Saturday, 17 August 2019

A macrobrew lesson in the middle of the Med

Mahon's magnificent harbour
When we went on holiday last month to Menorca, in the Balearic islands of Spain – it’s the smaller counterpart of Majorca (hence minor/major) – I was curious to see what interesting beers I might find. I’d already had a look on Untappd which suggested there were a couple of breweries on the island, plus a couple of bottle shops, one in each of the main towns.

We were staying near the current capital Port Mahon (Maó in the Catalan dialect used locally), while at the opposite end of the island is the former mediaeval capital of Ciutadella. The switch from one to the other happened in the 1700s when the island was under British control, not Spanish, but it reflected changes in naval technology as much as nationality. The harbour at Ciutadella is closer to the Spanish mainland, but is shallower and far smaller than the magnificent 5km-long Mahon harbour, which was much better positioned and sized to suit an 18th century fleet of battleships tasked with controlling the Western Med. 

Anyway, quite how we missed Birra O’Clock in Mahon/Maó I don’t know – we must have walked almost straight past it. But that was on Sunday afternoon, so maybe it was closed and less noticeable, and anyway I’d have been more focused on keeping the kids from getting lost and/or run over.

So what I drank while there was what I found in the supermarkets. What I didn’t expect, even though technically we weren’t all that far from Spain’s craft beer capital of Barcelona, was that it was almost all macro and crafty macro. Sure there was variety – amber lagers, Märzens, a Hefeweizen and even a few ales of various sorts – but with just a couple of microbrewed exceptions, they were all from Damm, Mahou-San Miguel or Heineken Spain.

As for local brews, it wasn’t until we visited bottle shop Sa Bona Birra on a trip to Ciutadella that we found any, and that was from Sant Climent back near Mahon. Yes, they had beers from Barcelona micros as well, but they had beers from all over the world, as you’d expect in a specialist shop.

Ciutadella
It reminded me just how much of a bubble the beer scene in, say, Barcelona actually is. But it also demonstrated how much the big brewers have invested in crafty brewing to ensure that outlets such as supermarkets have no need to go elsewhere in order to add a dusting of modernity and variety to their beer shelves. (Like washing powder manufacturers, they also grab for shelf space by having secondary brands for their generic beers – pretty poor stuff in the main.)

By chance, a week later I found myself chatting with one of the brewers from Mahou-San Miguel after we’d both spent the day judging in the International Beer Challenge. He confirmed that, as I already knew from elsewhere, it’s all about the extra margin on craft, not the sales volume. And it’s not about doing it on the cheap, either, although he noted that the Mahou Barrica barrel-aged strong lagers (the Bourbon one is rather good, by the way) are deliberately priced low to get shelf space and attention.

And clearly it works, with some of the crafty ones actually being pretty good – San Miguel’s Manila Vienna lager for instance, and Heineken Spain’s Cruzcampo ales (but not its eponymous Eurolagers), although yes, the real independents were on average rather better.

Interestingly, Heineken seems to have recognised the need to separate off its crafty element. It worked with a local hospitality group to set up a brewpub in Malaga called La Fabrica de Cruzcampo where its brewers can get creative. It then brews and bottles some of the results back at HQ for nationwide distribution.

Will this crafty-creative approach be a model we’ll see more of across Europe and elsewhere? I suspect so. The question is, how can real micros and independents respond?

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