Completely out of the blue I was approached to see if I would be interested in joining like-minded beer enthusiasts on a trip to Burgos, Bilbao and San Sebastian to see the San Miguel brewery and introduce us to the brand.
What qualified me to be chosen for this trip?
I'm unsure, as an influencer my Social Media presence is fairly uninspiring, racking up a grand total of just over 450 Instagram followers and far less on any other platform.
However, I do educate people about beer for a living, alongside wines and spirits, and anything else related to alcohol.
I also consult to the hospitality industry and help with ranging proposals, writing beer, wine and spirit menus and negotiate deals to make sure the venue has the best range for their clientele.
Because of this I have to be fairly unbiased about both what I teach about and what brands will best represent the bars and pubs I work with, rather than focussing on my personal preference.
So maybe I did have what they were looking for after all.
Back to the trip.
Upon arrival in Bilbao, I won't bore you with the details of the flight or the other travel arrangements but safe to say we were very well looked after at every stage, we were presented with a gift basket showcasing some of the beers produced by San Miguel.
Now for most people this will come as somewhat of a surprise, it did for me even after some pre-trip research.
Yes, there are many more beers made by San Miguel than the ones we see in the UK.
Especial is the main stay that we see everywhere in the UK but upon occasion I've come across the Fresca, a sunshine lager that stands up against others from the same category such as Corona and Sol.
The others I had never come across. I was intrigued to try them and see how they compared, and try them I would.
San Miguel style themselves as 'Cerceveros Inquietos' or as closely translated as our exceptional translator could work it out to be; (sadly a lot of the nuance is lost in the translation) 'Restless Brewers or Restless Beer Lovers.'
And restless was a bang-on description for this trip, we were given time to settle in to the hotel, but were soon whisked off to our first destination of many a bar called 'The Boar.'
San Miguel have a number of bars dotted around the world called Tap Stations, of which the Boar is one.
These Tap Stations are a fairly unique proposition, a similar idea to a drink called three-threads (I will not get into the tax implications or reasons behind this drink). I am using it more to show that this was an example of blending beers together to get different flavour profiles.
Blending beers is by no means new or even revolutionary but I've not seen or heard of this approach by a major brewer before.
San Miguel Especial is used as the base and depending which style beer you would like is blended with other specially made beers, one with high levels of hop character, one with toasty malt character and one with high alcohol, the 4 beers are blended together by the worlds most complicated post-mix/dosing machine and the result is a choice of 12 different beers that can be found listed below on their website.
A tasting of the beers available at The Boar followed, they do not stock all 12, none of the Tap Stations do, but 5 of these beers plus the Especial and other San Miguel beers were available to try, all matched with a local Pintxos (Tapas for most of us).
At this stage we were introduced to just how important Beer and Food matching is to San Miguel, this was at the core of our visit and the Basque region is a perfect place to see this in action.
I will not go into the 4C's or the many other elements that are involved when matching beer with food, there are numerous articles on the subject and I will need to write a separate article to cover this topic in the detail it deserves. However Pintxos provide everything element you could hope for when matching beer and food.
From the Tap Station we were taken upstairs to Yandiola Restaurant and were introduced to San Miguel matched with dishes found in a finer dining led restaurant.
The chef had created a menu specifically to match with the various styles of beer San Miguel produce, all of the beers showed their versatility.
The Magna, a more intense golden lager, with higher alcohol content.
The Manila, a hop forward IPL.
The Selecta, a Marzen style lager with toasted malt character.
The 1516 with 100% malt, giving a richer more balanced flavour profile.
The variety of the beers showed their versatility when pairing with the different foods on offer across Bilbao.
After dinner we had a chance to relax before another highly enjoyable restless experience; a guided tour of the city and then onto experience more of the wonderful Pintxos available in Plaza Nueva. We undertook what can only be described as a Pintxos crawl, moving from bar to bar selecting a few dishes from each one before moving on to the next. With of course a glass of San Miguel in each location.
