I must openly admit that publishing this post for the POURTRAITS series makes me particularly excited. Being able to talk with Joan Villar-i-Martí, also known in the beer world as "Birraire", is an absolute privilege.
I personally first met Joan two years ago. The meeting took place at the BBF Pub Crawl that was held just the day before the Barcelona Beer Festival in 2016. For several hours we, together with other communicators, instagramers, and brewers visiting the city on the occasion of the festival, toured the former location of BBF (the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, inside the Drassanes Reials building) and several emblematic bars in the city.
The pleasant brewing route ended in Abirradero, and I can still remember the impact it had on me when hearing Joan summarize to a group of brewers from Vermont the situation of our local craft beer scene. Simply masterful.
Since then my admiration and respect for Joan has only increased. What's more, one of the things that motivates me the most to continue writing about beer culture is having the opportunity to meet and learn from people like him.
As with Clark Kent and Superman, Joan is in his civil life a financial risk consultant. But when he puts on the Birraire suit he becomes a prestigious beer advisor. Among his ‘powers' is running his own blog, writing books (co-author of the 'Guia de Cerveses de Catalunya’, Editorial Base, translator of 'Craft Brew‘ de Euan Ferguson, Editorial Cinco Tintas and collaborator of ‘3rd Pocket Beer Book’ (UK) and ‘Best Beers’ (US), Octopus Publishing), collaborating as an editor in magazines (Revista Cuina, Sàpiens publicacions), presenting events and interviewing eminent personalities from the beer sector, doing tastings and beer talks of various kinds, evaluating beers in international competitions, co-organizing festivals such as the Barcelona Beer Festival, and member of the steering committee of the Barcelona Beer Challenge. Moreover, he is a member of The British Guild of Writers. Impressive, right?
Having said that, I can only thank Joan for his generosity and the humility he always transmits, in what undoubtedly has meant an extremely enriching conversation washed down with good beers.
Ø: Being very young, you undertook the adventure of going to work in Brussels (Belgium). What did it mean to you, and what are your memories of that experience that allowed you to get to know first hand a country where the beer tradition was - and still is - practically a religion?
Joan: Recently graduated in 2007, with my suitcase full of illusion and ignorance, I set off to Brussels, with the enthusiasm I had felt for years with those 'imported beers' that could be found in certain bars and pseudo-Irish pubs here, aware of the wealth of the Flemish-Walloon kingdom in relation to beer.
Except for my previous experience as an intern, this adventure meant my work debut in the finance world, but also the beginning of a hobby that over time has become my main leisure activity, and also my second job.
The first night in Brussels, after taking a sip of a Kriek beer for the first time and discovering, astonished, the existence of a beer with a dominantly acidic profile, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about what I claimed was my favorite drink. After that dose of reality, my curiosity took over and I started to discover, explore and study beer.
Ø: How long have you been writing about beer and how have you managed to keep the motivation and passion intact that you transmit when you divulge the culture that surrounds it?
Joan: I began writing about beer in 2010 by starting the Birraire blog in September the same year to collect my ideas, notes and experiences, although the first texts I published came out in early 2011. I always had a tendency to be prudent, and I did not think that my texts could be interesting to anyone.
It was when I got to know some of the most relevant bloggers of that time, notably Jordi Expósito and Andrés Masero, when I finally began to publish content. From them I learned something very important, and something that unfortunately is missing in most blogs and social profiles related to beer that have come out lately: a completely disinterested and altruistic motivation for spreading the emerging microbrewery scene (what we now call local beer scene) so that many more people could discover and enjoy it.
That motivation had its origin in the admiration of those pioneers, for their ability to go against the current, to innovate and to share. I still hang on to the teachings that Jordi and Andrés transmitted to me, powered by human fascination and the respect I feel for the people I have known all these years.
Ø: Despite the controversy that may sometimes involve its denomination: when we talk about craft beer in our country it is undeniable that in recent years, thanks to the efforts of many, important and firm steps have been taken. But we have to keep moving forward.
In your opinion, in what aspects do you think that brewers and / or beer communicators should and could improve in order to attract and reach the attention of the lifelong “caña” consumer?
Joan: At a time when the line of handicraft or, in modern terms, of craft is blurred, in my opinion one of the keys for producers is to bet on transparency. By now everyone can with the right means make a good beer, but not everyone has a story to tell. If you can accurately explain the what and the why of their story, surely many potential consumers will find it attractive.
For example, each bottle (or can) of beer carries a label in which you have the opportunity to tell relevant things to your consumers, both current or potential. Unfortunately in this sense I see many wasted opportunities: from not disclosing information in detail to understanding the beer you present, to use designs that instead of being attractive disconnect you from the product.
This is just an example, but in general I think that communication is a pending issue, and more since the we, the communicators of yesteryear (mainly bloggers), have not accompanied the sector in their professionalization and stayed in the same amateur field of those first beers from more than a decade ago that are so frequently criticised.
Styles: ¿Traditional or modern?
“When it comes to beer I am a person with classic tastes, and I have no doubt that I would stay with traditional styles. Within the traditional, despite my passion for Belgian beer, time and the social side of beer have taught me to appreciate classic British beers above all others.”
Ø: You are one of the co-organizers of the Barcelona Beer Festival, the pride of our city that breaks attendance records year after year. Also you are in charge of coordinating and directing one of the parts that I personally enjoy the most and await with great enthusiasm: the agenda of parallel activities that include tastings, pairings, presentations, meet the brewers, conferences and debates led by great professionals in the sector.
In your experience during all these years, have you noticed an increase in the interest of the general public for this type of activities offered within the framework of the festival? Do you feel that people, besides drinking, sharing the moment with friends and having fun, are increasingly looking to learn about beer culture?
