Stefano Colombo

In Catalan slang, the word “brutal” can mean very good as well as very bad. To the drinkers of Barcelona, Brutal is the name of a game-changing wine bar that kick-started the city’s heady natural wine scene. The driving force behind Brutal were Max and Stefano Colombo, two brothers from Italy’s Veneto region – Max is a chef, Stefano is a sommelier – who recognised an opportunity to introduce Barcelona to the pleasures of organically farmed, zero-additive wines from around the world. The rest, as they say, is history. While natural wine represents a sizeable chunk of Stefano’s diet, the former industrial designer can also appreciate all aspects of Barcelona’s food and drink scene, as demonstrated by his recommendations for his adopted hometown.
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Welcome to Catalonia

Barcelona is an extremely creative, extremely international city. It’s a hotspot for everyone. Young people all over the world want to start here because it’s not as expensive as Paris, London or New York. If creative people want to start new ideas, there’s always a possibility so there’s this kind of magic energy of young people that are always pushing limits, but at the same time, it’s really chill. You have beautiful long beaches that are half an hour from the city. The mountains are just behind you. It’s a nice city without the problems of a big city: it’s not congested, there’s no traffic. There’s a Spanish vibe, but it’s also really Mediterranean. Barcelona’s food culture keeps getting more international. Every day, a lot of young and talented chefs come to Barcelona to explore the possibilities of living and working here. A big change started here 30 years ago with the molecular cuisine of Ferran Adria, but at the same time, Barcelona is very serious about its traditions. You still have these nice, old-school bars with local products and fantastic veggies that are in season all the time. There’s a contrast of having restaurants from Barcelona in the top five of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but at the same time having restaurants that have been here for 50, 60 or 70 years. That kind of contrast is nice for the city.

A Potted History of Bar Brutal and Natural Wine in Barcelona

There never used to be a natural wine scene at all in Barcelona. I went on a trip to see some friends in Copenhagen in 2011 and I visited all these new-wave places and at least 10 of them had a crazy list of natural wine. It was mind-blowing! And so my brother and I thought: why not? Let’s try to at least have our own bottle shop and to shake things up a bit in Barcelona. An old bottle shop was closing so we took over, started to fix it and called friends that were making wine. It was a small community of friends and it was really, really nice. In 2013, we decided to open Bar Brutal. To be honest, when we first opened it wasn’t a success, because Spain is a wine producing country and you can find a lot of classic wines by the glass quite for cheap in Barcelona. Our wines were a little more complicated and a little more expensive. A lot of people weren’t down with the flavour or the colour – it was a little bit weird for a lot of people. At one point we were like, “Well, if it’s not working, at least we can drink the wine.” We started to drink heavily and people came to see us. It was really rough but also really fun. We were drunk during service and kicked out people that didn’t like the wine: every night was a mess, but we went back every day to start again. The first wave of people mostly came to see what the fuck we were doing. International guests were good for us: people from France, Italy and Northern Europe. It was like a destination for them. From day one we had the support of industry friends from places like Noma (Copenhagen) and Chateaubriand and Les Amis in Paris. There was a sense of community that wanted to support us because we were the first ones in Barcelona to push for this type of thing. And it finally happened. There’s now an amazing food and wine culture in Barcelona that is centred on natural wine. Now we have like 20 restaurants with natural wine. A lot of these new places are run by people who used to work with us. We can now go around the city and drink natural wine in every neighbourhood.

Barcelona’s New Generation of Organic Wine Bars

La Graciosa opened in 2019 in a tiny house in Gràcia, a young neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Most of the time, it’s young people that frequent it. The sommelier, Gianluca, was at Bar Brutal in our very first year of opening. He started to import a little bit of wine from Italy, then he and his partner Debora opened their own place. It’s not pretentious at all – it’s a good vibe. They take really good care of the food side, but it’s not really a restaurant. They serve a lot of cheese and homemade charcuterie. L’Anima Del Vi is very close to Bar Brutal and is run by this French couple that had one of Barcelona’s first bottle shops. They’ve been in the scene for 20 years at least and have their own way of doing things. They have a unique selection of wine and serve family-style dishes.

