The revolution sweeping Europe has blossomed in Spain and Portugal as craft breweries have flourished on the Iberian Peninsula.
Home brewers who shared their beers with family and friends are being encouraged to take the next step and produce larger volumes of their craft beers so discerning beer drinkers can find delights to please their palates. The craft beer scene in the USA has played a part in the boom on this side of “the Pond”, and it appears the last few years have had the right atmosphere and conditions for people who had brewed a few gallons in a plastic bucket in their garage, on the balconies of their apartments – even a rooftop patio in Barcelona – or just on top of the stove in their kitchen, to take the brave next step.
Armed with a map and a tablet or smart phone in order that we can access the excellent RateBeer website, it is perfectly possible for we craft beer fans to take the ultimate pub crawl from tap room to tap room.
We can start in the Basque region, criss-cross Spain, occasionally nipping across the border into Portugal and ending up on the edge of the Mediterranean.
Even that won’t stop us because the Balearic Islands have their own craft beers waiting for us to enjoy and, right at the end of the crawl, there is a “new boy” planning to get in on the action.
Effectively Spain’s side of the border with France – we find the Bidassoa Basque Brewery in the border town of Irun. The team of enthusiasts with experience in the US and the UK, returned to their homeland and set up the brewery with the Bidasoa river as their inspiration at the same time acknowledging an American influence in their brewing philosophy.
- Their American IPA, named Boise, is named after the capital of Idaho, USA where there is a large Basque community originating from the first settlers.
- Kasper is their German-style blonde beer named after the German scholar of Basque culture, Michael Kasper.
- Mugalari is the name given to their pale ale. The Mugalaris or smugglers used the Bidasoa river to run contraband like livestock, sugar, coffee and chocolate across the border.
“We have had assistance from the Basque government and we are very grateful for it. As far as taxes are concerned, it depends on the strength of the beer. Craft brewing is growing non-stop and in some communities, it is growing faster than in others but I think this growth still has a few years left. There has been at least one microbrewery which has sold out to an industrial producer because craft beers are hurting their sales but there will always be brewers like us who do what we do because we love it – not for the money.”
We find that is a recurring theme all across the peninsula – these breweries sprang up through the love of good beer and the desire to share it with others with the same passion. But it isn’t something to be taken lightly, it requires guts and a particularly entrepreneurial spirit to start a brewery because the equipment is not cheap and the financial rewards are not huge – or even guaranteed! Just like natural selection, the better brewers survive and the poorer ones fall by the wayside and of course, the consumer is the ultimate winner.
Dois Corvos Brewery
One such adventurous entrepreneur was Scott Steffens who, along with his wife Susana, heads the Dois Corvos brewery in Lisbon. Scott proudly – and bravely – admits he has been hanging out in breweries and trying every new beer he’s been able to lay hands on for the past 20 years!!
“I’ve been a home brewer since the 1990s when I was in college in the US,” he said.
“When Susana and I moved back to Portugal in 2012 I knew the beer scene wasn't very developed so I brought the equipment along and started making beer at home. Our friends who hadn't been exposed to anything other than industrial beer really liked it and encouraged us and eventually we started the business.
I've been hanging out in breweries and trying every new beer I found for the last 20 years, and Susana worked in advertising for a regional craft brewer in Seattle so we felt fairly equipped to venture out and try to fill a big hole in the market.
We founded the company in October 2013 and spent more than a year finding a space and procuring equipment. We bought all the pieces ourselves to save money and get exactly what we wanted, rather than buying a turn-key system and we brewed our first batch of beer commercially in July 2015. The reception in Portugal has been great and there's excitement across the spectrum - from lighter easy drinking styles to stronger more challenging styles. The big influx of tourism has helped, but it's the Portuguese who have supported us the most."
Navigating various laws in Portugal had been difficult, with people in the same agency often disagreeing with each other, but in general, the government officials want to be helpful. The problem is that small scale breweries are a new thing so there isn't clarity on how to handle them Scott goes on to say.
“As far as getting an alcohol license, that's fairly straightforward and simple, which I know can be a challenge in other countries. Small producers pay half the applicable alcohol tax in Portugal and financial incentives for starting a business are easier to get outside Lisbon where the economy might not be as strong, and I know some brewers have taken advantage of those. We brew 850 liter batches and brew three or four times a week across a range of styles.
Reception of our beer has been very good and we reached our maximum capacity much sooner than expected, so we're in the early stages of expansion right now. We should have a new brewhouse and fermenters online in Spring 2017. We're looking at some international markets and we do ship some beer to France although our lack of stock that we can sell has inhibited expansion internationally for now.”
Mean Sardine Brewery
Another popular Portuguese brewer is the Mean Sardine which produces several beers to suit different tastes in the brewery in Mafra. Created by Rolin Carmo, the Mean Sardine Brewery is situated in Ericeira, Mafra county.
“Our brewery is inspired by this beautiful land by the sea,” Rolin explains. “We make handmade 100% malt beers, unfiltered with no colorings or preservatives and gas is produced naturally in the bottle. We aim to be a local micro-brewery, in the municipality of Mafra, and associate our beers to the county. Our image and names of beers are linked to the sea, influenced by Ericeira.”
Mean sardine brew two types of craft beers Zagaia (a Belgian Dubbel), named after a sort of lure used by local fishermen and Tarrafa (a Weissbier), which takes its name from a large, weighted net thrown by fishermen to catch fish.
