Spain, the fourth largest beer producer in Europe, is a warm country and a paradise for this drink that is consumed in great quantity –more than 37 million hectolitres in 2015 of which almost 35 million come from national producers, according to data from Cerveceros de España (Brewers of Spain) and the Ministry of Agriculture.
The most popular beer is the light-styled lager, or rubia, as it is commonly called here; it is usually drunk very cold and enjoyed with tapas. Yet when you want to impress your guests in Spain, you still serve wine –in this sense, beer has traditionally been considered as a lesser drink.
The Spanish market is dominated by six large companies: Mahou-SanMiguel, Heineken España, Damm, Hijos de Rivera, Compañía Cervecera de Canarias, and La Zaragozana, which have barely allowed multinational groups to take a slice of the market.
This makes the sector especially tight leaving few options to the consumer, but in recent years there have been important changes. The example of northern European countries which do not produce wine, and the United States, have meant a search for quality beers in a myriad of different styles meant to be enjoyed and paired with powerful or elegant dishes where lighter beers are not suitable.
Artisan breweries differ from industrial producers in their low production volumes, less than five million liters, according to the Asociación Española de Cerveceros Artesanos Independientes (Spanish Association of Independent Artisan Brewers) AECAI, and the greater diversity and character of their products that connect with more demanding consumers.
Ten years ago there were barely two dozen Spanish microbreweries; nowadays that figure stands at almost 400. There are several factors behind this surge: the interest for a gourmet product largely unknown in Spain, the globalization of world cuisines that favors pairing exotic meals with full-bodied beers, as well as economic factors.
Paradoxically, the surge in microbreweries has coincided with the years of profound economic crisis in Spain, when unemployment exceeded 25% of the population. Many young jobless have decided to invest in a booming sector with moderate economic risk —they work with malt, a product that is less prone to deterioration than grapes.
As craft brewers opened a niche, industrial producers decided they wanted a piece of the pie –and we know that when the big ones are hungry, they try to eat the whole pie– and they are attempting to replicate the production of artisan beers. Most of the new launches have been disappointing and they have also bought smaller breweries to break in the market. An example is the stake that Mahou-San Miguel has bought in the American craft brewer Founders, although this brewery is actually more macro than micro.
The AECAI Association was created in 2014 and although it is very recent, it brings together a large group of more than 40 producers involved in the production of quality artisan beer. Their beers must be made with natural raw materials; water, barley or wheat malt, hops, yeast, and without other products that add artificial flavours or aromas to the beer.
Beers fall mainly in two large groups: lagers —the popular, low fermentation beer— and ales (high fermentation). Lager is the most consumed and is easily identified by its transparent, blonde colour. They are dry due to the absence of sugar, clear, light on the palate, subtly bitter, very easy to drink and refreshing. Ales are generally full-bodied beers, aromatic because of their high hop content, and some of them have a marked sweet taste. The colour can vary from light amber in wheat-based beers, to deep black in the purest British stouts. Spanish microbreweries usually sell their ale in drought barrels and bottles, though so far one brewer is using cans.
The range has become so varied that some microbreweries are producing up to 15 different types of beers such as the refreshing Pale Ale, the powerful IPA and APA, the robust Porter and Stout, and even special double- or triple-bottle fermentation beers. Seasonal beer are only made at specific times of the year to celebrate events like Christmas; some of them are made with ingredients that are not available throughout the year such as pumpkins or cherries. Given that Spain drinks more alcohol-free beer than any other European country, some brewers make this type of style — 14% of the beer sold in Spain is Sin, as it is popularly called.
Arriaca. his young and successful brewery is located in the province of Guadalajara, a rural region near Madrid which allows the brewmaster to use excellent local grains. Their beers have rapidly become highly respected in Spain and have received several international awards. This year their exclusive Imperial Russian Stout garnered the Gold Beer Idol of the Czech Republic —a real coup for a Spanish beer to win prizes in the heart of the beer capital in Europe.
