30 January 2015

Up Andorra

Drinking in a micronation: is there any sweeter feeling? My New Year trip to Barcelona incorporated a day in Andorra, a grey little country perched high in the Pyrenees, three hours by bus from the Catalan capital. This particular Shangri-La charges no duty or VAT on anything so tends to be thronged by the neighbours filling up on cheap booze and fags. It's weird going to a place which is plainly designed with the wealthy in mind, but where the prices of things are comically low. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Liechtenstein.

There is but one brewery in the country, and one specialist craft beer outlet in the capital city Andorra La Vella.

La Birreria is technically an off licence, but it also has taps and tables and serves snacks, much like Dublin's own Probus Wines. I started on the house beer which is not, in fact Andorran, but brewed in Ibiza. Up in the mountains that feels a lot further away than it actually technically is. The beer was a Christmas porter called Trapella, 6% ABV and brewed with carob beans. It's a murky homebrew-ish brown colour and smells of nothing. The flavour is fun though: proper Christmassy, with spiced brown sugar overlaid with fresh herbal pine. A slight burnt-pudding edge finishes it off. The carob doesn't contribute a whole lot, but even before I read it was there I could detect the faint presence of a fake chocolate flavour, which makes sense. Decent stuff, if a little rough around the edges.

Cereveses Alpha brewery is on the ground floor of an apartment building some way north of the city. I didn't venture out to it, but you can have a wander through the dinky brewhouse, shop and bar on Google Streetview if you fancy.

Sant Corneli is the pale ale, strong at 6.4% ABV, looking hazy and leading to an almost Belgian IPA kind of flavour: lots of sweet honeydew fruit and jasmine spice from the hops but also a pillowy texture and a contribution of tasty warming esters from the yeast.

La Font del Bisbe also claims to be a pale ale, albeit a torrado (toasted) one. Heavily toasted, it turns out: it's a dark russet colour in the glass. More Belgian goings on in the aroma: alcohol heat, caramel and figs, like a strong dubbel. And yet all that disappears on tasting and you get a clean, highly attenuated beer, with lemon sherbet at the front of the flavour and not much behind it. It's a very strange effect. I would drink more of it, though.

The winter ale is a 7.5% ABV job called La Dama de Gel and is infused with cacao and whisky. It's a deep brown colour with a vinous aroma, and muscat in particular: the sweet and quite perfumed white grape. That comes out even stronger in the flavour where it's joined by a little hint of jaffa orange and a chalky minerality. It's another strong one without much by way of residual sugar and I found myself warming to this house style.

And now things get a little weird. Alpha makes a smoked beer called Fums, 6.2% ABV, headless, and a clear brown colour. I'm not at all sure I would spot that it contains smoked malt if it wasn't flagged on the label because it doesn't really taste smoky. The single, resounding, unambiguous flavour here is silage: that funky green stench of farmyards in winter. Perhaps it should be surprising that more beers don't taste like this. Like silage, beer is essentially fermented grass. Anyway, Fums is very odd, but not unpleasant, to me anyway.

The last remaining Alpha beer on the shelf was Full Fusion, a concoction containing ginseng, guarana and taurine. And I would say there's lots of taurine in here: it's the same blinding pale yellow as an energy drink and has exactly the same sickly artificial-candy-lemon smell and taste. It's very unbeery -- no sign of any malt or hops -- but perfectly drinkable. While I was doing that I got to wondering if the brewers had simply pitched yeast onto a bucket of Red Bull. I'd imagine that would end up something like this.

It's great that Andorra has its own beer brand, and an accessible specialist bar. Sadly, because I spent pretty much the whole day in it I can't tell you very much else about the country. But definitely drop by La Birreria if you're passing.


  1. I just so happen to be going to Andorra next weekend. Was there a few years ago and was enjoyed bottles of the Alpha Wheat beer. Any sign of it still hanging around? https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xaf1/v/t1.0-9/296025_10150336339958423_533896593_n.jpg?oh=b796002101686d00b0f1468916ffff68&oe=55597169&__gda__=1432783034_541c0d00e0b416fa73f1d2f08b544ef9

    Certainly one of the best things about the country is buying quality Belgian beers for next to nothing in the supermarkets.

    1. Didn't see any of that. Looks a bit sus though. Belgian beers? I was more interested in the €10-a-litre Bombay Sapphire.

    2. Seems to still be on their site actually. Alpha Mad Monk

      As for Andorra itself, if you don't like skiing or hiking there's very little to do. The capital itself is really dull, although the cheap booze makes up for it.

    3. The ticker of countries needs no other activities! Though the odd beer is nice...