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Pintxos, Vermouth, and a Heat Wave — A Cold Run through Spain

The walk to customs at Barajas airport is absurdly long. It’s a cruel joke played on the bleary-eyed, feet-dragging masses with too much luggage and too little rest. I’ve just spent the last eight hours and change on a plane, and though Loscil’s Endless Falls tried, in vain, to coax me to sleep, its soothing ambience was no match for the kicking feet of the two-year-old in the row behind me.

Madrid is gloomy and cool, and maybe it’s the weather, but we need tapas and cervezas, stat. We’ve been to Madrid twice before and wanted to revisit an old favorite, Mercado de San Miguel. Built in 1916, it’s a beautiful, modernized marketplace, but the bones of its hundred-year life are still visible. And it’s not until we’re finally seated, with an assortment of snacks and a couple ice cold Cruzcampo Gran Reservas, that it finally hits us: we’re in Spain for two and a half weeks.

Spain’s capital is the most populous, metropolitan city of our visit. Despite all that, craft beer is difficult to come by as the industry is still developing—it’s a far cry from the sort of growth we’ve experienced Stateside. But there are some gems to be found if you poke around. Nestled between the tapas joints and cava bars, you’ll discover folks pushing craft forward. 

La Tape in the Malasaña neighborhood is one such place. Inside, you’re greeted with the requisite list of updated takes on tapas and a solid selection of beers like La Virgen Madrid Lager. They go down way too easy as the dial in the sky turns up the heat. Meanwhile, watermelon gazpacho and vegetable ceviche illustrate La Tape’s willingness to play. 

A block away, we dip into Irreale, one of Madrid’s best craft beer bars. Despite the climate, the Aupa Tovarisch Imperial Stout from Lauper, a microbrewery to the north in Bizkaia, is irresistible. It’s rich, roasty, and slightly boozy—and just like that, we’re winding down our first day.

Toma Café does the trick on day two. Two small doors welcome us into a tiny space adorned with greenery and colorful tables. Short on sitting space but long of vibe, Toma is that little coffee shop everyone wishes they had in their neighborhood. A cortado and a cold brew help animate our legs down the street to La Bicicleta Café.

Going into this trip, we knew we’d be eating our fair share of pan con tomate, but if you had told me I’d have the best of the trip at a small, cycling-themed coffee shop, I’d have questioned your judgment. But there it was: lightly toasted, thick-cut wheat bread drizzled in fresh olive oil and a tomato not-quite-puree spread served in a small ramekin. It was so perfectly simple and intensely flavorful that we talked about it for days.

Around the corner is Fábrica Maravilla, a tiny brewery with IPAs and Saisons pouring—a change of pace for Madrileños. Decked out in pale shades of gray, sun-bleached wood, and highlights of bright green plants, this was a place the beer could have poured all night with no argument from me.

On balance, this is a brewery clearly angling to show Madrid the modern side of beer. And that became a theme from the styles to the decor of most of the breweries we’d see on this trip. A refreshing departure from the late '90s/early '00s efficiency of the American brewpub and taproom. Madrid is nothing if not concerned with your aesthetic pleasure and the particular angle of your leaning in, and recline.

We’re aboard a 6am AVE train, with what feels like all of Spain zooming by at 166 miles per hour. Every town that’s visible through the double-paned glass gives me a twinge of regret, crushed that we’re not stopping to explore. 

A quaint hotel on the outskirts of the city helps forego proximity for seclusion and quiet, a decision that isn’t without its downside when you consider the 45-minute swelteringly hot bike ride into the city center. Located in a neighborhood originally created for the 1929 Ibero-American World’s Fair, Hotel Holos is serenely tucked away amidst tree-lined streets and single-family homes. A lemon tree grows in the front yard. When we hop on the bikes provided and pedal past the white stucco houses to head into town, we feel vindicated. Sometimes staying off the beaten path is its own reward.

Seville is hot. Like, really hot. Like high-noon-in-the-desert, middle-of-July hot. Opening a door to the outside world feels like opening a door to a pre-heating oven. The bike ride down Paseo de la Palmera takes us to the edge of town where we promptly lock up and seek out a much needed watering hole. On a scorching day, ice cold Cruzcampo is hard to beat. We down a caña—the colloquial way to order a small beer—while intermittent misters spritz us in a vain attempt to fight back the oppressive heat. 