San Miguel and food are so intertwined in Bilbao that it was virtually the only beer to be seen on offer across all of the bars we visited.
This is a standard way to grab lunch or a pleasant way to spend your evening before dinner, or if not familiar with the sheer volume of food consumed by the Basques, as dinner itself.
With our belts straining to hold in the food it was back to the hotel for relaxation and rest.
The morning saw us once again whisked off to enjoy Bilbao, this time with a trip to the Guggenheim, the night before our tour guide had described Bilbao as previously being an industrial city in decline.
The Gugenheim is synonymous with what is now known as the 'Bilbao Effect' where the
introduction of a culturally important and architecturally significant building causes a transformational uplift for the city they are built in. In Bilbao's case this worked phenomenally well, with a few setbacks along the way (search the ETA and Jeff Koons).
Now with over a million visitors to the museum every year the city has undergone an economic revival.
San Miguel are deeply involved in the cultural and music scene in Spain and the Guggenheim is just one of the culturally important institutions they collaborate with.
Alongside the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastian where we were headed to for our next experience.
The Basque Culinary Centre is a pioneering academic institute that focuses on research, innovation, promotion and education of all things gastronomic.
We were taken around the facilities and shown some of the projects they are working on which ranged from a test kitchen working on a vegan version of chicken skin to a think tank helping to provide advances in the software systems used in the hospitality industry.
The idea being that by improving the functionality of the hospitality industry and also by providing more accessible training around both beer and food the institute can make a direct contribution and impact to the industry as a whole. San Miguel are directly partnered with the centre and so can help make a lasting contribution to the gastronomic, hospitality and tourism sector in Spain.
After a lunch showcasing some of the things being worked on in the LABe we then headed out for a tour of San Sebastian, considered by many to be the pinnacle of Spanish Cuisine and culture.
After the tour it was back to Bilbao for yet another dinner.
This reinforced just how much the Spanish love their food, 3 meals a day (I personally skipped breakfast out of pure necessity) of flavourful and beautifully delivered food which showed just how diverse and ingrained food is in the Basque culture.
The next day saw us heading to the San Miguel brewery at Burgos.
So far it seems we have spoken more about the food and culture than the beer itself.
But at every step of the way the food and experience was matched with the many varieties of beer produced by San Miguel.
The Burgos brewery is as you would expect, massive, they produce over 2 million hectolitres of beer a year. Sustainability is a key part of what is being done at the brewery. It is also kitted out with state-of-the-art lab equipment and packaging lines for returnable bottles, can and keg.
The brewery is soon to be updated yet again to keep pace with the ever-changing market.
However, if you have been to one brewery you have generally been to them all, they differ in scale and technological advances but on a basic level are all fairly similar.
Back to the culture.
San Miguel in addition to all of their other cultural and gastronomic investments are the very proud partners of the Atapuerca Foundation where the oldest human remains in Europe have been found, there is fossilised evidence from over 1 million years ago all the way through to the Common Era. This shows the continuous development of our ancestors and gives us priceless information on how they lived.
San Miguel have been involved with the Foundation for over 15 years and has renewed their association to help with this important project for years to come.
It was then onto Cobo Vintage a beautiful 1 star Michelin restaurant where Miguel Cobo creates a mix of stunning dishes, some traditional and some innovative but all with flavour at the heart.
This again showed the versatility of San Miguel both being paired against Michelin star food as well as holding its own against Pintxos.
It was then back into the bus to head off to the airport and back to London,
So, from my flying visit around the Basque country it was clear that San Miguel and food are very closely linked, from simple but delicious Pintxos all the way through to more fine dining and Michelin Star quality food.
Added to this the spirit of a curious and restless experience was definitely captured, the pure extent of activities and the pleasure that was found in each one perfectly showcased the Cerceveros Inquietos. Beer was definitely central to all of our experiences.
Many thanks to San Miguel for a singular experience.
Links to all the places we visited