Javier León and Charo Barco of La Domadora y El León, in Frigiliana. :: P. R. B.
More andalusian artisan beers
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Tierra de Frontera. Jaén.
Rebeldia. La Casa Invisible, Malaga.
Temperatures are rising, and people’s thoughts are turning to the holiday season - sun, sea and sand - and with them the particularly thirst quenching qualities of beer.
Until this year the long hot days of summer in southern Spain were punctuated with glasses of ice-cold fizzy lager, usually poured from the tap. Cheap yes, full of flavour - well, not really.
As though from nowhere and like an unexpected explosion, the beer scene in Andalucía - and Malaga - has changed completely. Once there was no artisan or craft beer to be had, no ale or stout, or porter, no IPA or wheat beer, - and now, if not everywhere, it’s increasingly easy to find.
In Malaga city centre alone, Cervecería Arte&Sana (Plaza de la Merced), Whybeer (Calle Dos Aceros) and La Botica de la Cerveza (Calle Victoria) are new establishments selling a range of artisan beers from all over the world. Across the Alameda in Soho, painters and builders are working hard to get ready El Rincón de Cervecero (Calle Casas de Campo) and there are others on the way.
La Domadora y el León - Passion for beer-making in Frigiliana
At the forefront of the local ‘craft beer revolution’ (a term coined by the long established North American micro-brewery movement) are Javier León and Charo Barco.
Owners of La Domadora y El León (the Lion Tamer and the Lion, inspired by a favourite painting), a beer business now based in the centre of Frigiliana, the pair are passionate about their product. They sell over two hundred kinds in their shop, they distribute Spanish craft beers and they make their own too, La Axarca Tropical Pale Ale.
Javier, who was born in Switzerland but is Spanish, and Charo, whose family comes from Seville, met in Madrid when they were both working in marketing and looking for a life change.
“Five years ago we were in a meeting about marketing at a big exhibition in Madrid and we were bored and hungry and found a place with a beer-tasting session. It was very surprising for us because for the first time we found Spanish craft beer and we saw a new way to develop our business and a new life,” they explain.
Javier and Charo set up shop first in Nerja but recently moved to their preferred base of Frigiliana, where they live, a place that Charo had loved from childhood holidays.
The shop itself is an attractive space, like an arty warehouse with pallets of beer ready to be distributed on one side and shelves stacked with beer bottles from all over the world on the other.
A sign on one wall reads, “Beer is cheaper than therapy,” while words painted on another announce, “The battle for the best beer.”
The lion tamer and the lion certainly know their stuff. And they are all too conscious that theirs is a nascent industry with few standards and regulations yet in place. It’s all too easy to contaminate beer, which isn’t life-threatening but can result in a nasty brew.
As Javier explains, it has always been difficult to make beer in Andalucía because it is very hard to maintain the right cool temperatures needed to ferment beer and to keep something that is essentially a live food product throughout the heat of the summer.
All the ingredients (besides water) are imported. Hops, which will not thrive with too much sunshine or light, come from America, the UK, northern Europe or New Zealand.
While barley does grow well in Spain, it is only grown in huge quantities by the major beer producers - 93 per cent of the beer in Spain is produced by just three huge companies - who have their own exclusive maltings where whole barley grains are toasted to varying levels. And yeast too comes from abroad.
As distributors, the couple only work with Spanish beers, to support them in the economic crisis, and as Charo says, they personally know and are friends with many of the small breweries they deal with. And of course, they make their own beer - named after the curious currency designed for use in La Axarquía.
“We have worked hard to create a beer that is refreshing and can be drunk every day and combines well with the local food, with fried fish and goats’ cheese”. For the moment, until they can find their own premises in Frigiliana, Javier and Charo are what is know rather romantically as gypsy brewers, renting out microbrewery space where and when they can.
Perched at a barrel in the shop is British man Robert Priest, a CAMRA member and a big fan of La Axarca beer which he describes as “easy on the palate and fresh tasting”.
Just after Robert leaves, a Swedish man arrives and loads up a rucksack with several kinds of the many varieties of beer on sale.
“At last,” he exclaims, like a thirsty man reaching an oasis, “I’ve had nothing but Cruzcampo to drink for days.”