“Our Zagaia consists of four types of barley malts, two types of hops added in three stages, candy sugar, yeast and water. It has an aroma of malt, caramel, fruit and some spices. It features a smooth malty taste with caramel and spices. The body is medium and at the same time dry to the palate due to the use of candy sugar. It goes well with grilled, braised and roasted meats, cheeses, tiramisu, chocolate cake and other desserts of medium intensity. It should be served 8 and 12 ° C, in a tulip type glass.
Our Tarrafa brew is brewed with wheat malt, two types of barley malts, hops added in three stages, yeast and water. It has an aroma of cereal (wheat), fruit (banana) and cloves; presents a wheat malt flavor, and spice at the end, and low level of bitterness. It presents cloudy, light body, fresh and a good level of carbonation. It goes well with light dishes salads, fish etc. It should be served cool (5-7ºC), a tall glass to create a good head and can be served with a slice of lemon or orange.”
Interestingly, Mean sardine beers are not on sale outside Mafra county although they can be purchased by those who are unable to visit the area.
“The experience of the landscapes is included in the tasting of beers!” Rolin explained. That same philosophy was noticeable with the other brewers interviewed. Breweries on this scale do not need to be in vast purpose-built factories and are often situated in buildings designed for other uses. For instance, the Cervezas El Silo in the Hortaleza district of Madrid has meant a new lease of life for a disused grain silo as the headquarters of a new craft beer already racking up good sales.
Two years ago, David Velázquez, Daniel Atienza and Javier Serrano were home brewers but in June 2016 they brewed their first 3,000 liters and the El Silo label was born.
“Since then we have made another 3,000 liters and in the next few days we will make our third,” David said. “The productions remain the same size but we are reducing waiting times between each one.”
Their sales, in addition to via the web, are, for now, in bars and small commerce in Hortaleza but they also have some outlets in Toledo, Cádiz and Ibiza although most of their beer is sold in Hortaleza. El Silo's growth is all the more impressive when Daniel reveals they are nomadic as far as their brewhouse is concerned. They don’t have one yet!
“We do not have our own factory. We are nomad brewers. We are looking for industrial land in Hortaleza for our future factory, because our philosophy is of proximity to our neighbors and that these can benefit from our expansion.”
Javier explained their mission which revolves around building a relationship with their customers, listening and acting on their tastes and preferences.
“We want to be the local artisan beer of reference in, at least, the north of Madrid,” he said. “We believe in measured growth, without adventures that make us lose sight of our customers and in the future, we would like to be able to market a lager as it conforms to the brewing taste of our customers. “Despite being happy with the business, we continue to dream of a factory in Hortaleza to, as much as possible, boost the economic fabric of the neighborhood and create a sense of belonging and proximity to the neighborhood.”
When Santiago García, a chemist specializing in oenology, the study of wine and winemaking, began to produce beer in his home’s garage so his brother could sell it to his co-workers, their mother wasn’t very happy with the idea. Now, a few years later, these brothers from Mairena del Aljarafe, along with their partner Sebastián, are proud of their creation, Desiderata. This beer, made by Bears & Dreams in Seville, is becoming increasingly popular. The Desiderata website explain...
“The desire to create a traditional and natural beer using the most modern techniques… constantly evolving in search of new trends. The result is a range of beers with good body, rich aromas and varied shades.”
They produce a Pilsen, an American IPA, a wheat beer, a porter and a dubbel.
Barcelona brewers Barcino brew four ales including Gotic, a Pale Ale, and a gluten-free ale. The message on their website perfectly illustrates the craft brewer’s raison d’etre and motivation.
“We are three friends who were tired of drinking the beer on offer in Barcelona. Back in 2011 we started brewing our own craft beer using a 5-gallon system on our rooftop patio right in the heart of the Gotic neighborhood. At first we brewed just for ourselves and for some similarly-minded friends who own bars and restaurants in the area. By keeping our focus on quality rather than quantity, things have grown steadily for us and we have joined the grassroots Barcelona craft beer revolution.”
So, our craft beer taproom crawl reaches Spain’s sun-kissed beaches and the sparkling Med beckons us to try the craft beers on the Balearic Islands.
Finally, and although it might not be politically correct to mention it here, it is hoped a new craft brewery will be opened on the Rock of Gibraltar in time for the summer tourists.
The team led by Dean McClelland, an Irish financier resident in Gibraltar since 1999, is committed to opening a visitor-friendly craft brewery on one of several historical sites in Gibraltar.
There are still some details to be ironed out but the hope is that the Olde Rock Brewery will be up and running in time for summer 2017.
The Gibraltarian, British and Belgian brewers on the team have already started testing their not-so-secret ingredient: Rock Conditioned Water. The beers will be based on the very ESSENCE of Gibraltar: they will use a mixture of desalinated clear blue Mediterranean water that has trickled through the Rock before purification. No ingredient could be more Gibraltarian than that!
Due to the tiny size of the local beer market in Gibraltar, which only has a population of 30,000, the brewery will focus on producing craft beers which are impressive enough to gain a following in - and be able to compete with - established craft beer markets such as those in the UK, Spain and beyond.
So there you have it. By no means a definitive list of almost 1,000 craft beer producers, but hopefully an evocative taste of what can be just around the corner for the craft beer-loving adventurer on the Iberian peninsula. See you there!