North of Madrid, in the town of Colmenar Viejo, a German man and his Cuban wife are brewing beer. I visited their craft brewery a few weeks back, with a hiking group, after a walk in the mountains. Stefan and Lena – the founders of Cervezas Lest – gave us beer to drink and told us about the burgeoning craft beer scene in Madrid.
“I like the northern gods,” says Stefan as he hands out bottles of Thor, one of his three beers (the other two are Odin and Freya). While we sip the dark, smoky-flavoured brew, he talks about the state of Spanish beer. The country remains largely in the grip of a handful of industrial brewers, and has been left a little in the dust when it comes to the internationally-flourishing craft beer movement. Catalonia does have a ten-year-old craft beer scene, with a number of local breweries and a string of craft beer bars. Valencia also has a clutch of small-batch breweries.
But Madrid, despite posing as a cosmopolitan powerhouse, hasn’t kept pace. Apart from a couple of small brewers, the capital has remained stubbornly soaked in Mahou.
Finally that’s changing. Stefan and Lena launched Lest in November. And they’re part of a rising tide of craft breweries, shops and bars opening up throughout the city.
“There are thousands of rumours of local breweries that are going to start up,” says Juanma, co-owner of La Buena Pinta, a new craft beer shop in Lavapiés’ San Fernando market. The shop's shelves are a kaleidoscope of different brews – pale ales, lagers, lambics, Trappists, Belgians, stouts, porters – from Madrid, Spain and the world. And Juanma keeps a few in the fridge in case you feel like a drink and a chat.
A telecommunications engineer by trade and a beer lover from way back, he was laid off two and half years ago. “I was forty-six and unemployed, in the middle of an economic crisis.” The time was ripe for personal reinvention, hence La Buena Pinta. And therein lies a curious rub – Spain’s economic armageddon is helping bring good beer to Madrid. The two guys who last year opened Cervezorama, a craft beer shop near Metro Bilbao, were also out of work. As was Javi, who runs El Pedal, a craft beer bar on Calle Argumosa. He lost his job as a photographer in 2008 and opened El Pedal last September.
“What gets me is there’s no proper beer culture here,” says Javi, as he mops the bar five minutes before opening. Behind him one hundred and thirty craft beers line the wall. “People in Madrid just aren’t used to drinking different beers.” I ask him if the economic crisis is the right time to try to open Madrilenians’ minds, as well as their wallets (small brewers by their very nature can’t compete with the big guys on price). He says as the beer culture develops, people will spend the extra money. “Little by little, we’re creating a market.” In the meantime, a fair few customers still sit down and order a caña of Mahou. And Javi abides, sort of. “I’m no beer Nazi. If people ask for Mahou, I’ve got Alhambra.”
Unimaginative beer drinkers are shown less leniency at Irreale, a beer bar that just opened in triBall. Behind the burnished-brass bar top there are six (soon to be nine) beers on tap, all of them craft. The selection is curated by Iacopo, an effusive Roman beer aficionado. “Most customers start with a lager or a blonde and then go from there,” he says. Beside me, a craft beer virgin peers at the menu and says in a hushed, apologetic tone that he knows nothing about beer. That’s exactly what Iacopo wants to hear. He asks the man his likes, his dislikes and slowly leads him into a brave new world of Indian pale ales and chocolate stouts.
Still to come is Fábrica Maravillas, a Malasaña brewpub being set up by six Malasaña locals. I met two of them – Thierry, a Frenchman, and his Spanish wife Estefanía. Their pub is still being fitted out and, once done, they’ll be brewing several varieties on-site – to drink in the bar or take away in six packs. They hope to turn on the taps in a couple of months.
“We believe beer consumption can go back to what it was 100 years ago, when it was truly local,” says Thierry. Back in his native Brittany, he says the Bretons imbibe – for the most part – local, independent brews. And that’s the culture they want to create in Madrid.
What does Mahou think of all of this? Are they anxious about the capital’s craft beer rumblings? No, says Thierry. He adds with a laugh that Spain’s big industrial brewers control 99% of the national market. But small breweries are thriving overseas and Thierry believes craft beer will take root in Madrid, despite the city’s caña culture. “The beer revolution is happening and once you’ve tried good beer, it’s very hard to go back.”
We drank to that.