Barcelona by Bar
From the Arctic north to the scorching Mediterranean south, Europe is now eagerly embracing the microbrewery and the specialist beer bar.
In Scandinavia and Italy, in particular, the transformation of the beer scene has been dramatic, drawing speculation as to which country may be next to snatch the craft beer baton and run with it.
My money is on Spain, where primitive stirrings have now developed into a burgeoning brewing culture.
In Barcelona, for instance, the big brands Estrella Damm and Moritz are now being challenged by full-flavoured beers from the Catalonia region and beyond, served in a number of bars that have recognised that there is a growing market for great beer.
These bars are randomly scattered around the city, and need a little seeking out, but Barcelona is easily covered on foot or by Metro so, over the space of a few days, you can build beer breaks seamlessly into your sightseeing schedule.
Smart and Minimalist
Some are located in the old town areas, such as the smart, minimalist Ale & Hop, found on a quiet square in the Sant Pere quarter, near the Arc de Triomf. The pub broadens out at the rear to house tables but beer discussions take place at the narrow front, around stools and a stainless steel bar, where eight keg taps are complemented by two handpulls.
Expect to find local offerings from breweries such as Naparbier, Fort and Dougall's, alongside international beers from the likes of Moor, Buxton or Weihenstephan.
The bottled beer selection majors on new wave European breweries such as Hardknott, De Molen, Maltus Faber and Kernel, with a few classics from Augustiner, Cantillon, etc. for contrast. The kitchen specialises in vegan burgers, Catalan pizzas and cheeses. Sunday brunch appears to be popular.
Stumble Across the Cat
If you turn left from Ale & Hop and make your way through the labyrinthine streets towards the busy Via Laietana, you may also stumble across Cat Bar. Look for the motorcycle parked in the doorway.
This is a friendly but somewhat ramshackle venue, a melange of red-and-white paintwork, feline graphics and formica tables. A collage of labels has turned the toilets into a shrine to BrewDog but there's far more on offer than that, as the blackboard next to the bar reveals.
Local beers from Lanjub, Algomàver and others tend to feature, plus more of the new European classics. Veggie burgers, again, pop up on the food menu.
Across the Laietana, amid yet more maze-like backstreets, is the solidly down-to-earth La Cerveteca (pictured left).
This high-ceilinged, scuffed-up, street-corner beer palace combines the role of shop and bar, with shelves and fridges lining the room, loaded with brews from Nøgne Ø, Rogue Ales and the Belgian greats.
Tables formed from large casks, and a few seats at the back, next to the cellar door, cater for those who plan to stay awhile.
The three handpumps are reserved for Catalonian cask beers, which are available at weekends, while four keg fonts pour anything from Germany's Aktien Dunkel to Belgium's Taras Boulba and London's Meantime Stout. Tapas are available for those looking to balance drink with food but don't expect any other liquid provision than beer.
Barcelona's beer renaissance is not confined to its bohemian quarters, however. The more modern, traffic-heavy streets further north and west also have their beer magnets. One of the longest established is La Cervesera Artesana.
On first impression, this seems to be one of those naff 'British' pubs you find in continental resorts, with its displays of breweriana and a rather half-hearted draught selection (reasonably interesting beers such as Bourgogne des Flandres and Kwak somewhat obscured by fonts for Guinness, Franziskaner and Hoegaarden).
But the pub redeems itself with fridges full of Orval, Chimay, Flying Dog, BrewDog and Haandbryggeriet beers and the fact that, at the rear, it has its own brewery, four or five offerings from which are usually on sale. The selection varies but may include a wheat beer and a honey beer.
A far simpler venue is La Resistència (pictured right), another narrow bar with a fresh but rather limited décor – a montage of Prohibition images, a green-tiled floor and chipboard effect walls.
A collection of framed classic album covers is pinned to the wall above the kitchen at the rear, where sandwiches (entrepans), cold meats and cheeses are prepared.
To the front is a simple brick-built bar counter from which you may be served a number of local beers or one of the international bottles. This is beer drinking at its most essential. Who needs frills?
Not far away is perhaps the most dynamic of Barcelona's new beer bars. Biercab is bright and modern, greeting you with TV screens that announce the beers currently being dispensed from the thirty – yes thirty – keg fonts. Once again, the décor is defiantly stripped back.
The bar is comprised of stainless steel with a dripped paint effect and the WCs are housed in a yellow box in the centre of the single room, but your eyes are constantly drawn upwards to the ceiling where strips of wood, like large matchsticks, are criss-crossed to give a flotsam and jetsom effect.
Seating is provided at high tables along the sides, plus a dining table centrally placed in front of the open kitchen at the rear. Food here focuses on Iberian ham, mussels, abbey cheeses, nachos and the tempting (sic) pigs' feet and liver sausage.
How's the Quality?
There are a few other bars and specialist bottle shops to check out if time allows – HomoSibaris (out towards the Nou Camp stadium), La Bona Pinta (near Gaudi's Sagrada Familia), Mosquito (an Asian tapas bar near Ale & Hop), for example, but forget venues for a moment. What about the quality of the local beer?
Well, particularly impressive were Agullos Verlaine (an easy-drinking English-style pale ale), Marina Hop Attack (a black IPA), Espiga Bruna (an amber ale with a rose-like floral note) and Molta Birra Revolution IPA (packed with juicy US hops), but not all the local offerings were spot on.
That said, brewers here are just entering the learning curve and I'm confident that, given the already sizeable patronage of local and visiting beer lovers, and the support of these excellent bars, the Spanish beer scene is set to prosper.
Note: the addresses of, and directions to, all the above bars can be found online. Bear in mind that many of the old town bars generally open only in the evenings.