Pinxtos and pre-history: a ‘restless’ trip with San Miguel

Swapping the grey skies of a London winter for two days of Spanish sunshine would have been an offer too good to pass up even without the added attraction of visits to San Sebastian, the Atapuerca archaeological site, and Michelin starred restaurant Cobo Vintage. So when San Miguel invited me to join a trip as part of their ‘cerveceros inquietos’ – best translated as ‘restless brewers’ –  campaign, I barely hesitated before jumping on a flight to Bilbao.

Day One started with a drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian and The Basque Culinary Centre. This institute has been such a success since it was founded in 2011 that I wondered why we don’t have one in the UK.  As the name suggests, it is dedicated to promoting gastronomy, through education, research and innovation. Some of the initiatives we saw, and tasted, included their work on meat substitutes – chorizo made from pumpkin and an alternative to chicken, complete with crispy ‘skin’.  

Pre-lunch beer and food matching at the Basque Culinary Centre

Lunch in the Centre’s newly opened ‘Co-Creation Space’, co-sponsored by San Miguel,  followed this theme, with a menu that showcased the institute’s innovation with vegetables, as part of its mission to create a more sustainable gastronomic culture.  The roasted beetroot with kimchi and hazelnut and chive oil was the standout dish, paired beautifully with San Miguel 1516.  Unsurprisingly this beer and food match is one of the most popular in the Centre’s restaurant.

1516 was the first San Miguel beer not available in the UK that we tasted on our trip.  At lunch we also enjoyed San Miguel Fresca, paired with a dish of hake cooked in a green sauce – a Basque tradition.  Fresca’s crisp, fresh taste proved the perfect partner.

After enjoying panoramic views across San Sebastian from the top floor of the Culinary Centre, we explored the city on foot with an expert guide. It’s a fascinating city with a rich history – much influenced by its proximity to the French border and a strong cultural heritage – it hosts an annual international film festival, jazz festival and was a European Capital of Culture in 2016. It’s also widely regarded as Spain’s gastronomic capital, boasting one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre in the world.

Back in Bilbao, we were taken for dinner in a local bar for some delicious tapas – or, as the Basques call them, pinxtos. Each exquisite plate was matched with a San Miguel beer. Stand out pairings included red mullet, asparagus and squid ink teamed with Magna, the newest addition to the brewer’s portfolio, launched in April last year, and pork with cauliflower puree matched with Selecta.

Our hosts from San Miguel took us through the brewery’s history, from its start in 1890 in the Philippines, through its global expansion, split in 1953, when the Spanish San Miguel Brewery became independent of the Philippine parent and finally, the acquisition by Mahou to create Mahou San Miguel, Spain’s largest brewer. The Philippine roots evidently influenced the naming of its Manila India Pale Lager, a wonderful 5.8% ABV beer that I’d love to see in the UK.

Day 2 started with an uplifting view of Jeff Koons ‘Puppy’ outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, just yards from our hotel.  More than 1.2 million people visited the Guggenheim last year, making it one of Spain’s top cultural destinations.

Two hours drive south of Bilbao brought us to the city of Burgos, home to one of three San Miguel breweries in Spain – the others are in Malaga and Lleida, Catalonia.  Burgos is the centre for San Miguel’s R&D, and Magna, 1516 and 0.0% were all created here. It is also the only brewery where Selecta, Radler and gluten free are brewed. The scale of production here is impressive, and so are the site’s sustainability credentials.

To round off our tour, we were treated to a beer and food matching session from some of the brewery team.  For me, the standout pairing was a Burgos speciality of black pudding and egg with Selecta – its strength (6.2%) and toasted notes cutting through the dish’s fattiness.

Next stop was the archaeological site of Atapuerca, just outside Burgos. Excavations, which started here in the 1960s, have unearthed human and animal remains dating back millennia and in 2013, the discovery of a flint lasca proved the presence of humans 1.4 million years ago. San Miguel is one of the patrons of the Atapuerca Foundation which manages this important site, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Our guide at the Atapuerca archaological site

Back in Burgos, the last stop on our San Miguel tour was lunch at Cobo Vintage. The restaurant was founded by Miguel Cobo in 2015 and awarded a Michelin star a year later.  To say this meal was exceptional hardly does it justice; every one of the seven courses was delicious, beautifully presented and paired to perfection with a San Miguel beer. We tasted mussels with seaweed, smoked sea scallop with pickle, fish with a ‘pil pil’ sauce, veal ribs and more. With these dishes, we enjoyed San Miguel 1516, Manila, Magna and Selecta. And we were privileged to have chef Miguel at our table for each course, explaining his inspiration for the dishes and the beer pairings.

