Part 2: Madrid

This post follows on from Part 1: Local hops in Castille and León.

Our trip to Madrid taught us what “Craft” means in Spanish.

Eight years ago, the nebulous idea of craft beer gained structural integrity in Madrid, when the capital’s first independent bottle shop opened on Calle Ruda close to the cathedral and El Rastro’s flea markets. The ambitious project of Javier Fernandez, La Tienda de la Cerveza’s arrival proved that not only was craft beer penetrating Madrid’s city limits, it was setting up a cosy niche here, and soon it would be encouraging locals to drink, take part and start to brew.

Salon de la Cerveza Madrid

In the late summer of 2018, Javier’s glass-fronted shop opens twice daily as a bar too, with big, open tables set in the centre of the room, built for sharing and discussion. Inside it’s cool and dim; around the perimeter, a library of beers from all over the world sit poised for purchase. A staff member pulls some new aquirements from the fridge and lines them up on a burlap-covered crate for an Instagram pic. It’s healthily busy, but calm, and most of the customers are chatting amongst themselves in found corners or on chairs dotted around the space. The phone frequently rings for orders. As well as locals popping their head through the door for a bottle and a peck on the cheek, tourists are playing their own games of finding beers from their homelands in amongst foreign labels. Have you noticed this phenomenon before? Find a map – you’ll want to pinpoint your hometown. Find the Good Pub Guide – you’ll flip to the pages of your county. Two American men take seats opposite us – from Colorado, they tell us – but they’ve chosen Belgian classics and don’t want to take the conversation further. They’ve got drinking and note-comparing to do.

A few of the most visible shelves are re-stocked with Northern Monk, Magic Rock and Beavertown cans. Javier tells me that he prefers buying English beers to American where he can.

“They’re fresher – you make American styles over there with similar hops and good recipes. Why would I buy DDH or DIPA that takes months to reach us through customs when I can get them straight from the UK? It’s a better representation of the style. It’s better for me.”

We take a bottle of Cantillon 100% Lambic Bio and a 3 Fonteinen Oud Kriek from the fridge and sit at the table to sip for a while, people watching. It’s a busy little place, healthy with local customers as well as tourists, and after siesta the bar in the back of the shop will be opening for business. We watch Spanish customers inspect bottles of bottle-conditioned bitter from Lancashire with a smile. Who knew Moorhouses could be a speciality?

Javier is a keen pursuer of artisanal alcohol and his love for good beer began to grow many years ago in Belgium, where he worked as a waiter matching drinks with meals. Moving from Flemish brown café culture to Germany, he developed a passion for beers with specific local heritages. Then, after moving to England, he added cask beer in all its varieties to his little black book. Arriving back in his hometown of Madrid in 2009, he was shocked at the lack of variety in the local beer scene.

“Everyone was still drinking Pils,” he said. “I’d been tasting beers of all styles for so many years, and it was a little disappointing. I knew I had to start something by myself.”

Across town in a residential area, where locals nicknamed gatos (cats) have lived and worked for three generations or more, a brightly tiled Salon de Peluqueria (a hairdressers) has been renamed “Craft Against the Machine”, and that’s where we head to next with Javier. On a bench outside, a man in suit jacket and casual linen pants eats chickpeas from a tin for breakfast – a common snack around these parts, Javier tells us, and invites us inside to where our translators Oscar and Oscar have already chosen a table. It’s his bar, oldest venture and pride and joy.

Inside, local artists and Javier’s friends have painted the walls and added their own homey touches. Stripped, lightly varnished tables and the gleaming draft taps shout “craft beer bar”, but the low ceiling, wooden beams and narrow, deep room speak in a strong Spanish accent. A window made from beer and wine bottles is cemented into the far wall letting light into the small toilet, which is itself a grotto of ephemera and beer trinkets. The front of the bar opens out onto the street, and we sit down in the afternoon sunshine half outside, half in, steadily making our way through the cold draft beers on offer half by half. Every single beer, besides some bottles of Duvel and Delirium, is Spanish.

