Pintful: Across the pond, thirst is growing for American craft beer

07/31/2014 8:00 PM

07/31/2014 9:12 PM

Under a bright summer sun, craft beer fans moved from tent to tent sampling American ales, California commons and West Coast India pale ales.

A food truck rodeo anchored one end, a stage the other. A guy in a shirt from a popular Colorado brewery mingled in the crowd. The speakers blared Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

For a moment, it felt like Hickory Hops, or any of the other great outdoor craft beer festivals in North Carolina. But I stumbled upon this one 4,000 miles from home while on vacation in Barcelona, Spain.

The surreal experience across the Atlantic Ocean at the La Fira del Poblenou spoke to the growing thirst abroad for American-style craft brews – not to mention the small-world craft beer community.

The Brewers Association, an industry trade group, recently reported American craft beer exports increased 49 percent in 2013 to 282,500 barrels and an estimated $73 million.

The growth in Europe is particularly intriguing given that American brewers drew their inspiration from their predecessors in beer-soaked regions of Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

Spain is not known for its craft beer. But the country’s tastes are beginning to change.

“The beer scene is super strong and growing here,” Alan Sheppard, the head brewer at Edge Brewing in Barcelona, told me at the festival. “It’s like the states in ’96-’97.”

The Florida native said he opened a 15-barrel operation in January that brews American-style beers, such as his Flor de la Vida (Flower of Life) American Pale Ale, to “bring the craft beer revolution to Spain.”

“Everybody just wants American-style West Coast IPAs over here,” Sheppard said.

(In Spanish, he told me, an IPA is pronounced “eee-pa.” Craft beer is known as cervesa artesana and a brewery is a cerveseria.)

It turned out Sheppard previously worked for a brewing equipment company and helped install Starpoint Brewery’s system in Carrboro. (“He’s a great guy,” said Starpoint’s Tim Harper when I later recounted the connection.) He later sent me to a great craft beer bar, La Cerveteca, where a beer cooler featured a Carolina Brewery sticker. (“This is our hometown brewery,” my excited wife tried to tell the non-English-speaking bartender in a broken Spanish that left him confused but smiling.)

A few tents down from Sheppard at the festival, Peter Brown, a co-owner at BeerCat, another new local brewery, said the craft beer scene in Spain was nonexistent five years ago. And it remains a small portion of sales, despite the growth.

Most bars in Spain feature only one or two taps and universally pour flavorless light lagers such as Estrella (“es-stray-ya”) and Mahou (rhymes with “cow”).

“Spain drinks the third-largest volume of beer in the world but ... beer is seen as just something to cleanse your palate. It’s clear, fizzy and cold,” said Brown, a British lawyer who now lives in Barcelona. “So we need to retrain palates. It’s getting traction.”

What I’m tasting

Back in North Carolina, a few Spanish craft beers are now appearing in select bottle shops.

At Beer Study in Chapel Hill, I found Bernabé 11 from Mateo and Bernabé, a craft brewer from the La Rioja region in Northern Spain.

The golden ale tasted sweet and lightly fruity. It’s a good illustration of Spanish craft beer – good but not yet great.

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