“In Spain, a good beer is a cold beer.”
No, that’s not some ancient dictum you’ll find scribed on Spanish gastronomic scrolls, nor is it the barley-soaked wisdom of an old timer preaching from his bar-stool pulpit. Those are the words of Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran, partner at elBulli and one of the great culinary minds of the 21st century.
Adrià told me this two years ago, as he prepared to open up Tickets, an ambitious modern tapas restaurant in Barcelona that remains the toughest reservation in the city. I asked why his restaurant would have a wine list that spans many pages but a beer list limited to mediocre Estrella Damn products.
In the years since, I’ve accepted Adrià’s adage as law here in Spain, a way to make sense of the fact that neighborhood bars serve 15 types of gin and four types of tonic but just one type of beer, or that a restaurant with a Bible-thick wine list and sparkling waters from four continents only offers Estrella or San Miguel or Mahou—large-scale brews in the same quality camp as Budweiser and Carlsberg. (Or that a chef with a mind so focused on moving forward that he literally invented modernist cuisine would still look at beer quality as a matter of temperature.)
The first time I drank Estrella Damn I proclaimed it to be the best beer in the world. But I was just 18 back then, drinking legally for the first time in my life; had someone poured me a cool pint of turpentine, I would have unhinged my jaw, slammed it down and ordered another round. But 13 years and many thousands of beers later, I can’t help but be bummed out by the fact that Estrella is the beer I drink most. Living in Barcelona, it often feels like there is no other choice.
Spaniards drink beer at all hours of the day, but quality has never been part of the equation. From a historic perspective, it’s completely understandable; people here have always been happy to sip excellent wine, eat world-class pork and drink average beer. But when Spain became the center of the culinary universe 15 years ago, one would think an elevation of all consumption standards—including beer-drinking standards—would have been a natural biproduct. In a country with so much love not just for grape, but for first-rate booze and food of all stripes (from brandy to canned mollusks), why had the microbrew movement, a boom that has impacted almost every other major developed nation across the globe, missed Spain entirely?
All of this had been bubbling around in my head for a couple of years when, just last week, something remarkable transpired. Sipping a coffee and reading the paper at a bar, I came across an article that casually mentioned that the best beer bar in the world is in Mataró, a coastal town 30 minutes to the north of Barcelona. It was like discovering that the best cheesemaker in the world is from an animal-less village in Vietnam, or that a restaurant in Nebraska serves the most exquisite fish on the planet. This seemed to contradict everything I thought I knew about Spaniards and their casual relationship with beer. There was only one way to make sense of it all, and it involved a train ride, some bratwursts and any number of rare, expensive, high-alcohol beers.