“Ponme una caña,” I beamed to the bartender, putting my newly acquired local knowledge to use and thus setting the course for de-guiri-fication some six years ago. Of course, I’d been getting cañas all along whenever I’d ordered a beer, but back then my request went something like “Quería una cerveza, por favor. Gracias.” Too timid, too polite, guiri total. At least I didn’t throw an usted in there somewhere, right?
Now there’s nothing wrong with saying cerveza, unless you’re saying it ser-VAY-sa, but there’s a small chance you’ll be served an ambient temperature bottle of beer. Don’t play those odds; stick with a cold caña.
A caña is a small, oftentimes tubular, glass of whatever beer’s on tap and is your first taste of real Spanish culture. They say that beer is served in these quantities of roughly 150 milliliters — or half a can for those of us who need to visualize liquid measures — so that it would still be cold by the time you swallowed the last of it. It also makes it a lot easier for the ever social Spaniard to bounce to another bar for the next round since it doesn’t take very long to polish off such a tiny amount.Palm heat transfer and social dynamics are both good explanations for the puny portions, but I have another theory: economy. It might be hard to imagine that a few short decades ago Spaniards were so poor that they used to have to eat stray cats or a single rotten carrot for the day’s sole meal, but you really don’t need to look further than the menu for proof. Callos a la madrileña, migas de pastor, sesos rebozados, oreja de cerdo, and entresijos y gallinejas are all typical Spanish fare borne out of poverty. It may well be that serving cañas was a way to keep things affordable, much like shampoo and detergent are sold in single-use plastic sachets in developing nations such as India and the Philippines.
The word “caña” comes from the narrow vertical shaft through which the beer flows up from the keg and out the valve at the end, according to Carlos Osorio, the author of “Malasaña”. The tube or “caña” – a word related to “caño” and “cañería” meaning “pipe” and “pipework” – is what gives the beer served from a faucet its name.
Spain has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to beer. Beer critics on RateBeer give Madrid’s Mahou Cinco Estrellas a 6 out of 20 with accompanying remarks like “just useful to get drunk” and “reminds me of the beer that is still around after a party… a week later.” But while it might rate low on a site for beer aficionados, the everyday consumer, Madrileño or not, seems to think that a midget Mahou es la caña de España – “the best thing” – especially so during summer, when the sun beats down so hard it leaves you parched and slightly bedraggled before noon.
It might seem impossible to escape Mahou, Estrella Damm and Cruzcampo but there is a growing craft beer movement in Madrid hoping to wean the locals off the industrial swill by providing flavorful brews at reasonable prices. One of these microbreweries is Fábrica Maravillas which opened last November in Malasaña.
Fábrica Maravillas gets its name from the vernacular for the barrio it’s in — Malasaña is affectionately called “Maravillas” by its residents — and has christened some of its brews Malasaña Ale, Saison Valverde and Triple Maravillas to reflect the owners’ affection for this trendy part of town.Its modern and minimalist interior is a sharp contrast to the older bars nearby, but it doesn’t feel cold or devoid of personality. In fact, walking into the bright bar with its striking beer tap focal point gives you a sense of wonder and surprise that hints at what to expect of their notable brews.
Tamara Pintado, one of the microbrewery’s six owners and the designer of Fábrica Maravillas’ interiors and branding, was manning the taps when I came in and she carefully took me through their different beers.
“This one is the Valverde, a blond ale with fruity flavors. It’s made with wheat so you’ll probably like this one best since you said you prefer a sweeter taste,” she said as she pulled down on the tap and then neatly placed the caña on a square coaster in front of me. It was possibly the cleanest pour I’d ever received in Spain. Beer wasn’t coming down the sides, spilling into a little puddle and dripping onto my lap. There was no need for the ritual of reaching for useless paper napkins to mop up, or more like spread around, the mess. Like the interiors she designed, the caña was immaculate.
Now I’m no beer snob — far from it, really, as I regularly order claras and have once asked “What’s the difference between green and red Mahou?” — but one sip in and I was easily sold on this idea of craft beer. I have to admit that I have a rather unsophisticated palate when it comes to beer and I really wasn’t expecting more from the Valverde than I would get from a store-bought beer, so the fresh flavors of the artisan brew came as a bit of a surprise. Another pleasant little surprise was revealed as I studied the menu a little bit longer: just 1.90€ for a caña.
Estefania, another socio who is also Tamara’s sister and wife of one of Fábrica Maravillas’ two brewmasters, says that making artisan beer affordable and accessible is one of their objectives. “Our pricing policy is such that someone like our seventy-year-old neighbor can come down and enjoy a nice beer for 1.90€. We really wanted to offer the possibility to people who have never had the opportunity to try an artisan beer to be able to have a caña for little more than they would pay for a caña of mass-produced beer.”
Septuagenarians and neighbors are indeed part of the customer base at the brewpub, as are modernos and heavys, she proudly says. Estefania tells me that she loves that all sorts of people come through their bar and everyone fits in. Locals make up about half of their customer base and the other half are foreigners who either live here as residents or students or are just visiting tourists.
Some of the tourists come to Madrid specifically to sample Fábrica Maravillas’ highly rated Fl(ipa), a wordplay on “flipa” which means “to be crazy about” and IPA which is a beer style in the pale ale category. “We get a lot of people who have seen us in trade magazines like DRAFT Magazine or RateBeer. They come here expressly to try our brews. I’ve served people that have come here straight from the airport to have a beer and then go to their hotel after. And then they come back here the next day,” smiles Tamara.
Fábrica Maravillas’ mainstays might have garnered them worldwide attention, even made them somewhat of a tourist attraction, but that doesn’t stop them from experimenting and playing with different mixes to keep people intrigued. So far, they’ve brewed over 10 different kinds of beer including a Saint Valentine’s beer with raspberries, a Saint Patrick’s Imperial Stout with blackberries, and a Spring beer with redcurrant. They even brewed up something special for Madrid’s Gay Pride.
Though only on its first year of operation, ideas about expansion are already being floated. In the near future, Tamara says they hope to be able to distribute their artisan beer to bars and locales in the area who have been asking for it. Estefania, on the other hand, thinks that bottling their brews might be more of a possibility. These are just ideas, there’s nothing concrete planned at this stage, the sisters are quick to remind me, perhaps wary that they might be planting false hope in this new convert of being able to enjoy a Malasaña Ale, Saison Valverde or Fl(ipa) on a terraza any time soon.
Perhaps “convert” isn’t the right word: I know that even after my education and enlightenment at the fountain of wonders, I’ll be back to drinking Mahou simply because that’s what will be on tap in 90% of the places I go. But it’s good to know that there are these little pockets around the city where you can indulge in Spain’s lovely caña culture with an artisan beer.
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.