Madrid: City of cañas, cask-aged lagers and culinary adventures

exterior breweryHow could I have forgotten about the caña?

The first time I visited Spain, way back in 2004 (on my honeymoon), my wife and I would always make an early-evening beeline to the bars serving tapas along with the house selection of beers, wines and spirits. The evening typically would begin with una cerveza, frequently costing little more than a euro or two. But the bars really weren’t losing money on the pours, as they were served in these small, 20-cl (roughly 6.7-ounce) glasses, which, I later learned, were called cañas (they hold a volume similar to that of the Kölsch stange glass, just a different shape). If you saw anything even remotely like those in U.S. bars and restaurants, they’d be filled with orange juice. And that’s a real shame because it truly is the perfect-size glass, especially for happy hours and bar crawls. (As anyone who’s had a beer with me will tell you, I’m notorious for leaving unfinished pints).

brewhouseI returned to Madrid a few weeks ago, courtesy of Mahou San Miguel Group—I was among a small group of beer writers on a brewery-sponsored press trip—and immediately reacquainted myself with my long-lost cañas. And I must admit that not only had I not remembered the joy the diminutive vessels, but I (regrettably) took them for granted as well. For there’s a technique to the perfect caña pour that’s far trickier to master than it is for any full-size, style-specific glass.

The Mahou team gave us a crash course in caña pouring at the brewery’s new Madrid brewpub Espacio Cervecero Mahou. (more on that in a bit).

The perfect caña pour

Filling a glass of its size leaves very little room for error. The bartender’s reflexes must be considerably faster than they are when pouring a pint. The procedure when a little something like this:

  • Open the tap and let the foam trapped in the spigot pour into the drain for about two seconds.
  • Position the glass at about a 35-degree angle under the beer stream. Be sure to keep one hand on the tap handle because you’re going to have to shut it off fairly quickly.
  • When the glass is about half full, gradually tilt it up until it is upright.
  • Turn the tap off for a moment—you’re not done yet. Tilt the glass ever so slightly so a bit of the foam spills out. Turn the tap handle in the opposite direction (away from you, to let a bit of foam top off the glass, as you pour some of the existing head out. This turns the head from merely foamy to creamy. Once you’ve achieved desired creaminess—the head will be about an inch to an inch and a half—turn off the tap.
  • The caña is ready to serve.

The resulting glass of lager—in this case, the brewery’s flagship, Mahou Cinco

The four-ringed lacing on a perfectly poured caña

Estrellas (“Five Stars”)—was a far cry from the flat, damaged pours you get in a shaker pint glass in most bars. The flavor was bright, the mouthfeel was silky and, best of all, I only had to drink 6.7 ounces of it! (Even after you finish the beer, the tell-tale signs of an ideal pour remains: Four rings of foam lacing linger on the glass).

But it’s not necessarily Cinco Estrellas that beer drinkers will be dropping by the brewpub to sample. The 250-liter brewhouse, smack in the middle of the pub’s front bar room, is an ever-present reminder that there’s constant experimentation happening behind the confines of the main Mahou production brewery. So far, the house brews have stuck fairly close to tried-and-true craft

Mahou’s craft-centric brewpub

styles—I had a wit, a pale, an IPA and an oatmeal stout during my visit—and it’ll be interesting to see how far afield the brewers are planning to venture with future creations.

Playing in the craft space has become a more prominent objective on Mahou’s agenda, especially if a pair of recent U.S.-based transactions are any indication. In late 2014, Mahou San Miguel announced that it had acquired a 30 percent stake in Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co. (I spied more than a few Founders signs hanging outside Madrid pubs. I wouldn’t go as far as saying Founders is now a household name in the Spanish capital, but it’s probably as familiar to locals as it is to most craft beer drinkers in the States).

Three years later the company made a similar investment in Boulder, Colorado’s Avery Brewing Co. Avery’s presence isn’t nearly as quasi-ubiquitous, but I’d be interested in returning in a couple of years to see if that’s changed.

Mahou San Miguel’s craft-related investments haven’t been limited to operations in the United States. The company kept things close to home in 2016 when it purchased a 40 percent stake in Barcelona’s Nomada Brewing, whose eclectic line includes Papaya Double Rye IPA, Revontulet Raspberry Sour Ale, Imperial Coco Stout and Passiflora Berliner Weisse.

barricadoorBut Mahou has a few crafty things happening at its headquarters brewery. At any given time there are about 1,300 casks of lager—yes, lager—aging in its barrel room, all destined to become part of its Barrica (“barrel” or “cask”) line. I got to be a bit of a food-pairing guinea pig with the Barrica brews during at dinner at StreetXO, Triple-Michelin-Starred chef David Muñoz’s Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant. I’m not going to list everything on the 10-course tasting menu, but some of the standouts were the smoked baby scallop with échiré butter, homemade kimchi, coconut cream and Muñoz’s “XO sauce; the Korean won-ton lasagna with Galician beef and shiitake mushrooms, spicy pickled tomatoes and goat-cardamom béchamel; and the “Hong Kong-Madrid” stew, black garlic, taro root and pickled chillis (and that’s just three of them!)

menuThe menu called for one of the three Barrica brews—Barrica Original, Barrica Bourbon and Barrica 12 Meses (12 months)—to be paired with specific dishes, but after a bit of mixing and matching, I came to some of my own culinary conclusions.

pairingGenerally speaking, 12 Meses, in my opinion (for what it’s worth) was the most flexible and harmonized with and complemented the widest range of flavors. It really benefited from the year in the barrel, giving it a little extra oak and caramel that held up well against some occasionally strong flavors. Original was a close second in that regard and was a real trouper with fattier, greasier dishes. Its robust carbonation helped reset the palate. The bourbon-y notes in Barrica Bourbon were often a bit too noisy to play well with others, but it did hit a gustatory bullseye with the Korean lasagna.

But if I’m being honest, the most versatile pairing companion of the bunch—to my own surprise—was Mahou Cinco Estrellas. Maybe it’s because the meal tilted toward the spicier end of the flavor spectrum—a well-made German-style pils is always my go-to beverage with spicy fare.

Or maybe I was just under the spell of a perfectly poured caña—which remains the best way to experience Madrid through a glass.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s