In 1998 I received a small advance to help write a book on tree houses. I took the money and promptly left Seattle for Madrid, to study Spanish. My book partner, Pete Nelson, was alarmed. We had work to do. Don’t worry, I told him, we’ll get the book done. I’ll be back in less than three months. I have to go, I said.
I didn’t really have to go, but it nearly felt that way. The feeling I had was something akin to a sense of destiny, of fulfilling some plan according to criteria laid out by larger forces. Soon after settling in to my apartment in Madrid I understood why: Spanish beer sucked, and I was meant to save it.
In the late 1990’s there were just a handful of beers on the Spanish market, and they all tasted like Red, White and Blue. If it was hot, and the beer cold, it was pleasant to drink. But I’d just left the micro-brew capital of the world, Seattle. In any given bar you could choose from dozens of ales and lagers, each with its own flavor. Berry, hops, a pinch of cinnamon, whatever. People I knew were regularly brewing at home with little kits. Inventing beers out of thin air. And they tasted great.
I rushed back from Madrid with a new Castilian accent and grand plans to make my fortune. I was going to scare up investors – they were everywhere still in Seattle, as the dot.com revolution was in full swing – and return to the prettiest city I’d seen in Spain, Granada. There, I would open the country’s first micro-brewery and revolutionize Iberian tippling. I started to look up the Spanish words for boysenberry and buckwheat.
Then my dream came crashing down. I was at a party in Seattle, rattling on to my Spanish friends about my idea, when Merce, a biomedical researcher originally from Madrid, interrupted me.
“Gerrito,” she said, waving a finger at me. “It’s not going to work.”
“What?” I said. “Why not?”
“Because people in Spain won’t get it,” she said. “They want the same beer they’ve been drinking all their lives. As long as it’s cold, they’re happy. You put an Elysian Dragonstooth Stout or an Avatar Jasmine IPA on the bar and it’s going to get warm fast. No one will drink it.” My other Spanish friends nodded in agreement.
Suddenly, the idea of trying to convince people with money to give me some became daunting. Merce was probably right. Maybe micro-brews was an Anglo-American thing. I shelved my idea. But not on a back shelf. I put it at eye-level and never really lost sight of it.
When I moved back to Spain in 2004 I saw immediately that Merce was still right. People were drinking the same old same old, and were perfectly happy. I’d given up the dream, but at least I didn’t have to live one of those horrible “shoulda, coulda, woulda” moments.
But actually I do. Because now, in 2011, 13 years after my stroke of business brilliance, micro-brews are suddenly everywhere, sprouting up faster than barley in La Mancha. In Madrid and Barcelona local restaurants have finally gotten it. And so have Spaniards. Today there’s an article about it on the front page of El Pais online. The big beer labels must be worried. No doubt they’ll try to jump on the bandwagon.
Every once in a while I open an online newspaper from Granada too, just to see what’s going on down there. Now I’m afraid to. I’m afraid of the ad I might see on the paper’s home page. The one showing the cold, glistening bottle with a label that reads something like Alhambra Springs Pale Ale or Alpujarras Redberry Draft Lager. And it’ll remind me of the list of names I made for my own Spanish micro-brews.
In search of solace, I plan to start sampling the Spanish upstarts. If you can’t brew ‘em, you can at least drink ‘em.