer regions, taking its brewing cues from all over the world – even if it does take its design cues quite specifically from Tottenham.
CraftBeerSkullWatch will return – if it needs to.
Disclosure: This post was written after a trip organised and paid for by the Catalan Tourist Board. You can find out more about Catalonia’s gastronomic heritage at www.catalunya.com