The rhythm of Madrid takes a bit of getting used to. The city sleeps late and parties all night. Those bars that do open during the day tend to run a lunch shift until 4 and then close until 8. This meant that just around the time when the thirsty tourist is looking for his first beer of the day he's met with closed shutters. Thankfully El Corte Inglés came to the rescue and I filled the dead hours of the early evening with beers from its shelves, cooled in the hotel minibar fridge.
The first ones that attracted me were the dark lagers on offer, though they're a mixed bag to say the least. Alhambra Negra pours a promising deep brown colour but has very little by way of flavour -- just a carbonic sort of dryness -- and basically no body. I had higher hopes for Mexico's iconic Negra Modelo, in its stubby gold-top bottle, but unfortunately it's a bit rubbish too. A surprisingly light shade of ruby, it tastes a little of caramel and banana, but otherwise is close to typical pale lager in the flavourlessness stakes. Ambar Negra was much better: definitely black and with strong molasses notes on the nose. The flavour is appropriately sweet -- lots of treacle and brown sugar. It's a simple beer, but very drinkable. Best of the blacks, though, came from the ubiquitous house of Mahou. Mahou Negra is a lovely shade of dark red and smells oddly woody. The flavour puts dry ahead of sweetness, the caramel notes infused with smoke. There's a full body which makes it very satisfying to drink and almost akin to a stout.
When the bars did open, however, it was Mahou that was normally on tap: an unpleasantly dull and slightly cabbagey pale lager. The pub market seems largely shared between it and Cruzcampo, with very little of the Estrella Damm or San Miguel, so common in Barcelona, to be seen. I did pick up one bottle from the former brewery, though -- AK Damm was on sale in Corte Inglés and I liked the look of the fancy bottle. It's a smooth Munich-esque lager with soft candyfloss sweetness and a light sparkle. A definite cut above bog-standard Spanish fizz, but ultimately not very interesting. I entertained higher hopes for Ambar 1900, a self-described "pale ale". But it's just more fizz, really, with the vague sugariness and distant hops of a cheap lager.
Madrid has two brewpubs, and I tried to follow Boak's advice here to hit Magister first then settle in Naturbier after. But my timing was out, as usual, and only Naturbier was open. It's a large pub by Madrid standards, with the German-made copper brew kit down the back. The beer is unadventurous fare: Naturbier Rubia is a slightly hazy blonde with no nose but quite an interesting mild flavour of grapes and peaches, followed by a dry and grainy finish. I found it quaffable; Mrs Beer Nut deemed it musty and declared it undrinkable. The Tostada is a light red-brown colour, caramelly with a refreshing tannic character. There's definitely some nitro in the gas mix here, giving Irish-red-like attributes, though with much more toffee on the nose and a pronounced hop spice. Decent beers, this pair, if unexciting.
Across the square from Naturbier is Magister, and of course we visited when it finally opened. Boak had a nasty experience with the staff here, as did Gazza Prescott, so I was on full alert when we went in. They make much of their free tapas, but rather than the more fun approach of other bars where they just throw you a plate of whatever's handy, in Magister you order from a blackboard listing ten available freebies. Tapas for the picky eater: it just doesn't sit well with me.
Once again there's a Rubia -- clearer than Naturbier's offering though with a worrying vinegar aroma. None of that in the flavour, thankfully. It's smooth and full-bodied, a bit like a Märzen with a touch of juicy fruit sweetness. The Tostada is also quite hefty, with warming butterscotch notes and a dry finish. The third beer on the menu was Autor, a red-gold beer where the vinegar smell comes back and this time follows through to the taste. It's sharply bitter in a classy way, like a fine balsamic, but it's a failure as a beer.
There are of course plenty of quality drinking options in Madrid away from the beer. No trip is complete without a visit to La Venencia -- a living fossil of a bar with no taps, no brands, nothing except six types of sherry stored in casks, bottled in-house, cooled in a tub of water behind the counter and served at daftly low prices. There's also the cider, from Asturia, available in specialist cider bars dotted around town, with the best being Casa Mingo -- halfway between Principe Pio station and Goya's grave -- where it accompanies their magnificent cider-basted chicken. Cheers to Derek for the recommendation on that one.
And thankfully the Spanish don't limit their beer-drinking to native brews. Many of the bars show a connection to other, more beery, countries like Germany and Belgium. The latter has even inspired a locally-made abbey beer: Heineken's Legado de Yuste, named for the Spanish monastery where Emperor Charles V spent his retirement (this, if my history serves me, was after many years of squabbling with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Yuste is an attractive dark red hue and is packed with huge slabs of toffee flavours. It's rather one-dimensional though, offering nothing past that initial caramel sweetness. A bit sickly perhaps, but nice for the one, and rather better than a lot of what's served in the pubs of Madrid.
More on the genuine stuff in the next post.