The tour is so overbooked that Jaime Riesgo, 29, splits the group in two and leads one half to the basement of his La Virgen craft beer microbrewery. Business partner and wife AnaElena Coelho, 30, takes charge of the remaining attendees.
“We have doubled production each year since we opened” Riesgo tells me, who after being introduced to the world of microbrewing in San Francisco began producing arguably Madrid’s most popular craft beer in 2011. “This year we’re due to brew 4,500 hectolitres of beer. We have the capacity to make 40,000 hectolitres.”
In Spain, it’s not just La Virgen that is seeing sales of craft beer bubble over. Between 2008 and 2016 the number of microbreweries in Spain grew by more than 1,600%, four times more than the second highest growth rate, in Czech Republic.
While Spain continues as the world’s number one producer of wine, squeezing 22.6 million hectolitres form its vineyards in 2014, the Mediterranean country climbed to sixth position that same year in the league of European microbrewers of beer.
Putting a solid reason to the sudden growth in beer full of flavour and brewed with care, is difficult to define with certainty. However, the correlation between Spain’s hop revolution and the start of the economic crisis in 2008, which pushed the country's unemployment rate above 20%, is more than coincidence.
“People have had to search for a different way to do things. The little money people now have, they want to spend on what makes them happy.” Explains Jaime, as we sip one of La Virgen’s summer-inspired Pale Ales ‘360’. “But I believe the culture of craft Beer is here to stay.”
With just 21 craft breweries operating in 2008, the drinks industry in Spain was dominated by a small number of large brewers whose regional sales had been cemented by government policy during the Franco dictatorship. Madrid was Mahou, Cataluna the territory of Estrella Damm, while Cruzcampo held the South.
In Madrid, trendy neighbourhoods such as Malasaña, Chueca and La Latina were among the first to open their doors to smaller brewers. In April, the second Lavapiés Craft Beer Festival was held supported by 27 bars and two stores. In June, the third Madrid Beer Week hosted tasting sessions, classes in brewing, brewery tours, beer markets and product presentations across more than 140 locations.
Separated into columns headed by state flag, Birra y Paz proudly displays Spain’s regional variety in craft beers. The shop opened in Madrid’s upmarket Retiro neighbourhood in 2013, as one of the first shops to sell craft beer outside of the capital’s central streets.
“Right now we’re in a phase of catching up with countries that have been producing craft beer for much longer than us,” says Maria Paz, who runs Birra y Paz with her husband, Miguel Angel. “Six years ago you hardly heard of craft beer in Spain.”
Since Spain’s economy went into deep recession in 2008 and unemployment has soared to above 20%, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have left the country to seek opportunity elsewhere. Alongside returning with a taste for products inspired outside of Spain, Maria believes the crisis has encouraged the country’s food and drink entrepreneurs to stand on their own two feet.
“People, who have lost their work, have had to look for a new way of making a living and some of those with knowledge of how to brew beer have seen an opportunity to make money,” says Maria, whose own interest in craft beer began following several trips to the Czech Republic. “Most of our customers are young, open-minded and well travelled.”
As the tour at La Virgen’s Madrid brewery wraps up, Jaime explains that Spain is not destined to remain globally famous just for its wine. “Sixty years ago there wasn’t variety in the wine you could drink in Spain and in reality, the wine that existed was pretty bad,” says Jaime, whose own father recounts how the country took a taste for the grape during his lifetime. “The people of different regions changed the culture of wine in this country. I think the same is now happening with beer.”