Kettal - Brewing ‘proper’ beer in Los Barrios
Someone who has really taken the bull by the horns when it comes to the pioneering art of brewing beer in Andalucía is Tim Revill.
He and business partner Mercedes Scanlon run a cavernous bar and brewery, Kettal, on a huge industrial estate in Los Barrios (between Gibraltar and Algeciras).
Tim, who retired from working in financial services in 2010 and then followed his dream of having a brewery is clear about his ambitions.
“We want to sell as much beer as possible.” But still, “It’s beer like your grandfather drank.” Tim is South African but grew up in the Isle of Man and spent time in Kent in England and he still recalls the distinctive smell of hops which started a lifelong affair with “proper’’ beer.
While Javier León and Charo Barco’s customers are currently 80 per cent foreign, a huge majority of Tim and Mercedes’s clientele are young Spaniards who have finished visiting the wide array of shops in Los Barrios, the cinemas and the bowling alley and want sustenance.
In order to deal with the fact that most of the first-timers have never drunk anything other than industrial lager, the rustic-themed bar has a ‘bandeja de degustacíon’ or tasting tray (“made by us because where else would we get one?”), which has a small glass of each of the six beers - named after various agricultural terms - that the brewery produces.
The most popular is a full-bodied double malt beer called La Fanega (measure of grain) though also popular is the La Espiga (ear of wheat) wheat beer. Kettal also produce an IPA and a porter and are always experimenting with new flavours. In the middle of the 800 square metre warehouse space, which counts with a climate controlled room to keep the brewed beer at the right temperature and a bottling plant, head brewer Alex Goodall has his own hand-built micro-micro-brewery where he makes small batches of beer with unusual ingredients to try out. Alex is a mine of information about the very rigorous process of brewing - IBUs (International Bitterness Units), the mash tun and the sparge and the wort. Each stage is meticulously carried out and endlessly tested for quality control.
The next fashion in beer-making, apparently, is diverse yeasts after years of different hops and levels of toasted barley malt. Most of Kettal’s hops - twice as many are used in micro-brewing as in industrial brewing - come from Thomas Fawcett in Yorkshire.
The company has just won its first export order, to the United States, which is something akin to taking coals to Newcastle.
And there is possible interest from French supermarket chain Carrefour, while Mercedes is working hard on persuading Morrisons in nearby Gibraltar to take the local home-made product.
As Tim points out, and other micro brewers would agree, distributing a new product which is unknown and relatively expensive (usually at least twice as much as Spanish lager per bottle and often three or more times more) is an uphill struggle. He tells the story of trying to persuade a bar in Gibraltar to take his beer and being told that the main clientele were sailors who just wanted to get drunk on something cheap.
It has taken years of Spanish bureaucracy and hiccups to get the Kettal brewery going. It employs 15 people, mostly local Spaniards, and is packed at the weekends with hundreds of people.
Much of the equipment was almost impossible to source, (even though it is very similar to that used in making wine), there were delays with connecting electricity and the first business partners were not right.
Still, Tim and Mercedes have ploughed on, fighting jobsworthy town hall workers, and have gathered all the resources necessary to make a successful microbrewery - and the locals seem to love it, pouring in at weekends to watch football on a big screen and play pool and drink ale.
At maximum capacity Kettal can produce 450,000 litres of beer a year if its three brewers and the kettles used for fermenting the beer work flat out.
Jaleo - A beer according to self-sufficiency principles
A world away, though not so far in terms of distance, is the tiny Jaleo microbrewery which has just started at the Conviven eco-centre situated by Lake Viñuela.
A couple of the collective’s members, Leo and Galo, have created their own beer in accordance with the group’s beliefs in local, craft and self-sufficiency principles.
Called Jaleo, which means a racket or din in Spanish and also refers to a type of flamenco fandango, the brand new beer contains organic oranges from Coín, coriander and cane sugar.
Like the other artisan brewers, Leo and Galo have been to beer festivals - notably in Barcelona, where the biggest in Spain is held - and on courses and they have taught themselves how to make beer, a fairly straightforward but precise process.
Again, like other micro-brewers the pair are keen to pass on their knowledge and spread the word. They have even helped a local man, Paco, to make his own small 50-litre batch which he has called Romanes, flavoured with rosemary, which he sells from his kiosk, La Alegría de la Aldea, at the top of nearby Los Romanes.