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EXPLAINED: Spain’s beer culture and the emergence of craft brewers

If you walk into any bar in Spain and order a 'caña', you'll likely get a small light lager. But in recent years, a burgeoning craft beer scene has emerged. Here's what you need to know about the current state of affairs of 'cerveza' and some craft beer recommendations.

EXPLAINED: Spain's beer culture and the emergence of craft brewers
Photo: Pixabay.

The view from abroad

When many people think of Spain, they have romanticised notions of drinking wine or sangría on a terraza in the sun somewhere.

Beer drinking countries, the stereotype goes, are the colder countries in Northern Europe. And there’s some truth to that – some of the biggest drinkers in Europe are the Czechs, Germans, Britons, and Irish. 

Do the Spanish like their wine? Of course. In fact, the average Spaniard drank 23.9 litres of wine in 2020, and Spain is also a massive producer of wine, boasting 969,000 hectares of vineyards – more than in both France and Italy and around 13 percent of all vineyards around the world.

But if you’ve lived or spent any time in Spain, you’ll know that Spaniards also love beer and that it’s actually far more common to see someone drinking a caña (a small glass of beer) in a bar than it is a glass of tinto.

Spanish beer culture

For as much as they love beer however, Spanish beer culture is a little more basic than in other countries.

More often than not, a Spanish person will ask for a caña without specifying what type of beer they want or what brand, something unthinkable in Northern Europe. 

That’s because for many Spaniards, beer is beer. And they love it – drinking between 40-50 litres of beer per head per year – but the Spanish beer market is mostly dominated by three major brewers: Heineken España, who produce Cruzcampo, San Miguel-Mahou, and Damm, who make Estrella Damm.

The most popular beers across Spain’s regions in 2021, with Estrella Galicia coming top of the podium. Map:

Sometimes, bars will only have one or two beers on tap (sometimes just one main tap and another of the same brand but alcohol-free, something popular in Spain) from the main commercial brewers and these are almost always lighter lagers. 

Regional differences

Beers also tend be quite regional in Spain.

If you’re drinking in Seville, for example, you’ll find almost every bar serves Cruzcampo.

In Madrid, there’ll be more Mahou Cinco Estrellas. In Valencia, it could be Turia or Aguila. Up in Galicia, most people drink Estrella. But as the map below reflects, there are other beers produced across the country, from Dorada and Tropical in the Canary Islands to Ambar in Zaragoza.

Spain’s main beers and the regions where they are brewed. Map: El Orden Mundial (CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 ES)

As we mentioned previously, Spaniards generally don’t drink pints like the Northern Europeans but rather smaller measures known as cañas, which in some parts of Spain are called zurito, corto or even penalti. They can vary in size depending on the region but usually they’re just 20cl.

If you want a big beer, you can order a jarra (jug), which can be even bigger than a pint. In Madrid, if you order a doble (double) you’ll get a beer that’s around 40cl. In the Basque Country, they call these bigger beers cañon.

Most bars generally have some form of 33cl bottled beer as well, often called un tercio, so you can always ask what cervezas de botella they have.

READ ALSO: ¡Salud! The different ways to say cheers in Spanish 

The rise of craft beers

The craft beer scene, long established in Northern Europe and the United States, is starting to take off in Spain.

In recent years, craft or artisan beers (cervezas artesanales) have grown in popularity in Spain and it’s more common than ever to find bars and restaurants that stock them.

According to the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition, in 2008 there were just 21 microbreweries in Spain. By the end of 2015, that number was 361, a huge increase of about 1,600 percent. In 2022 there are 420.

Catalonia is the region with the most craft breweries, followed by Andalusia and Castilla y León. It’s also possible to go on some guided tours of them and some craft beer tasting (Google visita guiada cerveza artesanal and your city or region to find ones close to you).

Data from the Artisan and Independent Beer Report revealed a 79.58 percent growth in Spanish craft beer production from 2015 to 2019, from 12.4 million litres to 22.4 million. 

Although craft beer is on the rise in Spain, only one in every 200 beers produced in Spain is currently artesanal.

Despite that, independent brewers are having their beers stocked and served in more supermarkets and restaurants than ever before in Spain, and the country’s big brewers are producing a wider variety of stout, IPAs and toasted beers to compete with them.

That means that if you don’t want una rubia (a blonde beer), you’ll probably be able to order another kind of cerveza in most bars and restaurants in Spain.

Six of the best Spanish craft beers to try

La Socarrada

This craft beer from Játiva (Valencia) stays true to Valencian culture and takes its name from the paella socarrat – the delicious crispy layer of rice at the bottom of paella. As you might expect, this beer has a toasted flavour, and rosemary and Mediterranean honey are added during preparation.

Don’t just take our word for it: La Socarrada has been internationally endorsed at the International Taste & Quality Institute in Belgium, the Dublin Craft Beer Cup, and the Commonwealth Cup in the United States. It’s also one of the few Spanish craft beers sold internationally.


Cervezas Arriaca started production as an artisan brewer in Yunquera de Henares (Guadalajara) in 2014, and success quickly followed. Arriaca beers have 30 national and international recognitions and awards, firmly establishing itself as one of the leading craft beer brands in Spain, producing varieties of blonde, Wheat, Rye, Radler, Session IPA, IPA, Imperial Red IPA, Imperial Russian Stout and Porter. It’s no wonder the brewers at Arriaca are some of the founding members of AECAI (Spanish Association of Independent Artisan Brewers).

