Yes, there are things to drink in Asturias other than cider! I came to Spain both craft beer obsessed and spoiled for choice. In the US, every state has at least a dozen breweries. What’s more, a quarter of states each have more than 100! My home state of North Carolina had more than 300 breweries when I left (with a population of 10 million).
From an American perspective, the craft beer scene here can look rather sparse. But thinking that would be doing a real disservice to a young, dynamic, and rapidly growing scene.
A Little History
Craft brewing is a relatively new, and still very niche, thing in Spain in general, and Asturias specifically. Spain in 2020 with regards to craft beer is analogous to the late 1990s in the United States. In 1990, a US state getting its first craft brewery was news. By 1996, there were just over 1000 breweries in the entire US. That is roughly where I would put the craft beer scene in Spain today. There is a craft-focused bar or brewpub within an hour’s drive of pretty much anywhere in the country.
While the first craft brewery opened in Spain in 19891Naturbier in Madrid. Now out of business., the early decades were ones of stagnation, not growth. Catalonia, now the center of the craft beer scene in Spain, did not have a single craft brewery until almost a decade after Madrid.2Barcelona Brewing Company – started by Steve Huxley
Asturias joined the craft movement officially in 2007 with the founding of Cervezas La Xana del Molín del Nora. Not long after that, breweries were found in Gijón, Oviedo, Langreo, and Avilés. Now, less than 15 years later, Asturias has more than two dozen operating craft breweries, and multiple excellent annual beer festivals.
Current State of the Craft (Beer)
I feel like everything in my life is divided now into pre-Covid and Covid. So let’s talk about where brewing was in Asturias in the couple of years before Covid, and what changes Covid has wrought on the industry.
In the years just before the pandemic, it was obvious that craft beer was growing by leaps and bounds in Asturias. For a scene barely more than a decade old, it was amazing to see how many small breweries were around, how many people went to beer festivals, and in general how much fun people were having. Of course, it was still not easy to find more than one or two craft beers in a grocery store, and small corner stores and “local product” stores were still reluctant to carry or simply unaware of local and regional beers.
And then: global pandemic. Standstill. Cancelled festivals. Closed bars. A real do-or-die moment for a lot of businesses, a lot of industries. Some places closed for good. Others have changed hands. Still others have adapted as best they can. Mail-order beer from brewery websites went from being essentially unknown to essential, in a year. More effort was made to get retail distribution. The public learned to enjoy beer at home, and started spending more money on beer.
Covid is, for the craft beer industry at least, a hothouse environment. Traditional distribution channels dependent on a network of bars whose catchment areas are measured in single digits of meters are failing. Retailers who could rely on being the only option in an area are both restricted in opening times and facing competition from mail-order both from breweries and large warehouse shippers who can send out sample packs.
The churn, as Amos on The Expanse put it, is real. “When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new.” The rules of the game are changing. Personally, I see this as a positive thing, though many might disagree with me.
A Possible Future
It might sound strange to speak of an encouraging situation anywhere in the hospitality sector in Spain these days. However, I believe there is a lot of reason to be positive about how the craft beer scene in Asturias will look after Covid-19 is under control.
To be completely clear, I do not think that the current situation is good or will result in good mid- or long-term outcomes for many, or even most, retailers of beer. I also do not see it being anything positive for bars, even craft beer bars, that are operating with old assumptions about captive audiences and the bar as the only place to get beer.
That said, there is going to be an enormous opportunity to develop the kind of multi-channel strategy you find in the US craft beer sector. It is not hard to imagine a near future in which crafts are easy to find in grocery and corner stores. A future where most bars have a craft beer or two available on tap, and a couple more in bottles.
There is no question that mail order and offsite sales will remain post-Covid. They will certainly grow and expand. People will be slow to return to crowded elbow-to-elbow drink-slinging bars. They will seek out the larger, more laid-back beer garden types of places. They will expect more service, and more knowledge from the specialist bar. And they will expect more variety from the corner bar, the “zero kilometer” places will have to become broader, more inclusive.
It will be a good time for the drinker of craft beer, and once the churn has settled down, it will be a much stronger, more mature industry. One less reliant on the ways of old and more willing to embrace new modes of buying, selling, and drinking beer.
- 1Naturbier in Madrid. Now out of business.
- 2Barcelona Brewing Company – started by Steve Huxley