My most recent New Year jaunt was to Barcelona: the hub, I'm told, of Spain's expanding craft beer movement. And while that may be true, interesting beers are fairly tightly contained within a small number of specialist outlets, though new ones are opening all the time.
Black Lab, for instance, still smelled of paint and sawdust, having welcomed customers for the first time a few days before Christmas. It's situated in the handsome old harbourside building which also houses the Catalonian Historical Museum. In due course there will be a brewery here and the interior layout allows for prominent display of the equipment when it arrives. In the meantime, two house beers brewed at the nearby Edge brewery, plus a few international options.
Black Mirror is the session-strength stout: 4.5% ABV though a little lacking in darkness and foam for the style, I thought. It's barely carbonated and smells of cocoa and treacle while tasting of chocolate syrup and bitter coffee, the sweetness rising to an almost metallic saccharine tang with time. Perhaps a little too sweet to gulp down but I found it a reasonably pleasant sipper.
The companion piece is El Importador, a 5.5% ABV amber ale which arrived looking a nasty muddy brown colour. It was a surprise to find it's really a rather clean beer, the rye coming in strong at the start adding a huge grassy bite, then big pine hop flavours in the middle with a kind of baking soda chalkiness as well. I liked it but I'd say rye fans will appreciate it much more.
Black Lab will be a very nice little place when it's finished and pouring its own beers but it's still worth a visit now.
The first Barcelona beer pub I visited was La Resistència, a long narrow café-style establishment with minimalist decoration. It was IPAs all round here, starting with Espiga Black IPA, an 8.5% ABV whopper with a thick and creamy stout-like head. The aroma is pure fruitcake: warm baked raisins and glacé cherries in particular. There's more of a juicy mandarin thing happening on tasting, however, overlaid with a drier green bitterness and lots of dark roast but no sign of that alcohol in the flavour. This a really good, drinkable, complex powerhouse of a beer and a lot more fruity and fun than black IPAs tend to be at this sort of strength.
Ratpenat 2014 IPA is more orthodox: 6% ABV, a hazy orange colour and smelling brightly of orange and lemon zest. Unsurprisingly that's how it tastes too: a big burst of citrus with a bonus sprinkling of exotic jasmine perfume spice. It got to be a little heavy-going after a while, but nice for a small one.
Food is obviously a big part of the equation when it comes to beer in Catalonia and most of specialist bars will do good quality tapas as a minimum. Ale & Hop, in the Barri Gotic, goes further and has a proper vegetarian restaurant at the back behind the pub section. The food is very cheap and pretty decent, though small portions come with the pricetag. The veggie burger filled a hole adequately, however. To drink, more from Barcelona's own Edge Brewing. La Sense Nom is a saison at a proper saison strength of 5% ABV. Not so proper is the blending in of apple juice which adds a sweet red-apple flavour to the coppery-gold coloured beer and quite possibly covers any saison spicing which may be present. There remains an assertive sharp bite in the finish, so while there's a slight air of alcopop about it -- especially the easy drinkability -- there's still a proper beer underneath. Slightly weaker, in strength and quality, is Edge's La Flor De La Vida, a rather watery attempt at a pale ale with the overpowering floral bitterness of tasted perfume, fading to a barely-perceptible celery greenness. The brewery claims it's English style but I don't think they've got the right angle on what English pale ale is supposed to taste like at all.
Before leaving, a go of Fort IPA, Fort being another one of the local outfits. A big 7% ABV here but all that malt just leaves a musty grainsack aroma and flavour. The hops are heavy and resinous and the whole thing tasted old and tired, all booze and bitterness. It disappeared from the blackboard soon after so I suspect I got the tail end of a keg which may well have been tapped quite a while previously. Them's the breaks.
