Tuesday 28 February 2017

A few days in Beercelona

Although last week's trip to Barcelona was a family holiday and nothing to do with beer, somehow I did manage to involve a little bit of the latter... Indeed, along with a brief business trip there last autumn, I've now been to three of the city's new beer destinations: BierCab, Chivuo's and BlackLab.

Anyone familiar with the Barcelona (and indeed Catalonia and Spain more generally) of 10 to 20 years ago will be startled by the very idea of a 'beer destination' there – Spanish beer was basically Eurolager, plus a few seasonal oddities, such as strong lagers pitched as Bock or Märzen. But like so many other countries, Spain has had a craft beer revolution, and the results are sometimes extremely good.

See yourself on the big screen...
I liked BierCab – it's a friendly craft beer bar with 30-odd taps, pouring a 50/50 mix of local and international beers. It's also the first place I'd been in which had huge screens above the bar showing all their recent beer check-ins on Twitter and Untappd. Seeing my own mugshot scroll past after checking in a beer was a bit disconcerting!

Chivuo's was rather different but equally likeable – enough for a second visit, this time with Mrs BeerViking (it helped here that it was only a short walk from where we were staying). It's rather more hipster, which on the plus side means a menu of jolly decent 'slow street food' – that's burgers, pulled-pork and the like – and on the minus side means beer served in bloody jam jars*, complete with the screw thread for a lid! But no, there were no lids on offer for take-aways, only flip-top growlers.

Nipping out for a jar?
Only eight taps here, but all the draught beers are either from the Barcelona area or not far away, as are three of the four bottled offerings -- the single exception was Schneider TAP1. The local beers were a well-curated and well-kept selection, including IPAs, pale ales, Helles, stout and brown ale.

That list should give a clue as to the big challenge facing local craft brewers here, which is how do they do something distinctive and different? They have no local beer styles to work with, so really it's all just variations on the US 'craft standards' plus styles from the big beer traditions, which means Britain, Belgium, Germany, and perhaps Ireland.

A visit to the BlackLab brewpub – for no obvious reason, its logo is a black labrador wearing glasses – to meet local beer blogger Joan (yes, as in Miro: it’s the Catalan form of John), confirmed it. On offer were a couple of IPAs, an American Pale Ale, a Porter, a fruited Berliner Weisse and more. All were well-made and tasty (their flagship IPA, called Claudia, was particularly good) but I got a distinct sense of brewing-by-numbers, as if someone had told the brewer, “We need one of this style, one of that, two of those, and then pick a couple more from the book.”

BlackLab was quite a change from the other two. It’s down by the posh harbour alongside other ‘destination nightspots’, quite a bit more spacious inside and with a good-sized terrace area too. The beer prices are a bit posher as well, but not too bad. The one fly in the ointment was the crappy free Wi-Fi which, even after requiring me to register, timed me out after two hours with no option to renew.

Catching up with Joan, after we met a few times at other events (most notably the Beer Writers & Bloggers Conferences), was great. So was most of the beer I had while I was in Barcelona – even some of the cheap macro stuff I picked up for under a Euro. As in other countries, there’s also the welcome first signs of beers with a local twist, whether that’s a Saison with orange, Porter aged in a Rioja barrel, or simply a toasty strong lager that works far better as a beer for a sunny terrace than you’d even imagine it might.

Moritz Epidor: toasty
lager on the prom
I barely scratched the surface of Barcelona’s new beer culture. There’s many more bars and brewery taprooms to visit, there’s the Barcelona Beer Challenge, and next week there is the Barcelona Beer Festival, which Joan helps organise. It’s definitely one of Europe’s top new beer destinations.

*The Chivuo’s jars weren’t lined, but I’d guess they were about 330ml which made the beers €10 a litre, or about £5 a pint – and it’s the same price regardless of strength. Pricing in BierCab and BlackLab varied by beer and was higher overall, but not a lot. 

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Genesis of a Band Beer

Well, OK – as far as I know there isn’t a Genesis-branded beer yet, but there are quite a few others. From Iron Maiden’s Trooper via Status Quo’s Piledriver to AC/DC Rock or Bust ‘premium lager’, it’s starting to look like any band serious about its merchandising has to have a fan-beer. Some also have branded ciders and even wines – how very rock’n’roll…

Guess which is cask?
So an invitation to the official launch of the new Motörhead beer made me curious: just how do these brews come about? And who’d want a lager flavoured with JD & coke anyway? Just joking – JD&C might have been Lemmy’s favourite tipple, but the new beer is actually an American Pale Ale named for the band’s eulogy to its eponymous Röad Crew.[1]

It’s brewed by Cameron’s, a 150-year-old family-run brewery in Hartlepool, and the brewery’s head of marketing Yousef Doubooni says it was the band’s management that approached them about a beer, not vice versa. And unlike some of those other band beers, where band members actually visited the brewery and discussed beer, in this case it was left to Cameron’s to suggest ideas, send over samples, and so on.

Of course, there’s the minor point here that since Lemmy’s death in 2015, Motörhead-the-band “isn’t touring”, as Yousef tactfully put it. So we are talking now about Motörhead-the-brand, which is still very strong, to judge by the number of inscribed t-shirts, leather jackets and so on at the beer launch. (Many of the wearers were there to see former Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell play with his new band The Bastard Sons[2]. Sadly, something went drastically wrong with the audio gear and they cancelled.)

Why an American Pale Ale? “We sell a lot of Trooper in our pubs, so it was important to have something different,” Yousef says. Camerons has also done seasonal APAs before, he adds, plus it has its crafty Head of Steam pub chain where it does quite a bit of ‘white label’ testing of new brews from its 10-barrel pilot brewery[3].

The bottled version is stronger
The first thing of interest is Röad Crew’s on offer in three different packages: cask and keg at 4.5%, and bottled at 5%. A higher ABV for a bottled version is pretty common now, Yousef says that as well as “maintaining the flavour better, it also suits the export market better – they prefer 5-plus.” The export market’s a key one for a beer that’s essentially a bottling of an international brand, with the initial targets being Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Serbia and Slovenia. And no, I’ve no idea why Motörhead should go down so well in the Balkans!

We got to try all three formats at the launch; sadly, the cask version was totally lacking in condition, but the keg and bottle versions were both fine and eminently quaffable. Röad Crew is a well-made albeit fairly typical APA – hints of orange on the nose, then lightly honeyed golden malt with a fruity bitterness.

The one thing it doesn't do, beyond the artwork on the labels and pumpclips, is say anything about Motörhead. I guess it’s a reminder of the extent to which music is a merchandising business now – and that relatively few musicians are actually interested in brewing!

[1] It’s just “(We are) The Road Crew” on the Ace of Spades track list, but some numpty has added the obligatory misplaced accent to the beer name, which would make it sound more like Roe-add Crew. Sigh. (Go Back)
[2] Bastard was Mötorhead’s original band name. (Go Back)
[3] Cameron's main brewery can do 300 barrel batches, but currently does a lot of half-length 150bbl batches. I get a distinct sense that 120-150bbl is a sweetspot in the UK brewing market right now – it seems to fit well with contract bottlers, pub chains, etc. (Go Back)