“It was hard to start selling the beer we have here to start with,” says Javier. “We decided that the only way we could get people interested was to hold a tasting event, and let them find out what they liked for themselves. I went down onto the Metro in the evenings and handed out business cards and invited people to come.”

This sort of DIY mentality is exactly what drew Javier to the independent beer scene in the first place, and why he thinks Madrid, which is somewhat behind Barcelona, Bilbao and Malaga in beer terms, is now ready to fully embrace it. In Madrid, craft isn’t a dirty word or a marketing term yet. Here, it’s used liberally to denote quality and independence; even subversion.

“We like artists in Madrid. We like to know that care was taken to make something. Is artisan a word you use much in England for handmade products? It’s big here. I’ve been trying to get people to see their beer in the same way, that Mahou or San Miguel is not artisan, or beneficial to our local area, but the beer we sell is. I try to get them to think of it like buying wine from a local producer.”

Was the tasting session a success?

“Yes, I would say so. We’ve also hosted hop masterclasses with The Spanish Yard, to get local brewers and bar owners interested in locally grown produce. Our homebrew group has competitions and we go on tours of breweries. When we opened, I sold maybe one homebrew kit in six months. Now I’m selling five or six every month, and everyone is welcome to join in with our trips and groups. These places are more than a bar or a shop for me; I am trying to build a craft beer community here.”

Like every bar in Madrid, Craft Against The Machine sells lager, but when we visited it was made by self-confessed craft brewery Four Lions from León, a morning’s drive north of the city. In fact, most the beers on tap are by this same brewery, chosen through a combination of appreciation of their beers and the mutual support of two independent Spanish businesses striving to make their scene thrive. Other breweries represented on the bar included Arriaca, Matmor, DouGalls, Santo Cristo and Mad Brewing. The most popular beer on tap is the Four Lions American IPA (known colloquially as “Appa”), and as if to prove it, three older gents have been sipping at theirs for half an hour during our conversation, taking in the afternoon, gossiping amongst themselves. Javier says that seven years ago this would never have happened, but now, here they are.

“Old people only drink wine in Madrid. I tricked them by showing them stronger Belgian beers, pouring them, helping them enjoy them like wine. Now they come in all the time. My challenge now is to get them to try every beer we have – especially the sours.”

Before we left, I asked Javier why Madrid seems to have such a different relationship with beer to Barcelona. He says it’s very simple – the culture there started years before Madrid, and European people began looking to Barcelona as a cool place to start breweries and bars relatively quickly.

“They are more used to craft beer in Barcelona now, they’ve had a really established scene for years. They have the Institute of Beer in Barcelona. They are more experimental and they have more experts, like Lambic brewers, for example. It’s really similar to other parts of Europe in that the craft beer scene there is very cool, it changes very quickly and it’s very popular with tourists.”

“In Madrid, Spanish people visit the city to drink beer here. We have great professional waiters who care to talk to you about what you are drinking and how it was made. Ours is a different culture.” He adds, in a related thought, “I’m not on Untappd. I prefer people to speak to each other about us.” He points to the ceiling as he says this, meaning, my bar, our beer, our young scene.

Knowing the end of our conversation was coming, I asked about the English ales Javier sold back in the shop. He rode out the clanging change-of-subject graciously and explained that Spanish beer drinkers are becoming more and more enamoured with cask beer, mainly because of its craft connotations – again, referring to “craft” in Madrid terms rather than our own hipsterised ideas. Just like America, I said. He said he didn’t know about that, but if he wanted people to drink cask in his bar, he had to serve is a little colder than he’d like. Again, Four Lions have been talking with him about providing cask beer in Madrid, and the brewery has been working on an English-style brown ale that’s been well-received by those brave enough to try it. I tried it a few days before we visited, and when I had it in León fresh from the brewery it was a lovely beer; malty and deep with a refreshing edge of bitterness. If Spain ever succumbs to sessioning pint after pint, they could do it with this.

