James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Beer Between Neighbors, 8,000 Miles From Home

A Beer Between Neighbors, 8,000 Miles From Home

Estrella Galicia in Soweto

“Did you get it?” Sol asked. “I think so,” I replied, hesitating. “Can you say it again?”

“Nye ningiutshwala,” he said, ever so slowly. I clumsily repeated it, and set off to the bar.

The last part of the tour through Soweto, Johannesburg’s most infamous township, included a visit to a shebeen, the traditional South African tavern. Sol, short for Solomon, had guided my group of six through his hometown’s streets for the past four hours, pointing at Nelson Mandela’s old house and serving us a lunch of traditional kebo burgers.

As a grand finish, Sol had taken us to this shebeen for a particular reason: from time to time it had international beers, brought in by aid workers or returning journalists. “You might get lucky and get something from home,” he said.

He also taught us – a New Zealander, a German, three Singaporeans and myself, a Spaniard – how to say “a beer, please” in Zulu, an act of extreme patience.

So off I went and ordered my beer, eliciting some sympathetic smiles from the bartender and the few patrons. I heard Sol say something in Zulu and could only make out the word “Spain,” and that only because he said it in English.

The bartender disappeared behind the bar and came back with a bottle of beer, and a Spanish beer it was indeed. But it was not, much to my astonishment, the San Miguel I had expected. After all, San Miguel is the token Spanish beer abroad, exported to 50 countries. In my decade on the road, I had drowned homesickness in San Miguel from Japan to Australia to Peru despite never – not once – having had it at home.

It was an Estrella Galicia, a beer brewed not far from my hometown, an unassuming, working-class city in northwestern Spain. The one I had seen my father drink ever since I could remember, following the Spanish tradition religiously: a beer at 1 pm, which kept him going until lunch was served two hours later, and another at 7 pm, when the working day was over.

It was the first beer I had ever tried, back when 16 was the legal drinking age in Spain.

Believe me, this is not an easy beer to find, even in Spain. It might be now – who knows? – but it wasn’t when I lived in Madrid in the early 2000s. I spent seven years in the Spanish capital without so much as glimpsing it. And here it was, in front of me, in a lively South African bar.

“Is this from Spain? I don’t think I’d ever seen it before,” Sol said, grabbing the bottle. I looked at him, the startled expression still printed on my face. “It … is,” I mumbled.

“It is the first time we’ve had it,” the barman explained, telling us about a doctor from the NGO Médécins du Monde who had brought it a few weeks earlier. “He said it was typical where he was from… Vigo, I think it was called?”

Funny how things work sometimes. One of my neighbors had given me my first Estrella Galicia in a long time, and he would never know.

I thought for a second about blurting this all out, and telling them about my dad, and my 16-year-old self trying alcohol for the first time, and how much I had searched for that beer in the last decade.

“Yeah … this is good stuff,” I said instead, and brought the bottle up to my lips for my first, eagerly anticipated, sip of home.

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