Thursday, June 19, 2008

On Beer in Spain

The interesting thing about Europe is, when it comes to beer, it can be pretty much hit or miss. The continent is, after all, where most of the world's great beer styles were conceived, and accordingly, Europe is home to some of the oldest, most well developed, and most appreciative beer cultures there are. Consider the contributions made by places like Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and England to the global beer scene, and to the diverse array of finely crafted brews to which that culture is dedicated. Oh, and the likes of Ireland, Scotland, and Austria are no slouches either in the beer department.

But while significant pockets of Beervana do indeed beckon the Europe-bound beer traveler, there is, unfortunately, as much — OK, more — European geography where beer remains mired in mediocrity, woefully unglorified, and eons, it would seem, from attaining the status it enjoys elsewhere on the continent.

In these places, major brewing consortia along with perhaps one or two large regional or national breweries dominate the scene. The offerings are typically as limited as they are homogeneous: standard macro-lagers, as few as one to a bar, with names like Heineken or Amstel. Or, if we're being "local," it might be Kronenbourg or Damm or whatever the national beer of country X happens to be.

There is some good news. Many mass-produced European lagers are in fact more flavorful and enjoyable than their American counterparts. Doubtless this is accomplished by not overwhelming the beer with adjuncts (corn or rice, often) as Budweiser and Miller do. I am no student of the history of European consumerism, but I would suspect it's true that while the U.S. was being hit with the wave of Wonder-Bread-and-instant-coffee homogeneity that started sweeping through just after the second half of the 20th century, and also coincided with the rise of the macro-lagers that still dominate America today, Europeans' tastes for local, artisanal, and quality products had largely remained intact.

But still, absent a great tradition of flavorful beers in the first place, what we find available today still largely caters to the tastes of the masses, which in places like Spain invariably means light, easy on the palate, and drinkable.

And so it was that we, shortly after our rickety old train had crossed the frontier between France and Spain, found some suds in the dining car to which the above description neatly applies. Mahou Cinco Estrellas was its name, a standard lager brewed in Madrid by Grupo Mahou-San Miguel, which is not to be confused with the San Miguel brewed in the Philippines by an entirely different company. Maybe the long train ride was getting to me, but this Mahou stuff was not terrible. Not great, but not terrible. I'd certainly take it over a Bud Light.

Oh but wait — let's not get too carried away lionizing European megabrews. The aforementioned S.A. Damm brewery of Barcelona, Spain, makes a product called Estrella Damm. It is exceedingly common in Barcelona and the capital, Madrid (Mahou Cinco Estrellas isn't too unheard of, either). But in this case, Estrella Damm might as well be Miller Lite. Flavorless by light lager standards, it is even more so by European standards. All the more pity that any given Spanish bar is ulikely offer much else to fall back on.

That is why the serious beer traveler will not risk visiting just any Spanish bar. As with other European towns (Paris, Amsterdam) that lack their own serious beer culture, the bigger Spanish burgs like Barcelona, Madrid, and Zaragoza will have a few hidden jewels for the devotee willing to do a little advance research. Also, as with other European cities in this category, the beer oases in question will just about always take the form of an Irish pub or a Belgian beer joint. This stands to reason — the pub is a universally known paradigm of beer-drinkery, and Belgian beers are known through the world (at least among those who care) as being among the finest.

Irish pubs will tend to abound more so than Belgian bars, as you might expect. And, also predictably, you're apt to find Guinness in just about any such pub or perhaps Murphy's Red as your local-swill alternative. Hey, something is better than nothing.

Seek, therefore, the Belgians. Barcelona has a couple — Belchica has a handful of taps plus a wide array of bottles, including even a case of Westvleteren that, though full, is sadly for display purposes only — as does Madrid. In Zaragoza, one of the town's most impressive (perhaps the most impressive; I did not have time to scout the competition) Belgian beer bars is to be found, albeit temporarily, at the World Expo 2008. You see, countries from around the world create their own exhibits for the expo, and Belgium's features an impressive bar that offers some of that country's finer brews (including a few Trappists and the wonderful yet all-too-elusive Poperings Hommel Bier) among an impressive draft and bottle list. The expo ends in mid-September, but luckily Belgium won't be taking all the Belgian beers out of Zaragoza with them — this as evidenced by the handy Belgian beer pubcrawl guide the Belgians created for the expo. According to the pamphlet (again, time did not permit personal inspections), there are roughly 20 spots in town that serve at least one Belgian beer. As a further reassurance, two of said bars are named "Beerland" and "The Temple of Beer." Not too shabby, Zaragoza.

More musings on Spanish beer to come...

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