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BARCELONA, Spain—In early 2005, when Àlex Padró opened Barcelona’s first microbrewery, craft beer was hard to find. As Llúpols i Llevats (hops and yeast in Catalan) began producing its first carefully wrought bottles, Padró got some quizzical looks. “They said, ‘What are you offering me? This is beer? And so expensive!’ ” he recalls.
For decades, Spanish beer behemoths such as Estrella Damm, founded in Barcelona in 1876, and Moritz, a recently revived competitor, have dominated the beer market in Catalonia. The mass-produced beers are cheap and usually served in a small glass known as a caña. “Ten years ago, every single guy in town was drinking beer,” says Joan Villar, editor of Gacetilla Cervecera and co-author of a comprehensive guide to Catalan beers. “It was just all the same beer, and we were fine with it.” For those looking for complex, challenging flavors, the default option was wine. Catalonia, which runs from the French border in the north, then along the Mediterranean to Valencia in the south, is especially known for the sparkling wine cava.
In the early 2000s, home-brewing beer began to spread among a small group of beer fans in the city. As they honed their skills, some of them began spinning off to become pioneer microbrewers throughout the region. Traditional beer styles from around the world appeared, from porters to brown ales. One day, a customer told Padró, “You have English ales, lagers, American-style IPAs—what’s missing is a Catalan style,” he recalls. “I thought, a-ha!” He began brewing D’hivern—which he calls a Catalan winter ale—with honey and rosemary, a common herb that grows wild throughout the area.
Catalan identity has made headlines recently, as a secessionist movement long relegated to the fringes has entered the mainstream. Since 2008, the movement has been making headway, gaining traction, as Catalonia felt increasingly overtaxed and underserved by the Spanish government in Madrid. The Catalan president, Artur Mas, is calling for a referendum on independence, which Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has already declared unconstitutional. From 2008 to 2012, the number of people supporting Catalan independence has doubled, reaching 46 percent. This September, hundreds of thousands of supporters formed a 250-mile human chain across Catalonia, from the French border through Barcelona to Valencia.
In Barcelona, where the streets are lined with Catalan flags and billboards feature images of the original Catalan constitution, regional pride is in full swing. Microbrewing, of course, is not activism, and these brewers are hardly waging the battle for independence with each bottle—sometimes a beer is just a beer—but that doesn’t mean developing a distinctly Catalan beer culture isn’t a marketing opportunity.
When it comes to thorny political issues (like secessionist movements), cultural branding matters. For centuries, a distinct Catalan culture, with its own language, cuisine, and customs (human towers, anyone?) has been part of the justification for regional independence. "Everyone knows Scotland—the kilt, the whiskey,” Ferran Civit, a member of the Catalonia National Assembly, recently told Reuters in reference to another distinct region planning to vote on independence in 2014. “But they don't know much about Catalonia, so we want to make it an international 'brand' and publicize our struggle to become an independent state.”
Craft beers have the opportunity to appeal to local drinkers by tapping into other local traditions. “The people here support Catalan over Spanish beer generally,” says Albert Sanchis, one of the founders of Almogàver beer. The cartoonish figure on each bottle of Almogàver is a rendering of medieval Catalan soldiers who went by the same name, but he seems friendly enough, sword notwithstanding. It’s “a little bit nationalist,” Sanchis admits with a smile.
Almogàver was founded in 2009, which makes it a veteran of the craft beer scene. However, while the region was late to the microbrewery trend by U.S. standards, in Spain, Catalonia was a leader. “In the history of Spain, most things are like this. They start in Catalonia and they spread,” Sanchis says with a laugh. The number of microbreweries has surged from about 10 in 2009 to nearly 50 throughout the country today. Specialty beer bars are also on the rise, as discerning consumers look for new brews and styles. Sanchis runs La Més Petita, a tiny bar offering eight taps and a handful of more traditional beer-friendly tapas (olives, anchovies, artisanal cheese, and the like) across the street from a gym, whose oversized windows show Barcelona’s more virtuous residents hitting the elliptical machine. In part he opened the bar, which is downstairs from the apartment he shares with his family, “so that my neighbors can get to know these beers, so that people who would drink a regular beer, an Estrella Damm, would try a different kind,” he says.
“[The independence movement] is sort of like the beer industry,” Sanchis says. It started five years ago with some people supporting independence, and support goes up and up. But it’s not something we’re fighting about—we’re not going after anyone,” he says, pointing out that he has a Spanish beer on tap.