In addition they have just started marketing two canned craft beers: their aromatic and light Session IPA, and a powerful Imperial Red IPA with deep caramelized notes destined to pair with very spicy dishes. Arriaca is also a pioneer in the production of canned artisan beer in Spain. They complete their range with a refreshing blonde lager, a creamy wheat beer, an IPA in cans or bottles, and a richly dark Porter. They also make an excellent rye beer, still quite a rare style in Spain, which is austere and dry on the palate.
Villa de Madrid. The city of Madrid is known for the quality of its water as well as being one of the economic and commercial engines of the country so it is not surprising that some of the best microbreweries have their headquarters in the area. Villa de Madrid has just released a beer that will give much to talk about: Chula Sin, the country’s first non-alcoholic craft beer. It is a lively and aromatic beer without stabilizers or preservatives, and boasts surprising quality for a non-alcoholic beer.
Villa de Madrid also makes a dry, stout style black beer, an IPA, a pale ale, a pilsner, and a wheat beer named Cheli —all of them with a very American style and easy to drink. For lovers of strong emotions, Villa de Madrid has just released Ziva 2.0, a Belgian Strong Ale with 10% alcohol and quite a few IBUs.
La Cibeles. The fountain featuring the goddess Cibeles is one of the most popular monuments in Madrid, and is the namesake for this company, one of the pioneering microbreweries in the production of high quality artisan beer in Spain. They brew a wide range of styles, from their light Pale Ale, to their dark and dense Barley Wine with 9% alcohol. David's Ale is one of their best beers; it is the signature of master brewer David Castro, and displays sweet notes on the palate followed by toffee and caramel. Another revelation is Rauch, a beer with charcoal aromas which is made from malt toasted with the peat used for Scotch whisky. The Castaña, or the Imperial IPA with 70 IBUs, are full-bodied beers with character. Also interesting are the seasonal beers that Castro makes at certain times of year.
Cervezas La Virgen is one of the most solid microbreweries in Madrid. Not only because it produces a wide range of honest and extraordinary beers, but also because they have a pub at the brewery where you can enjoy beer while you eat good tapas, something that is rarely found in Spanish breweries. The beer is made with water from Madrid; it is unpasteurized and made only with natural products. Its image is modern, powerful and there is no beer event where their food truck is not present with the typical hot dogs and hamburgers. Although they sell their beers in bottles and barrels in more than 700 retailers, the best way to enjoy it is directly from their taps in the brewpub. La Virgen's ample offering with names like Madrid Lager, Jamonera or 360 invite the artisan beer lover to try them all. In addition, they brew a range of seasonal and special beers with names like Veraniega, Castañas, Carajillo Stout, Cañonera, MÄRZEN or Trigo Limpio.
La Socarrada produces two million bottles of beers that are pretty different from what small producers have us accustomed to. It is located in Xátiva, near the city of Valencia between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea giving their beers a unique personality. The Socarrada bockbier is brewed with rosemary and rosemary honey, triple malt and undergoes double fermentation. Its singularity come from the floral notes of the rosemary and the fruit. Really surprising is Er Boquerón, the only beer in the world made from Mediterranean Sea water. It is a refreshing, double-fermented pilsner, unfiltered and without additional carbonic gas. The third beer is Toro, matured in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks from Osborne. They use toasted malts to obtain a nice coppery colour and delicate, complex aromas.
In Madrid, retail stores La Buena Cerveza (Pelayo, 5) and Labirratorium (Blasco de Garay 21) have become real classics for artisan beer lovers. Naturbier (Plaza Santa Ana, 9) is a typical restaurant that has been brewing its own beers since 1986 in the heart of Madrid. If you want to accompany the beer with tapas you can go to Irreale (Manuela Malasaña, 20), El Pedal (Argumosa, 33), or The Toast Tavern (Guzmán el Bueno, 34), as well as La Virgen brewbar, where you can eat and drink. Tours of the brewery plant are also available.
Other options around Spain are the draft craft beer bar Olhöps (Sueca, 21) in Valencia, and La Jerónima (Jerónimo Hernández, 14) in Seville, ideal for sampling a great deal of Andalusian artisan beers.