What does craft beer look like in Barcelona and Dublin?
Hey, friends! It's been a while since we've written…you’re probably thinking “where have you guys been?!”
We've been here! Behind these used Guinness kegs at Brazen Head (Ireland's oldest pub established in 1198). Can't you see us?
Believe it or not, over the last two weeks, Laura and I have been quite the globe trotters. If you know us at all, you know we have never spent one night apart from our sweet boys. If you’re trying to do the math – that’s 5 years. 5 years, friends! Some may call it crazy, my wife calls it love (of our kiddos). Of course it would take something monumental to draw us out of our usual parental routine. And monumental it was. My little sister, Annie, married her new husband, Aleks, in Barcelona this past week and you can bet your brew we weren't going to miss out on that opportunity of a lifetime! I officiated the fairytale rooftop wedding and took pride in the fact I left the audience in tears. It was a very special time for my family, and I’m so happy we decided to take advantage of the time we had together.
If you’ve ever planned a trip to Europe, you know it takes time to plan. Fortunately, Laura and I had some time to decide what to do during the days before and after the wedding and good thing we did, because it took us a minute to research and draw up the perfect itinerary. This was our first trip alone since before Reece was born 4 years ago…so it needed to be legit. However, when you have two little boys AND you're trying to create a new business, money can be tight, so we needed a place that wasn't insanely expensive to travel to and experience. We ran the gambit of locations…French Riviera, Vienna, Bavarian Alps, Dalmatian Coast. All of which we have either been to in a previous life or can’t wait to check off the list. However, the best option we came across was Ireland. The flights from Barcelona to Dublin were extremely reasonable, as were the flights to Texas from Dublin…and neither of us had ever been there but always had the desire to visit, so Dublin it was!
As we started planning the details surrounding the wedding day, my first thought was…I wonder what the beer culture is like over there? Shocking…I know. Obviously, we knew that Guinness owned the Emerald Isle, but what about Barcelona…what are the Catalans into? And on top of that…was craft beer making ANY headway in either location? And if so…what direction was it going in? We decided to make this research a central theme of the trip. Hard work, but hey…someone has to ask these tough questions and be willing to do the research ;-)
I’ve read headlines like “unprecedented boom in microbreweries help boost European beer volumes and variety,” but what does that mean? How does that compare to what we’re seeing here in the good ol’ USA? One article from Beverage Daily sites that The Brewers of Europe annual report highlights how 7,500 new microbreweries are contributing to the 8-year high of beer production with nearly 39.7 billion liters produced in 2017. In further looking at which countries are contributing most to this beer production, I was not surprised to see Germany take the #1 spot, but a bit surprised to see Spain fairly high on the list and Ireland low. I also found it interesting Spain has approximately 500 active breweries and Ireland only 102, compared to U.K.’s 2,400 microbreweries! With the U.S. boasting nearly 7,500 craft breweries, 283 of which are in Texas alone, I knew I’d soon not be in Kansas (or Texas) anymore.
As we landed in Barcelona…and one of us (looking at you Laura) got over our flight-sickness…it was clear to see that these people loved their pale lagers, namely Estrella. Signs for it were EVERYWHERE and it's not hard to see why. This simple pale lager pairs with every tapas you can imagine, but it is especially amazing with the local treat…anchovies. The briney goodness of the fish paired with the delicate malty sweetness and touch of hop bitterness…perfection. All that being said, this was not the craft beer we were looking for on the Iberian Peninsula, so the second day the search commenced in a more vigorous manner.
After visiting the still-in-progress La Sagrada Familia, we decided to take some wrong turns and ended up at a local craft beer bar, The Growler. (Those of you who follow us closely were privy to the experience on our Instagram story that day) They had a bevy of choice selections from across Barcelona (and the outlying areas) that checked all the boxes. From continental lagers to double dry-hopped double IPAs, stouts to wheat beers they seemed to have it all, and it was all local. I had the dry-hoped pale ale that they had on tap from just outside the city and it tasted just like something I would have ordered in the States…or better yet, made myself. It was a solid beer, right in line with the American version of the pale ale style. Great nose, slight sweetness and enough body to be interesting. I really enjoyed it. Laura had an indian pale lager…which she did not enjoy nearly as much, but that may have been because she wasn't expecting the hop forward version this beer was. It was ok, a good representation of the style, just not our favorite. We did happen to run into some fellow Texans (and Astros fans!) at the bar and chatted them up a little while we waited on my parents to join us.