The serpentine streets of old Seville provide their own rush of excitement, and a small restaurant, Sal Gorda, pokes its head out. Inside, there’s a restrained-yet-inventive take on tapas along with a decent selection of craft beers, many of them hailing from Spain—a rare focus on local. The strawberry gazpacho with crumbled pistachio washed down with a local IPA is thrilling, if only for the variance in the cuisine for an American. 

Seville visually announces its Moorish influence at every turn. The tile work and architecture immediately places you in Southern Spain, something that’s not apparent in its larger, more well-known sibling cities. It’s the fourth largest city in Spain, but feels small, quaint, and notably clean. It’s simultaneously big and small, laid back and energetic, modern and teeming with history. 

Toward the end of our stay we discover salmorejo at Eslava, a restaurant recommended to us by our innkeeper, a native Sevillian. Salmorejo is a traditional southern Spain cold soup that we enjoyed so much it’s become part of our recent dinner repertoire back home. It’s a simple dish, similar to a gazpacho, though considerably thicker. Pureed tomato is combined with bread, olive oil, and garlic until a thick, dip-like consistency is achieved, often topped off with chopped hard-boiled egg and serrano ham. This traditional dish is a must try. And in Seville, Eslava is the place to enjoy it.

We’re up before dawn as we depart Seville. The shaded exterior walls of the white stucco houses are awash in azure blue, the sun’s golden glow only just beginning to chase those cooler hues away. We’ve rented a car for the fairly short drive to Córdoba. Escaping the edges of Seville, the city gives way to open spaces and rolling hills. Forty five minutes into the drive along the A-5, just beyond Carmona, olive trees begin dotting the landscape. The heat begins creeping in again, reaching a crescendo as we pull into town.

The Guadalquivir is the second longest river in Spain and a prominent geographical feature of Córdoba. It’s our first stop as I want to lay eyes on the Roman Bridge. There’s no such thing as architecture dating back to the 1st century BC in the U.S., so we take some time to marvel.

Cervezas Califa is a surprising revelation in this relatively small Andalusian city. Although the taproom wouldn’t feel out of place in Brooklyn, its context is disorienting. We order a Califa IPA and Rubia, their Blonde Ale along with ham and a cheese plate. The IPA is a valiant attempt at an American style, nestled somewhere between bronze and gold in color with a grassy, floral aromas.

Over the years, a lot of ink has been spilled about the stock U.S. brewpub portfolio of the '90s. A Blonde, a Pale Ale, a Brown Ale or Lager. Seeing the force of American craft beer at work far from home, you see the kind of influence IPA has had on that very idea, updated for the 2000s. IPAs, particularly those aromatic, fruity hop bombs are a necessary part of legitimacy. 

Córdoba, and much of southern Spain for that matter, has an interesting mix of both Roman and Muslim influence. Nowhere is that more evident than the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. The structure has changed hands multiple times, wavering between Catholic and Muslim rule, and its design has followed accordingly. Inside, the blend of the two cultures is evident at every turn.

We end our quick stay in Córdoba with two glasses of wine—Torres Celeste Roble—poured in the lobby of our hotel, Hotel Viento 10. It’s an “honest bar,” so we simply scratch our names and room number into the guest book to claim our drinks. The wine, while unremarkable, feels appropriate. I can’t think of many better ways to wind down a Córdoban day than drifting off, head a little heavier from some red.

The next morning we’re on the road again, this time in earnest with a five-hour trip to Málaga. The drive takes us off the Spanish motorway and through small towns reachable only by two-lane roads. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but thank goodness for Google Maps’ offline capabilities. We are out here

We stop briefly in Ronda, snatching some figs from a roadside tree for a snack break. The A-397 traverses a mountainous region just southwest of Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves. The switchbacks are abundant, the views spectacular. 

Málaga greets us with abundant sunshine and, thankfully, milder temperatures. It’s a coastal city, a vacation town where nodding off on the beach under a striped umbrella is encouraged. Palm trees that trace the street sway in unison with the sailboat masts in the harbor. We take the opportunity to soak it in as we dry out.

