James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Be Careful What You Say About Soccer After the Sixth Beer

Be Careful What You Say About Soccer After the Sixth Beer

Mahou in Catalonia

It was half-time, and with the game poised at 0-0, beer was beginning to flow more quickly than before. For 45 minutes, Spain’s two best soccer teams had been engaged in a chess-like battle of wits. The atmosphere at my friend Mario’s family home in Reus, an industrial town around 60 miles from Barcelona, had grown tense.

When FC Barcelona play Real Madrid, there is much more on the line than three points. El Clasico, as the match-up has come to be known, represents a historic battle between two cities, two soccer philosophies and, some would argue, two political ideologies.

As the froth settled on yet another freshly poured Mahou, I remarked to my hosts that I had never tried this brand of beer—that I was more familiar with the locally brewed Estrella Damm or Moritz. As with seemingly every aspect of life in Catalonia, even one’s choice of beer can be a profoundly political statement.

The reason that we were drinking Mahou, explained Mario’s father, was that it is the quintessential brew of Madrid. “Everybody in the capital drinks this beer. It’s hard to find anything else down there,” he continued. “The Catalans have their beer and we have ours, but everybody knows which is better.”

By now I had figured out that this family of Madrid fanatics, who originate from Andalusia and today call Catalonia home, were proud Spanish nationalists. In recent years, the Catalan independence movement has gathered pace, with polls indicating widespread support throughout the region. Yet for the likes of this family, who have been in the area for generations yet maintain a strong connection to their roots in the Spanish heartlands, the question of independence is far from straightforward.

Next, it was Mario’s uncle who chipped in with an explanation: “When our parents came to work here in the 50s, Spain was still a very poor country.” He took another gulp of Mahou. “Thousands of people left the countryside and came north to work in industry. Their hard work helped turn Spain into the modern, wealthy nation we have today and without them, Catalonia would be nothing.”

The match resumed for the second half and conversation turned once more to the game. As I reached for yet another bottle of Mahou, Barcelona striker Luis Suarez scored, putting the Catalan side ahead just eight minutes after the restart. I made sure to refill everybody else’s glass before my own, sensing that they needed it more than I did.

As Madrid searched frantically for a retort, I decided to lift the mood with some more light conversation. “So this independence thing, what do you all think about that?” I asked, the sixth glass of Mahou lending an unintended arrogance to my tone.

This time it was Mario’s mother who replied first, a strong-headed woman who still carried a distinctly southern accent whenever she spoke. “It’ll never happen. We need to stick together, just like before, and things will get better.”

The rest of the family nodded in approval and with that, Real defender Sergio Ramos kicked a late equalizer for the team in white. As my hosts celebrated wildly, jumping, hugging, kissing, the cramped living room became drenched in sticky Spanish beer.

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