It was time for Javier to leave, and us too, so we said our goodbyes and walked from the slowly-gentrifying gato ghetto and across town to an Asturian tapas bar not far from the shop we’d originally come from.

Bar la Panoya

Stepping inside traditional Madrid was a shock after so much craft beer slickness. Through the heavy wooden door a long, thin room with a long bar stocked with tapas dishes along the left side appeared below me, as my eyes adjusted from the stinging sun outside. Flags for Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid hung on the walls, with framed photos of football teams from the 1970s and 80s taking up most of the space in the lower part of the room. Everything was clad in wood, or else bare, polished stone. Four steep steps took me down into the room, where a middle-aged man and wife smiled and welcomed us. One of the Oscars ordered food and beers. “I wanted you to see traditional tapas today,” he said, “and this is as traditional as you can get. All the food is made here – by her.” He looks over to the wife, who’s eating a lunch of her own and looks up to smile at us all. We say “‘Ola,” ashamedly aware of our inability to communicate with any depth, and she smiles again, then goes back to her food.

Our beers arrive in 200ml bottles, and then baskets of bread. Tired, we don’t say much, but then the food arrives, and it’s good. Blue Asturian cheese like creamy stilton has been crumbled and crushed, to spread easily on slightly sweet fresh crusty bread. Cecina de León, a special cured beef peculiar to the Castilian region just north of Madrid is rich and salty, and perfect with Estrella. Oscar I starts to dissect what we’ve been discussing all day with Javier, about culture, and heritage, and how he hopes that Madrid can do beer differently, and create a craft beer culture that celebrates Madrid, rather than simply copying the trends of the rest of the world. It’s an exciting thought, and I ask him if he thinks brewers in Madrid would try to create beers especially for the region, like Germany did hundreds of years ago. He said that would be the ideal, but people have a taste for “appa” now; perhaps the Madrid style could be a version of American IPA made with local hops and adapted to suit local foods. Oscar II seemed to like this idea, and we talked about local hops some more, and a plate of oily salami appears, with another round of beers and an “on the house” nod from our host. The TV above us shows a 24 hour Spanish news channel, my weak Spanish comprehension recognising the odd words hear and there: “call”, “boat”, “drinking”. In the quiet separation of this bar, time didn’t quite reach into the corners. I let the Oscars’ Spanish conversation float over my head and looked at the small fraction of greenery in the yard visible through the open air vent, which spun slowly in a mottled glass window covered on the outside by slatted wooden shutters and curled iron bars. An otherwordliness clung to each object like a light film of dust, as though it would vanish when we left, as though I’d created the whole place with my imagination. I suddenly felt close to it, like I’d been in the city forever. I wondered who had sat in the chair by the window last, and how many people had rested their elbows on the same checked tablecloth. A scrape of chairs cracked me out of my thoughts and announced the wife’s retirement to the flat above us; her husband told us it was time for siesta – and time for us to leave. Suddenly, the room was just a room; the timelessness was gone.

Outside, Oscar I gravely said: “When this woman dies, her food and her culture will die with her. We all like to drink coffee and beer in chain cafés and pubs, but even if you visit a local tapas bar every other time, you help to keep the culture alive.”

In Madrid, people care about small, local businesses. Talk of maintaining and retaining the idiosyncratic elements that make up their culture dominates most conversations – as it has begun to do in England. They are embracing change, but have seen how it has made clones of other cities. To Javier, Oscar and Oscar, craft beer represents a way to combine the future with the past, supporting traditional bars and bringing new jobs and opportunities as it gains even more popularity. Madrid has many fantastic craft beer bars, but it’s not yet built up a reputation as a beer destination with the rest of the world as strongly as Barcelona has. But as a huge capital of stubbornly, unapolagetically individual people; a city of cats, would it want that?

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