A last-minute change to our route takes us inland and we find ourselves passing north of Sierra Nevada. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly, those steep, green mountainous roads give way to a flat, arid landscape. Reminiscent of the American Southwest, it’s nevertheless a harsh environment, long on rugged beauty. We pass places like Baza, Chirivel, and Vélez-Rubio, the prominent cathedral steeples of each town visible from the road.

Alicante is but a means to an end, a stopping off point on the way to Barcelona.

Barcelona is like Madrid’s younger, more adventurous sibling. It’s one part progressive city, one part coastal retreat. It’s a city where you can spend the daylight hours lazing on the beach and the evenings eating and drinking into the wee hours of the morning.

Ferran Adrià is a chef best known for elBulli, which was awarded the top spot a record five times from Restaurant Magazine’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Since its closing in 2011, he’s teamed with his brother Albert to open a number of small restaurants within Barcelona.

We secured reservations at Bodega 1900, and while the food was amazing (finally getting to try Adrià’s famous liquified olives was a bucket list check long in the making), it was the vermouth pairing that really got my attention. Barcelona is experiencing a vermouth renaissance, as it turns out. Many establishments create their own house version, vermut de la casa, and fiercely protect the secret blend of herbs and botanicals that give each iteration its signature taste. Colibrí in El Raval, in particular, is worth a stop. Pull up a stool outside, have a house vermouth brought to the pass-through window, and watch as the rest of Barcelona strides by.

Unlike other parts of Spain, Barcelona has a fairly robust craft beer scene. With local brewers like Garage Beer Co. (who have collaborated with Other Half Brewing) cropping up, as well as the expansion of Mikkeller into the Catalonian city, beer thrives here. We visit both, enjoying a sampling of brews at each while also making time to pop by Biercab, a local spot with 30 taps and a bottle list containing a respectable amount of Lambic. I hadn’t planned to enjoy a bottle of Drie Fonteinen Armand & Gaston while on this trip, but I didn’t exactly plan not to, so here we are.

San Sebastián greets us with sun and sand.I can't imagine a more ideal beach town. People in bathing suits wade knee-deep into the beautiful waters of the Concha Bay while luxury hotels reflect in its waters. San Sebastián and its beaches are postcard-perfect in a preposterous way. Our time here is brief and we have a specific goal: three hours, three pintxo bars.

Pintxo, these small snacks served at bars, are woven into the social fabric of the Basque Country. Similar to tapas, they’re usually served skewered to a piece of bread with a toothpick as a point of differentiation. 

Atari Gastroteka is first up, and a high point of the three. Within moments, a slab of flat bread with cubed soft cheese resting on a bed of a basil-heavy sauce topped by mustard seed hits the table. It disappears all too quickly. A few more bites, a quick downing of the txakoli, and we’re on to the next two. Tightly knit streets and densely concentrated food spots makes our goal seem more like a high school kid dunking on a six-foot hoop. 

When the Guggenheim opened its doors in 1997, Bilbao got a tourism boost. It’s an impressive site, nestled along an estuary that carves its way through the center of the city. While visiting Guggenheim is essential, winding down the trip is a priority for us at this point, and there’s no better way to do that than holed up at a local bar, watching daily city life float by. 

After only a few spotty successes on the beer side, Singular Bar offers a surprising list of international craft hits that include Mikkeller and The Kernel. I saddle up with a Citra Zeus IPA from the latter and look on as adults share cocktails and laughs with friends, their children giggling with one another.

Rain moves in the next day, and the torrential downpour ushers in 20-degree cooler temperatures. It’s glorious. We wander around the rain-soaked city streets and stop in at a beer shop. This area’s known as “Seven Streets,” the original seven streets that formed Bilbao. It’s also where you’ll find La Catedral de la Cerveza, a small store dedicated to craft beer. In places like this, unless I’m looking for local gems to bring back, I tend to scan the shelves out of curiosity more than a desire to load up my bags.

While the trip was spotty with local craft, it was full of a great diversity of foods and beverages that make Spain so special. And honestly, it was a nice break from the near-assault of craft beer on the contemporary American drinker's cognitive load.  

The wall of stickers catches my eye on the way out: Orval, BrewDog, Short’s, Rochefort, The Bruery—all loudly announcing the long-reaching arms of beer that stretch their way into places like Bilbao. I hope craft continues to find it’s place here, but I’ll be fine if it simply learns its place, too.