28 January 2015

Visiting dignitaries

The same smallish set of foreign breweries tended to show up on the blackboards of Barcelona's craft beer bars when I visited, though all obviously chosen for their geek-drawing power. The Brits seem to be doing particularly well out of the inbound keg trade. Take BierCaB, for instance. The high-tech, high-concept, high-stool, eye of the Barcelona craft beer storm counted Siren and Weird Beard among its tap offerings when I was there.

From the former: Soundwave, a New-World IPA at a modest 5.6% ABV. Kiwi-style grassy herbs and fleshy peach feature in the aroma, and while the flavour kicks off on grapefruit and lime bitterness it suddenly floods with fresh juicy mango and satsuma, with just a small grassy bite on the end to add seriousness. As an IPA, Soundwave is damn near perfect. Now available in Ireland too. Huzzah!

More peaches followed in Weird Beard's Lord Nelson, a 6.8% ABV saison which the west London brewery has produced in association with Elusive, a new brewing company due to start production in Hampshire soon. For a saison it's rather sickly sweet, the sugary fruit effect weighing heavily on the palate. A rising bitter backing track fails to balance it and creates a disconcerting sort of green apple skin effect. Are we done with saisons yet? I think I may be done with this kind.

And obviously you can't fling a beer mat in a geek bar anywhere in Europe these days without hitting a Buxton tap. BierCaB had Battle Horse, one of those black double IPAs I can never decide if I like or not, all green-smelling and tasting powerfully cabbagey, to the point of acidic sourness. Bizarrely my notes say I found it enjoyably refreshing, even at 11.1% ABV. Wrong-footed again. Meanwhile over at Ale & Hop they were pouring Buxton's Wyoming Sheep Ranch, a clear gold double IPA with a lightly zesty aroma but laying on the complexities when it comes to tasting: big resins, lots of heady dank, a dose of wax plus a dusting of spices. Yet it's all harmonised rather beautifully and the result is smooth, clean and very satisfying. You'd take your time with this one even if it wasn't 8.4% ABV.

Last of the English beers comes courtesy of Homo Sibaris: Moor's So'Hop, a sharp and lemony pale ale of just 4.1% ABV, hazy yellow in colour and with a heap of dry, back-of-the-throat bitterness. The aroma promises oodles of lemon sherbet fun but it's all acid business on tasting. Instead of sweet fruit you get a serving of green celery or asparagus in the flavour. Eat it up, it's good for you.

It's probably a healthy sign that American beers were thin on the ground. Not so much as a Sierra Nevada or Brooklyn tap to be seen. I did spot one beer from Kentucky's Against the Grain, home of the dad-joke beer name. Mac Fannybaw (sigh) is a Scotch ale (sigh) of 8.5% ABV, dark red-gold and smelling of smoke and seawater -- pleasantly so; I could sniff it for ages. Smoky sourness is the main feature of the flavour, light and clean, having a lot in common with good German rauchbier. Names aside, I liked it a lot.

Canadian beer was easier found than American, and Black Lab had two IPAs from Flying Monkeys in Ontario. Smashbomb is a beer you've tasted before: a middling shade of orange with a slight haze, sticky candy and a jaffa bitterness. Enjoyable, but rather generic, I thought. Still better than Hoptical Illusion, a darker rose-gold and rather toffeeish: crystal malt, a vegetal bitterness and not much else. The brewery claims there's Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade in here, but I'm damned if I can see where they went.

The nordics were fairly well represented and I had my first Estonian IPA in the form of Virmalised by Põhjala while in La Resistència. No head to speak of, but it had some nice wintery herbs in the flavour profile, sage in particular, and an interesting touch of coconut, but was ultimately rather watery and unexciting. I'd expect a bit more of a kick at 6.5% ABV.

Next to it, one from Lindheim in Norway: their O-Pale. Same strength; more weight. This reddish-gold beer shows big English characteristics, all marmalade and meadows in both flavour and aroma, spread on a wholegrain-toast malt base and dusted with a pinch of bubblegum which is slightly out of character but does it no harm at all. I liked it but, as with the Virmalised, I think they could have got the same effect at a more sociable ABV.

Back to BierCaB then, for a beer brewed by Lervig of Stavanger in collaboration with Surly of Minneapolis. 1349 Black Ale is 13.5% ABV and as tarry as you might expect. It smells woody and boozy, tasting sweet like a barley wine, heading towards cherry cough-sweet territory. The brewers' notes say there's Yirgacheffe coffee in here so, hey, now mine do too. I couldn't taste it though. Overall a smooth and warming end-of-evening sipper, but a small one is plenty.

And speaking of strong and coffee-infused, they had De Molen's Kopi Loewak in the display fridges at La Cervesera Artesana. This is a mere 11.2% ABV and you really can smell the coffee, and the alcohol too: Tia Maria in a big way. The first impression is of a rather dry and burnt coffee stout and it takes a while to open out and let the rich chocolatey imperial flavours come through. They blend with the coffee to make a kind of sweet chestnut nuttiness. If you like a coffee beer to really taste of coffee, in a raw bean sort of way, this is what you're looking for.

Only one German brewery had much of a presence on the Barcelona beer scene: Aktienbrauerei Kaufbeuren from south-west Bavaria. I chanced Steingadener when I was in La Cerveteca, chalked up simply as a dunkel. And I thought it a good, powerfully flavoured, version of the style: huge liquorice, lots of caramel, generous chocolate and a very German herbal bitterness. Though it was indeed sweet, I was very surprised to find it's actually a dunkelweiss, being far cleaner of flavour than they normally are. Shows the power of suggestion. I'm sure I'd have noticed loads of brown bananas if I'd been told to expect them.

And that's your lot from Barcelona. I hope I've shown over the last two posts that there's plenty of variety to be had (though you doubtless all knew that already). The good news for the beer tourist is that some places, including BierCaB, are open all day, not just in the evenings. Even more open early on weekends, though some close in the afternoons. In short, you need to do some schedule planning before setting out for any specific establishment. It could do with more space, however. Many pubs just got too crowded, with the staff too few and the beer too foamy, for comfortable drinking. But it certainly shows promise and there is clearly room for lots more establishments, of all sizes.

And if this is the point where you're thinking "Yeah, I really should go/go back some time soon", the Barcelona Beer Festival is 13-15 March this year. What better time to visit?


  1. A few more places to visit for the yearly trip in June after the last two posts, cheers!

    Although Biercab will probably still be number one.