Chula Sin

As you’ve probably noticed, alcohol-free beers (known as cervezas sin alcohol, or simply ‘una sin‘) are incredibly popular in Spain. Given their prevalence in Spain, it’s no surprise that the hipster breweries have also had a go at producing alcohol-free beers. A particularly good one is Chula Sin, the first non-alcoholic craft beer in Spain, made with a blend of the best malt and hops in Spain and balanced with American Hops for a taste so good you wouldn’t know it’s alcohol-free.

The Madrid brewers also have a delicious wheat beer called Cheli and a very strong ale called Ziva 2.0.

Unika Beers

This Catalan-based brewer is something for the foodies among us. Unika Beers are a little different, even by craft beer standards, and aim to produce beers with a gastronomic twist that accompany food. Their beers are featured on the menus of over 200 restaurants and cocktail bars, Unika beers are made from 100 percent natural ingredients – they even brew a gluten-free beer suitable for celiacs.

Basqueland Brewing

Basqueland Brewing produce award-winning beer on the outskirts of San Sebastián by the Bay of Biscay. Born in 2015, the Basque brewers are some of the most productive in Spain, creating around 80 new beers a year, and won the Brewer of the Year award in 2021 at the Barcelona Beer Challenge. 

Cerveza La Virgen

This Madrid-based brewer began in 2012 and by 2019 had established itself as a leader in the Spanish craft beer scene. La Virgen was named the Best Lager in Spain by the World Beer Awards for 4 consecutive years in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. 

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How an ancient way of harvesting salt has been revived in Spain

In the salt marshes of Cádiz in southwestern Spain, Juan Carlos Sánchez de Lamadrid surveyed a grid of rectangular pools of milky water, part of a time-honoured tradition to harvest salt from the sea.

How an ancient way of harvesting salt has been revived in Spain

Civilisations as old as the Phoenicians who ruled the Mediterranean from around 1,200 BC have taken advantage of the constant and strong winds that blow from North Africa, facilitating the evaporation of seawater to produce salt in the region.

“This is the perfect place for salt marshes. It’s windy, there is lots of sunshine… you have everything you need,” said De Lamadrid, wearing a straw hat to protect himself from the blazing sun.

The 56-year-old, originally from Seville, was part of a small but dynamic group of artisans trying to keep the tradition of sea salt harvesting alive.

The sector flourished in this sunny region for centuries, with salt from Cádiz exported to the Americas, until the invention of refrigeration drastically reduced the need for salt to conserve foods.

Of the 160 sea salt producers that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, only four are still operating.

After a long career as a photographer and drawn by the beauty of the salt marsh landscapes, De Lamadrid set up shop in the region in 2020, becoming a sea salt harvester alongside his wife and two employees.

“We had to learn everything, we were starting from zero,” he explained, saying he learnt the techniques from one of the few veteran harvesters who are still active.

He also spent time in Portugal and France “to discover other techniques”.

Last year they produced 30 tonnes of virgin sea salt and three tonnes of fleur de sel — or “flower of salt” — large salt crystals used to garnish and season everything from fish, meat and vegetables to desserts and baked goods.

Macu Gomez puts salt to dry at the “Dama Blanca” salt flats in El Puerto de Santa María. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Harvest everything by hand’

To harvest the salt, sea water from the Atlantic is flushed into a network of reservoirs built in the salt marshes, then allowed to evaporate.

When the salt in the water reaches the right concentration, it forms white crystals which workers then rake into small white heaps.

“We harvest everything by hand in the traditional way,” said De Lamadrid.

When salt demand fell with the advent of refrigeration, Cádiz “didn’t know how to adapt” unlike places like Guerande in northwestern France which started selling fleur de sal and other products, said Juan Martín, head of Salarte which works to revive the sea salt industry.

Since it was founded in 2012, Salarte has refurbished 250 hectares of salt flats using private financing.

“Some salt marshes were in a really poor state,” said Martin, a marine biologist who believes places like the Bay of Cádiz are not valued enough for their ecological importance.

“It’s a shame because the marshes are real treasures” not only as a “source of economic activity” but also for their “extraordinary biodiversity,” he said, using binoculars to watch migrating birds feeding at a recently-restored salt flat.

A dish cooked by salt process at the Aponiente restaurant, in El Puerto de Santa María. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

‘Nothing like industrial salt’

The revival of the salt industry is one of a string of initiatives over the past decade, from ecotourism to the cultivation of oysters, samphire and locally-produced cosmetics, to breathe new life into the salt marshes which are part of a 10,500-hectare natural park.

The marshes — home to sea beam, shrimp, and clams — are “an extraordinary pantry,” said chef Angel León whose restaurant Aponiente, which is located in a 19th-century tide mill and holds three Michelin stars, serves up dishes based on such ingredients — and uses the local sea salt.

“Salt is something we use every day but which we don’t fully appreciate,” said the 46-year-old.

Artisanal sea salt has a texture and taste which is “nothing like” industrial salt, he said.

“The problem is that we don’t pay it enough attention,” he mused, saying he hoped Cádiz sea salt will soon find its way into top restaurants around the world.