Craft beers hold their own in crisis-ridden, wine-loving Spain

VALLADOLID -- in Spain, despite the tradition of fine wine and cheap beer, an artisan beer revolution is fermenting.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor on

VALLADOLID -- There's no doubt there's a hot craft beer trend going on worldwide, but en España, where wine and mainstream beer cost about a euro and change a cup, it'd be strange to see the Spanish, who are on tighter budgets, choosing to pay three to seven euros for a bottle of hand-crafted brew.

But that's exactly what's been happening over the last four years despite the peseta-pinching recession. Not only has there been a comparative whirlwind of Spanish brewers and craft beer connoisseurs, but these beers are starting to make a name for themselves across the Atlantic.

SmartPlanet sat down for a pint with Pablo Garayo, owner of Blow, a reggae and funk bar that stands out in conservative Valladolid not just because of its alternative style, but because of its selection of what is now about a thousand different micro-brewed beers -- no easy feat in a place where Spanish beer giants Mahou-San Miguel and Estrella Damm dominate shelves and taps.

Garayo has spent the last seven years running his bar and encouraging what he calls the Craft Revolution. "Here it is five times smaller than in the U.S.," he said. "Still very young."

When he started, he could only import from those artisan beer meccas Belgium, Germany and Ireland, as five years ago he says there were maybe five individual microbrewers in Spain. Now it's grown to about 200, with Birrapedia, un Mundo de Cerveza, cataloging an incredible 1,076 different Spanish microbrews.

But with about 26 percent unemployment and Spanish beer giants dropping their prices to sell six small bottles for 5, why would Spain see such growth in the production of beers that cost three to four times as much?

Garayo thinks the economic crisis has caused a moral one and that Spanish people are reaching for their artisan tradition. He calls it "La Vuelta de la Tierra," a return to the earth that sees people interested in spending more if it means they are supporting Spanish wine, beer and food.

Perhaps this hankering for full-bodied beers with a touch of Iberian earth and the Mediterranean's salty air is becoming contagious, as Spanish beers are starting to make a name for themselves in the United States, too.

Iberian Beer United is the only importer solely dedicated to bringing Spanish beers and ciders into the U.S.

About four years ago, U.S.-based Spaniard Jessica Garcia-Agullo and her IBU co-founder and husband John Collins saw the buzz growing around local and international microbrews in New York City. They decided to take a trip over to see for themselves if maybe there was a buzz in her home country too; that's when they first discovered a small underground Catalan craft trend.

"The coolest thing," Agullo said, "each brewer was so excited, we were taken from one brewery to the next by competing breweries." Moved by the enthusiasm and the high-quality product, at first they were thinking of simply opening a craft bar in Spain, like Garayo did.

However, "We realized it would be really hard to go against Spanish tradition." In Spain, beer is essentially something to refresh yourself during tapas, but not to be taken seriously like wine. This is why Agullo and Collins decided to try to give those Spanish microbreweries a name overseas first.

In the last couple years, IBU has grown rapidly stateside, but not where they expected it to.

"We imagined our go-to audience was going to be traditional Spanish and tapas restaurants," Agullo said. They did find this to be true for American-owned Spanish restaurants, like New York's Chef Mario Batali's Cafe Mono and Bar Jamon, and Plan B Tapas, a new higher-end Spanish fusion place that gets about 80 percent of what they sell from IBU.

However, the Spanish-owned restaurants continue to be reticent to stock brethren beer.

Agullo shares the story of a well-known traditionally Spanish restaurant that's ironically across the street from New York's "beer lovers' paradise" The Ginger Man.

"I thought this was going to be an easy sell," she said. "Without even reading the literature and without even giving it a second thought, [the owner said] 'Those people aren't our people. Our people want wine'," along with sangria and, just in case, he carries some Estrella Damm. The owner, who Agullo prefers not to name, was worried that having artisan beers would attract the wrong crowd -- a younger one.

She hopes IBU can give Spain a shove, so soon Spanish people will start wondering more: "How is it that this beer is popular in New York, and it's being produced two towns over, and we can't get it in our bar?"

Photo: Iberian Beer United

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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