The trip certainly made me see San Miguel in a new light, which is the aim of the ‘cerveceros inquietos’ initiative. The extent of the San Miguel range – far broader than we see in the UK – the quality of the ingredients that go into the brew, and the potential for food pairing, were all showcased in an exciting and memorable way.  My thanks to San Miguel and to their professional and ever-helpful PR company Newlink for including me in this enjoyable, and restless, experience.

It’s a Trappist!

As someone very clever once remarked, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. They were almost certainly talking about something even more important than beer, such as building an atomic bomb or holding a referendum, but there are also plenty of breweries who would be well advised to have the saying inscribed over the brewhouse door in big gold letters.

So, I’ll admit it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I accepted – by which I mean blagged – an invitation to the launch of Britain’s very first Trappist beer. The tradition of monastic brewing goes back at least as long as there have been monks, and in fact beer’s links with religious rituals predates Christianity by millennia.

There are eleven Trappist breweries worldwide – six of them Belgian – currently allowed to sell beers with the Authentic Trappist Product seal of approval. The beers are much admired by beer aficionados, so there was considerable interest when the news came out a year or so back that that the Mount St Bernard monastic community in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, would become the twelfth accredited Trappist brewer.

We, as in a group of beer writers and a smattering of local media, rocked up at Mount St Bernard on a gloriously warm July day at the invitation of James Clay, the leading craft and specialist beer distributor, which is distributing the beer.

The details – not only the style and flavour of the beer itself, but also the name and branding – had been kept a secret. My niggling worry, I’ll admit, was that we might end up tasting a beer that was trying a little too hard to be an authentic Trappist beer in the Belgian style, and would end up missing an opportunity to celebrate the British monastic brewing tradition. I needn’t have worried – but more of that in a moment.

We were greeted at the implausibly tranquil and scenic Mount St Bernard by the Abbot, Father Erik. He explained that all Trappist communities have a duty to be self-sustaining and, having taken the decision to exit dairy farming five years ago, after some debate the monks voted to have a crack at brewing.

Planning permission was obtained, and buildings that formerly housed the monastery’s kitchen, refectory and laundry now contain a 20 hectolitre brewery, kitted out with modern German-specced brewing equipment, as well as a bottling line.

Before the grand unveiling of the beer itself, I had a chat with Father Michael, the head brewer, who was very clear that they had been determined all along to come up with a Trappist beer that brought something different to the party – and reading between the lines, it also seems clear that other Trappist brewers were keen that their British colleagues complement rather than compete with the existing beers.

Father Michael took his time creating the recipe and comparing it with existing brews, as evidenced by the range of empty bottles in the pilot brewhouse; everything from Belgian classics to premium British ales and beyond. Among those the monks consulted for advice were the great Steve Wellington, former Master Brewer at the William Worthington’s Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, and Dutch master brewer Constant Keinemans, who sits on the quality commission of the International Trappist Association.

And so to the reveal: The new beer is called ‘Tynt Meadow’, named after the field on the monastery site where the monks first settled in 1835. The official tasting notes describe the beer as having aromas of dark chocolate, liquorice, and rich fruit flavours; full-bodied, and gently balancing the taste of dark chocolate, pepper, and fig. I’ll go along with that – to my palate, the fruit flavours are on the dark side, with raisin and blackberry prominent. Enjoyed over lunch in in Tynt Meadow itself, the beer matched beautifully with strong blue cheese and spicy gingerbread.

Just as importantly, at its heart, Tynt Meadow is a quintessentially British ale, and as such thankfully adds a welcome new dimension to the Trappist beer landscape. The beer is brewed with English barley and hops, and an English strain of yeast. It is twice-fermented, with a second fermentation in the 330ml bottle.

In style terms, the official guidelines may need to be amended; to my mind Tynt Meadow falls somewhere between a strong brown ale and a barley wine, as well as being reminiscent of a traditional strong porter. It’s definitely a gastronomic beer, at 7.4% ABV one to savour slowly at the dinner table rather than to quaff at the bar.

Mike Watson, head of marketing at James Clay, describes it as “a huge milestone for the UK beer scene,” while Father Erik says “being the first active Trappist brewery in the UK puts us in a really good position to bring something truly special to consumers across the country and we feel honoured to be at the forefront of this.

All proceeds from the beer will go towards the upkeep of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey and towards charitable works – when you have the opportunity, it’s well worth trying.