Over the next couple of days, our time in Barcelona was spent with family and friends celebrating Annie and Aleks, with less thought given to the craft beer scene, but at their after party I did manage to find out an interesting tidbit from the wedding coordinator. Most of the bars stock Estrella (and other European lagers) on draft because that is what sells the most, but the good ones will have bottle craft beer on the menu as well. This was the case with the bar at the wedding. We were chatting up the bartender throughout the evening and mentioned to him our affinity for the art of brewing and craft beer in general and his eyes lit up. He brought back a bottle or two of his favorite local brew, Almanac Pale Ale (being named The Almanac Hotel, they had it made especially for them). It was hands down the best beer I had in Spain. The perfect representation of the West Coast style…little spice, solid hop flavor, nice malt backbone and a great nose.
Before we knew it, it was time for Laura and I to solo hop a plane and head over to the Emerald Isle. We landed in Dublin ready to hit it. Being brewers, we were certainly excited to see what the beer culture was in Dublin. To no one’s surprise, the category leader in Dublin is, most deservingly, Guinness and then everyone else, but we wanted to learn about the "everyone else" in that equation and not just take the Guinness tour throughout Ireland. With that said, if a brand like Guinness is so well known that every day 10 MILLION glasses of Guinness are consumed around the world, clearly there is much to be learned from their experience. We did take a few hours to check out the Guinness Brewery tour at the Guinness Storehouse – it was incredible! We learned a ton and walked away inspired by the brand’s story. But we wanted to see if what is happening in America is affecting the culture there…is Dublin branching out into the flavor forward styles or is it sticking with the old school continental lagers and Guinness? Earth-shattering research, I know. But hey…someone has to visit all those pubs, talk to the bartenders and international patrons and find out just what is going on over there.
After touch down, we dropped our stuff at the Morrison Hotel on the River Liffey and headed across to Temple Bar in search of the local flavor. Our first stop was at Trinity Bar, a sports pub in the Temple Bar area with tables lined on the sidewalk for al fresco drinking. And what would you guess was on EVERY single table? If you guessed a pint of Guinness, you’d be correct. Needless to say, we also had a couple pints on our tabletop just a few minutes later. (Side note: Did you know? It takes 119.5 seconds to pour the “perfect pint?” That 0.5 seconds makes all the difference, I think… 😉) If you’re like us, you’ve probably heard all the “Guinness is so much better in Ireland” stories from your friends who have visited the country. After much research tasting, we can say with 100% confidence, the stories are true. Guinness truly does taste so much better on the Emerald Isle. The roasted malts with the hop background…it's surprisingly crisp and a delight to drink.
While delightful, it’s not a beer either one of us can drink all day long. So after a couple pints of Guinness, it was time to branch out. Guinness' other stalwart in Dublin is Hop House 13 Lager. This double hopped English Lager is crisp, drinkable and smooth. This lager is the work of the Brewer's Project, Guinness' team that works toward developing new, craft-minded recipes for them. They hit a homerun with this one. That said, it is still not the small, independent craft beer we were seeking in Europe.
This craft beer breakthrough didn’t come until the last day of the trip. Lunch at the Norseman. Established in 1696, the Norseman is the oldest bar in the Temple Bar area (Temple Bar is a part of town, though also a bar in that area as well). Fish n' Chips and an IPA, the Chieftain from Franciscan Well Brewing in Cork. The Chieftain was easily the best IPA of the trip. Bold as any IPA from the States; which, believe me, was a stand out. Most beers that were deemed "hoppy" seemed to be brewed by and for people to whom hops were a foreign concept. It was a great beer and one I wish I could have brought home with me in my cache of alcohol :-)
During our time at the Norseman, we had the chance to talk with one of the bartenders there (who was on a study visa from Brazil). We asked her about the beer consumption trends she sees behind the bar. She said the most commonly ordered beers were Guinness and Coor’s Light. At first, I didn’t think I heard her correctly. So I asked again, and she confirmed Coor’s Light was the most commonly ordered lager at their pub, both by locals and tourists. I asked why they kept the 4ish craft beers on tap, and she said for Americans who are visiting. “Americans who are visiting” was the reason they kept Irish craft beer on tap. So interesting! Another interesting fact Laura and I very quickly picked up on was the fact no draft beer was over 5.5% in the pubs and venues we visited during our time in Dublin, Waterford and Tramore Beach.
We could go on forever about the remainder of our pub visits, experiences and beverages we tried, but all in all, I think the following points sum it up:
Craft beer is there if you look for it. You might even be able to find an Independent Craft Beer seal if you look hard enough!
Big beers with higher ABV are not a thing.
Guinness tastes better in Dublin.
Tap handles for draught beer lack in creativity and identity.
Most importantly - vacation beers with your wife are the best beers.
While we had an absolute blast exploring new corners of the world together, home really is the best place to be, especially when you have 2 sweet boys waiting to hug you as you walk through the door and a cold Shiner Blonde in your favorite coozie. Let's just hope it's not another 5 years before we get to sneak away again!
Salud! Slainte! Cheers! Prost!