I can't believe it's a decade since my first visit to Barcelona, as part of the research for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind.
Back then any new city outside the UK mainland was a bewildering adventure for me. Anything that was marginally different from home was a marvel. I used to enjoy going into Seven-Elevens and Spar shops, buying any beer I hadn't seen before, good or bad, noting how the snacks were arranged differently, or appreciating that the ham roll was an international standard that took slightly different forms wherever you went.
Last weekend, as I got off the airport bus at the top of the Ramblas (I'd never have dared get a bus on my own that first time) I felt an echo of the old rush, conjured up by Barcelona's graceful architecture, the relaxed rush of the place. But I was nostalgic for that lost innocence. I've become a little blasé about travelling now. Once you've done a three month sea journey to India, a European city break is well in your stride and holds little that's unexpected. This makes me feel slightly sad and a more than a little old.
I feel even older when, after checking in to my hotel, I take my city guide out for a stroll around the Barri Gotic, Barcelona's old quarter. Stealthily, my eyesight has worsened since I was last here, and I simply can't make out the street names on the maps.
I try wandering randomly instead. That first time I was here with the Beer Widow and my wingman Chris, this strategy brought us to Barcelona's Kojak tribute bar, and not one, but two pirate themed bars. The best thing was, these nautical oddities were just across the road from each other - the only two pirate themed bars in the city; in fact the only two I've ever seen. Getting slowly pissed on Estrella and full of jamon and pimientos de padron, we tried to imagine what the story was. Two friends with a vision of the perfect pirate themed pub, maybe, and after opening it together one ousts the other. In his rage, he opens a rival establishment across the road. "There's only room for one pirate theme bar in Barcelona, and by God, mine will triumph!" Images of cannon firing across the street, and people swinging on ropes across the narrow gap with daggers in their mouths.
It seems both the pirate bars and the Kojak bar are long gone, which adds to my building sense of nostalgia. But then I walk into a small square and discover La Cerveteca. According to the Craft Beer section in my copy of the Rough Guide to Barcelona (seriously) this bar offers the city's widest selection of beers from around the world, as well as a few local brews.
Last time I visited Barcelona - about five years ago on a work trip - there was no craft beer. There is now. Ever since my Three Sheets trips, Spain has always been one of my favourite places to drink. Not because of the quality of the beer (although Spanish mainstream lagers are far superior to their British equivalents) but because of the way people drink. Small glasses, often with tiny bits of food, moving through the city until the small hours, ending up happy and sated but not completely pissed. It's the perfect way to drink beer.
Now you can do it with good beer.
I'd heard that Spain had discovered craft beer and considered reading up on it, maybe contacting a few people before I flew out. I'm glad I didn't. I can just be a punter again, on a new journey of discovery.
La Cerveteca is in an old building of exposed massive stone blocks, very high ceilings and mosaic floors. It's a very Spanish bar, which makes the shelves of Nogne O, BrewDog, Meantime, Dupont and Cantillon bottles lining the walls seem all the more incongruous. People stand around large hogsheads on which they drape their heavy winter coats (they seem to be feeling the chill of 15 degrees Celsius more than I do) and perch their beers.
I'm one of those people who usually speaks English slowly, assuming/hoping serving staff across Europe will understand. But here, ordering a pint of IPA in a foreign language for possibly the first time, I realise those three letters have become as international as 'OK' or the scribbly airsign you make when you want the bill. Even in languages where the phonetic pronunciation of the letters is different, they anglicise it for IPA, the way Brits sometimes say Zee instead of Zed if it's in an American context. Say those three letters in a craft beer bar anywhere in the world, and the bartender will nod, whatever languages they do or don't speak.
As well as 'Ipanema IPA', the bar boasts locally brewed beers including porter, saison, red ale and smoked marzen. Some of these are even cask conditioned. A half-drawn just behind the bar reveals an expansive cellar. The physics-defying heads on the pints being poured suggest there might still be some work to be done there, so I stick to the keg taps.
My IPA is good: clean, fresh and quenching, with a slowly building hop fuzziness, just how I like it.
I'm absurdly happy that I can stand at the bar in a place like this and order a pint of saison with a plate of Jamon Belotta - the king of ham, at least within my budget - or just about. (The first time I had Belotta ham is detailed in Three Sheets in the bit about the Hamburglar in Madrid, who got me and my mate Chris pissed on Ballantyne whisky and tricked us into buying a €17 plate of ham each).
The ham simply melts around it's fat, sweet and salty. And although it's not a perfect match with the saison, it pulls the beer into interesting new shapes, making it bolder and more cheerful than a saison usually is.
Craft beer belongs perfectly in Barcelona's easygoing gastronomic culture, which is even now creating playful new fusions such as Asian-influenced tapas (unsurprising given the Japanese eat and drink beer in a very similar fashion). This is Ferran Adria's city after all.
The next day I find the actual address of Hook, the last pirate theme bar, and discover it closed last summer. Instead, a few doors down, there's a bar called CRAFT, selling BrewDog, Meantime and Brooklyn beers far more cheaply than I can buy them at home.
This prompts mixed feelings. The charm of researching Three Sheets was discovering the quirks of drinking culture around the world, realising that there was a universal template for what beer means, and what the beer moment is, and that this template gets dressed up in different national and regional costumes that are unique, and sometimes special.
In one sense it's fantastic that I can now get the craft beers I know - plus some new ones such as Holz and Aktien, that I'd like to get to know better - in one of my favourite cities in the world. In another, it makes me slightly sad that this seemingly comes at the cost of sitting in a pub lined with prints of Telly Savalas, drinking perfectly average lager, and laughing like a drain.
But maybe those days were gone anyway.