Joan: Every year the activities of the Barcelona Beer Festival has had a faithful audience, more or less quantifiable, with many familiar faces that edition after edition were paraded through several of the different scheduled sessions. Although in the 2018 edition, the seventh, there was an unexpected wave of interest in the parallel activities that exceeded any forecast, to the point that several of the scheduled sessions were sold out within hours of going on sale, with full occupation during the Festival.
The interest in these parallel activities has been growing, especially since there are bars in the city that remind you of a small beer festival every weekend. However, the attendants of the activities are in 80% or 90% of the cases already initiated, specialized and professionals: the challenge is to better reach the general public as a Festival; also in the Activities.
Ø: Of all the personalities of the beer world that you have had the opportunity to meet, present or interview, who is the person who has inspired you the most?
Joan: I could give you at least one name in each area of the different aspects of beer. To guide the answer in some concrete direction, I will focus on my facet as a writer.
Although when forming my editorial style I have taken inspiration from many people, both inside and outside the beer industry. Surely the largest influence I have had is from the journalist, writer and beer historian Martyn Cornell. I was lucky to be sitting at the same table as him in a conference for beer bloggers held in Dublin in 2014, and since then we have met several times.
He is a first class communicator, with a pleasant style despite the large amount of content immersed in each line he writes, detail-obsessed and rigorous, who pays a lot of attention to history but also to the present. He is also a great person and a great beer drinker (in the best sense possible), with such knowledge and capacity for reflection that it is a pleasure to hear him talk about beer, either live, in his publications, in different media, or in each of his books.
Ø: Besides writing about beer, host tastings, leading debates, making interviews and being a beer evaluator, another of your passions is reading. What three books would you recommend to these three different profiles: beginner - medium - expert?
Joan: I do not like to think of the readers in terms of beginner or expert: there are books that cover the previous profiles transversally, such as my first recommendation, the essential ‘Tasting Beer’ by Randy Mosher.
In my opinion, the recommendations are more in line with the preferences, reading formats and obsessions of each person. For someone who is looking for a format away from technical manuals such as prose, and a highly entertaining and informative style I would suggest any book by the English writer Pete Brown, although I prefer ‘Man Walks Into to Pub’ for discovering the more social side of the drink.
To combine history and brewing tradition, and in line with my tendencies towards beers of British origin, I cannot leave out the book that for me is the best beer book in my collection: ‘Amber, Gold & Black’, by Martyn Cornell.
Ø: Regarding styles: I remember that the last time we met you told me about a majestic Cask Ale that you tried during a recent stay in the United Kingdom. I know that this question is not easy, but if you had to opt for a style, would you go more towards the classic or would the scale lean towards the latest styles?
Joan: When it comes to beer I am a person with classic tastes, and I have no doubt that I would stay with traditional styles. Within the traditional, despite my passion for Belgian beer, the passing of time and the social side of beer have taught me to appreciate classic British beers above all others.
They are beers so full of flavor and nuance that in many cases barely exceed 4% ABV; they are designed to drink, to socialize with family, friends and neighbors; to share different moments and events. They are fragile beers that outside the ideal conditions spoil easily, but that have a cultural and social dimension so exciting that all we can do is respect, admire and enjoy them. My scale is clearly tipping in favor of those beers.
If within these I had to choose a family, I would surely stay with the Mild, that masterfully combine many of the things that I like to find in a beer, and that, unfortunately, have been ignored for years.
Ø: Luckily the previous question was a simple hypothesis, and as we can see from following you in social media surely at home you stock a bit of everything. From there the following question arises, how many beers more or less do you have stored in your cellar / fridge?
Joan: I have 179 vintage beers in the cellar to which, to complete the stock, I should add the ones of supposed immediate consumption. There are approximately 150 beers that are fresh in the fridge, and about 80 more bottles that I keep in crates. Right now I have around 400 beers at home. It is obvious that I have a problem.
In the end the reason for this is the accumulation of years of visits to stores, fairs, breweries and events without having any type of stock policy: something that I never thought I would need as a consumer of a product, but in the end it is necessary considering my activity and the fact that my beer consumption has always been very moderate. But I have began to tackle the issue, and considering that a year ago I had around 600 I am quite satisfied.
Ø: As a member of the Steering Committee of the Barcelona Beer Challenge, a competition that is already in its fourth edition this year, what opinion does the level of our national beers deserve, and how do you think the professionalization, the evolution and constant improvement that we have experienced during these last years is perceived from the outside, specifically in the rest of Europe?
Joan: I have always been a firm supporter of the work done in our breweries to dignify beer as a product and constantly offering improved quality.
Right now we have dozens of references that have absolutely nothing to envy compared to the big names in the international scene, and from the outside you can see the large leap that has taken place. When talking with friends and colleagues from other countries, they highlight the quality of certain local beers that reach their countries or that they acquire by other means, or they speak wonders of the bar scene and the great beers offered specifically in Barcelona.
We are perceived as an emerging panorama within Europe, with a huge potential but also with a long journey behind us that can already be seen in the products, and an evident growing beer culture.
Ø: Finally, let me take a note of this: what is the beer that has surprised you the most lately and why?
Joan: In the evaluations at the Barcelona Beer Challenge I tried a spectacular beer, but the samples are anonymous, and I do not know what beer it is. I'll be paying attention to the results!
Apart from that, the last one I actually know the name of, I would choose Atorrentada by La Montnegre, a doppelbock brewed in El Maresme with the virtue of faithfully and tastefully reproducing a traditional German style, with the difficulty that this implies.