As with so much in Spain these days, Panda Beer’s story, the story of Aitor Alarcia and his refreshing ginger infused Saison, Shizun, is a story that has its roots in crisis.
Aitor and his wife Arantxa worked as project managers in the booming construction business when in 2008 the bottom fell out.
In the ensuing years, he began noticing new beers dotting the Madrid landscape. There was Cibeles, La Virgen, Dougall’s, Sagra. Strong flavors that took some adjusting to, IPA’s, Imperial Porters, hoppy ales. It was an expensive habit, however, and Aitor and Arantxa were about to become parents.
As the market worsened, work became harder to come by, and Aitor had some newly found free time. So, he began to brew his own beer so that he and his friends and family could try some of these bolder brews without breaking the bank.
It was really just a hobby. He grew up in Madrid, in Barrio Pilar, so naturally he drank Mahou almost exclusively. To be from Madrid is to be of Mahou.
He joined the home brewers association, and on a whim, entered one of the most important national brewing competitions in Spain. He came in fourth with an unnamed Kolsch.
When his first child was born, he started seeing the possibility of brewing for a living as a necessity. In an economy in shambles, people had to find new ways of making a living. People had to create their own work.
Of course, because of the costs associated with opening a brewery, he had to work as a nomad, contracting the services of other brewers to execute his recipes, making contacts with bars and restaurants and delivering the beer personally.
The crisis had culled the bar and restaurant scene as well, and as the recovery stumbled in, much of what opened was younger, hipper, refreshed. The demand for different beers and different images was growing.
Shizun can now be found in dozens of bars and restaurants in Malasaña. It’s a crisp beer, that introduces the beer enthusiast to a difficult genre, the saison. It’s light with high levels of carbonation, a gingery finish and flowery aromas.
He is currently working on creating a dark lager that should be out in the coming months. Long term, he hopes to find a way to create his own brewery in order to better control his own production, grow his distribution and create a space where he can replicate the creative process he had as a home brewer can unfold on a larger scale.
I asked him about the biggest challenges faced by Spanish brewers, and he told me, “Lupolos. The transport of Lupolos damages aromas. We need a greater domestic production.”
What’s changing on the Spanish beer scene? “In the beginning everyone was making varieties with the highest alcohol content: Imperial Porters, IPA’s. Now a lot of people are shifting to low alcohol beers with a lot of flavor.”