At the opposite end of the old city from Ale & Hop we find La Cerveteca, a pleasantly bohemian corner watering hole with nine taps and a laidback acid jazz soundtrack. The first thing that caught my eye were the handpumps, one of which was pouring St Joan, a pale ale by the Agullons brewery. Now this lot have nailed the English style: all the meadowy flowers of English hops, as well as the mildly metallic bite that comes with it. There are heavier hop resins too, and a spicy sticky incense complexity. Yes, at 5% it's a little overclocked for the style, and there was a rather harsh yeast bite which they really should sort out if they're going to insist on cask dispense, but overall a surprisingly good go at the genre and a very satisfying pint of beer.
I looked for something cleansing to follow it and eschewed the German lagers in favour of Naparbier's Aotearoa Pils. That was a mistake. This hazy 4.2% ABV yellow lager is massively piss flavoured, far beyond catty and into concentrated kidney territory. Where the lovely kiwi tropical fruit should be there's a sickly peach nectar effect, though there's no quibbling with the malt base: golden syrup and crisp oatmeal biscuits. This is not a beer which does things by halves but should probably only be consumed in them.
One more foray into Edge's portfolio comes via Homo Sibaris, another neighbourly café-style beer pub. Hoptimista hits the sweet spot for amber ale, combining fresh floral hopping with rich and cakey caramel malt. The flavour is awash with marzipan and comforting sticky toffee pudding, finishing on a sharper grassy bite which balances it beautifully. It's strong at 6.6% ABV, but leaves it up to you whether you want to gulp it down and enjoy the hop refreshment, or linger longer and let the malt confectionery soothe. On this showing I can't say I was overly impressed by Edge's beers -- it's the sort of brewery that would be grand to have as your local producer, but isn't worth crossing the continent for. Hoptimista is the one possible exception to that that I found.
Taking shelter in Dunne's Irish Pub while waiting for somewhere else to open, I was offered Barcino Bogatell Blat as their one sop to Catalonian craft brewing. The specs are those of a weissbier, with wheat, Hallertau hops and "Bavarian yeast", but it poured crystal clear with a thin lagerish head. There are cloves in abundance in the flavour, but not much else. It's very one-dimensional and started to get sickly as it warmed. Definitely not a good ambassador for the region's microbrewing scene.
With all the pub-hopping I barely had time to sit in my hotel room drinking. When I did, it was Montseny Negra from a slickly branded brewery whose wares I didn't see anywhere in the on-trade. This one sold itself to me by claiming to be "following the Irish tradition". Oh yeah? A malt cocktail of barley, wheat, oats and rye bring it to 5.2% ABV and it pours an opaque brown-black, topped by a short-lived ivory head. And yes, despite the off-kilter grain bill and high-ish ABV, it does do a very good impression of quality Irish stout, balancing mineral and roasted dryness with chocolate and latte sweetness. There's even a lovely touch of creaminess in the texture, begorrah. A very well put together dark beer, all-in-all.
I just had time at the end of the trip for a couple of beers in La Cervesera Artesana, the Barcelona brewpub I first encountered back in 2002 and re-visited the last time I was in town in 2007. It's still tipping away, with a modestly ambitious range of beers, though few of those advertised were actually available. On a carefree whim I chose Boletus from the line-up, knowing only that it's something in a Belgian fashion. What I got was a hazy amber beer, heavy and warming, with a pleasant granola cereal aroma. It tastes lightly orangey and lacks the Belgian-style esters, putting me more in mind of an English strong ale. And then there's a slightly nasty gastric edge which didn't help things, or leave me any the wiser as to what the brewer was intending.
Iberian Wheat was also a strange one. It's the dark orange shade of many a weissbier but has a massive sharp and sour vinegar-and-lemon bite. Infected? Maybe, but it didn't spoil things. There was also a nice dry carbonic catch in the back of the throat and some fun fruity peachade. I can't think of anything to compare it to, but I rather enjoyed it as a novelty.
I've stuck rigidly to locally-brewed beers this post, and if you're familar with Barcelona you'll have noticed I've missed (at least) one major landmark on the bar scene. I'll come to it in the next post when I'll be looking at the foreign beers I found on the trip.