This summer, I visited Madrid. I wasn’t aware of Mahou as a brand, back then. For me, Spanish beer hadn’t really played a big role.
My preconceptions of what a large brewery would really offer in terms of progressiveness and excitement were heightened to beyond cynical. Eight years prior, I had visited a big Spanish beer company and the experience had reinforced the notion that I wouldn’t gain very much. I almost turned down the trip as a result. ‘Did I need to go and visit a huge expansive brewery?’ I pondered. As it turns out, I really did.
What I discovered in Madrid was nothing short of amazing. And Mahou certainly played a part in the adventure, but I’ll explain more.
The beer scene in Madrid is wonderful in ways that Great Britain has overlooked in its own development and presentation. Going out for beer, or a few cañas means that beer can be enjoyed throughout the evening and, as such, nobody feels like they need to commit to vast quantities of drink. When served alongside small plates of tapas, those welcome beers I received in the lobby had relaxation written all over them. Ask any parched weary traveller what style of beer they would like to drink upon arriving at their destination or a long hard slog of a day and you can bet it’s a cool crisp lager. That simple hit of refreshment effectively mending and simultaneously comforting a multitude of stresses and strains.
While England lost in the football, let it be known that Mahou fixed me. That tasty cerveza smoothed away my tensions. Poor England, I thought. But, oh look, octopus on truffled mash is on the tapas menu. I washed it all down with two glasses of blissful beer.
Then, I took to the streets in search of how Madrid ‘did’ beer. And I learned how artfully the craft scene in Madrid presented beer. With pots of different malted barley grains on the bar top, people are very much reminded of beer’s ingredients. Glassware in all sizes was available in the customers’ eye-line. On the wall, a projector shone a list of the beers available and, despite not being able to read Spanish, beneath each beer name you could read the names of the hops used in each brew. The universal language of beer. It was ingenious and I knew exactly what I wanted.
The next day, during the brewery tour, I prepared myself to embark on what was going to be quite a trek. The place was vast, but the friendliness genuine. I witnessed smiles and backslaps among colleagues from all different levels of the company to one another. I was struck by the complete lack of elitism on display.
“We are a team,” said one of the head brewers Ingrid Vico. “This isn’t just about one person being more important than any of the others. We all work together,” she added, laughing and smiling with her colleague David Ribelles.
“Mahou and San Miguel were two different companies. They joined in 2000 and before then, Mahou didn’t have a research department,” said Vico, adding: “It was about five years ago when we had a plan to build our microbrewery and now all of Mahou’s craft beers are brewed in our micro. Before then, we had to rent a place.”
“I think we are possibly the first in the world to be barrel-ageing lager. I am very proud of it. It started in our research department and in the beginning it started as a joke, and I said let’s introduce it into a barrel and see what happens,” she added.
“I just believed we could make it,” said Vico, explaining that “at the beginning, we started with just two barrels we had bought from a nearby winery. We were going there weekly, just to control the barrel and to taste it and take samples to analyse. Thing is, we were quite surprised to find that it was not just drinkable, but really very good.”
“Around that time, we started to study and introduce new liquids into wood that had had different liquors inside. We started to do some trials,” she recalled.
Mahou’s first barrel-aged beer was a limited edition of just 1,000 bottles. “We didn’t have any machines to do the crown corks, so we did everything manually with 10 people starting at 8am and finishing at 5am the following day and working non-stop. Everything was completely manual. I have good memories of that time. It was the beginning of something,” Vico explained.
“We have three barrel-aged beers available now – Barrica Original, Barrica Bourbon Barrel and Barrica Especial 12 meses. For each one, we are using different kinds of wood. For Barrica Bourbon we are using bourbon barrels that had bourbon in before and made in American oak. For Barrica Original, we use brand new American oak barrels and for Barrica Especial 12 Meses we use new French oak barrels and the beer must stay inside for 12 months,” said Vico. Nothing is left to chance.
“Now, we have our warehouse which houses 3,000 barrels,” says Ribelles. “We are still studying more now and using different kinds of woods as well as different kinds of oak. Depending on the origin of the oak, even if it is the same type of tree, where it is grown makes the beer taste different. So we are starting to age different beers in barrels with different woods for different styles.”
Vico revealed that visiting Founders in the States meant the team could take home some of the key learnings and, in many ways, they were learning from masters. “We are partners with Founders, the American brewery, and they have lots of experience in barrel ageing,” said Vico, noting how “at Founders they have a beer cave – which was a mine and it is completely full of barrels. They are sharing their vast knowledge with us and that’s great.”
“We are always trying to experiment. Some things are good and go to market, some things I can’t deny are a disaster and don’t work, but we keep trying. Slowly is the only way to discover new things. If you try new things, you have to assume that sometimes you can be wrong. But our company is really keen on innovation. In fact, they want us to innovate all the time. They are very supportive and approve of everything we are doing within the microbrewery,” said Vico.
Research and development is growing for Mahou. That much is evident. “It isn’t common in the lager industry,” Vico admits, but shrugs: “I guess the beer world is changing and you have to keep moving or else you are dead.”
Another way Mahou prevents itself from standing still is via its self-sufficiency. “We haven’t been affected by the shortage in C02 because we keep our C02 from fermentation and then we reintroduce it to the beer,” said Vico hinting that the company aims for complete sustainability and adding: “We don’t buy any C02 in, we just use our own.”
After the tour, we paired beers with different courses and tasted Mahou Maestro and a raft of barrel aged offerings from Founders from the US.
“We are always learning,” said Vico, adding: “and they are good teachers.”
The following day, we visited the Mahou brewpub for one of the best Vienna lagers I had ever tried. We followed this with a meal paired by student chefs – all looking for their chance to show they could create the ultimate tapas for each of the beers. It was enlightening to see the brewer’s investment into the future of Spanish cuisine. Later, at StreetXO, the range was paired perfectly with exquisite Asian fusion tapas, where flavour-play was not just present, but dazzling. All of it makes me want to go back, immediately. And experience it all again.
Mahou’s beers are available in the UK and, if you head to King’s Cross, you can find Mahou on tap at Camino (3 Varnishers Yard, The Regent Quarter, London, N1 9FD). But my tip is to seek out any new barrel-aged beers they put out in limited editions – this is where they are making their most flavoursome strides into the future. Yet, still, don’t underestimate the healing properties of a well-timed cool Mahou five star original – especially after a long day.