Old-School Bars Cooking Classic Catalan Dishes

I really love old-school places with really good products that aren’t at all in the scene and don’t have any natural wine. They remain cheap and cater for the locals. I go to two places that are extremely good and have classic, cheap wine. One is called La Perla: it’s been there since the 60s and they still have the same menu. The waiters are also like 50 or 60 years old. You can have a proper paella at 10 o’clock in the morning. They only open in the daytime. The other place is called Bar Gelida. They pull out wine for you straight from the barrel. It mixes old people with young people from the university because it serves classic Catalan food that’s honest for cheap. It serves “mar i muntanya” which in Catalan means mixing ingredients from the sea with ingredients from the mountains. You can have squid with beans; fish with artichokes; or shrimps with mushrooms. You can have this amazing dish called “cap i pota“, which means the head and the leg. It’s a sticky stew of veal, that’s a little spicy and common to serve in autumn and winter.

Drinking Cocktails in Barcelona

Young people are reviving the essence of a cocktail bar: a tiny place that makes simple and good cocktails. Dry Martini is a crazy, historical place where you feel like you’re in the 50s. It serves classic cocktails and you can smoke a cigar inside. It has a speakeasy restaurant in the back that’s an actual speakeasy from the 60s. Just before the pandemic, the bar celebrated selling its millionth Dry Martini. Marlowe Bar is another cocktail bar that’s really, really nice. Then there’s the new, creative generation of cocktail bars like Paradiso. They’ve won everything there is to win in the World’s 50 Best Bars and are really pushing hard. But I’m too old for sweet and smoky cocktails: I’m more of a Dry Martini and Negroni drinker.

The City’s Vermouth Culture

Drinking vermouth is very typical in Barcelona: in the summer; on Sundays; and just before dinner. It was once an old person’s thing, but many young people have dropped beer and switched to vermouth. There’s a nice culture around it. El Xampanyet (“little Champagne” in Catalan) is a historic place that’s just in front of the Piccaso Museum. It’s a destination for anyone who wants to have vermouth with anchovies, mussels and beautiful, canned fish like tuna. Nobody really knows this, but they have a sick selection of old Champagne. Everybody goes there for the vermouth and tapas, but you can ask the owner for a bottle of Champagne from the 80s, 60, 50s and even 30s. Cala del Vermut is another classic. It’s a tiny bar with canned fish, anchovies and that sort of stuff. There’s a new generation of people who are distilling their own vermouth. It will be nice to see how it evolves in a few years. Since we’re obsessed with all that is organic and natural at Bar Brutal, we collaborated a few years ago with organic winemaker Partida Creus to make a vermouth which we now serve at the bar (also available to buy in Australia).

The New-Wave Coffee Revolution

In just a few years, new-wave coffee has become huge. There are a lot of places where you can have good coffee now. The guys from Nomad Coffee are leading the new generation of coffee roasters and baristas. They have a big roasting space and a couple of coffee bars in town where they take things really seriously.

A Classic Catalan Recovery Breakfast

A “fork breakfast” is very Catalan thing to do and involves gathering early in the morning to share lots of traditional dishes. When I used to go to the market to buy produce, I’d finish around 8am, so having a fork breakfast was quite usual for me. You’re surrounded by a mixture of people: taxi drivers and road-cleaners that have just finished work; hospital workers; and young people going to university who want a big meal to keep them full for a while. It’s also a classic hangover recovery meal. You start your day with a plate of fried squid, lentils or croquetas (croquette). It’s very traditional for Catalans to skip lunch after that and have vermouth, tapas and dinner instead. The best one in the Bocqueria [market] is Bar Pinotxo. Then there’s Granja Elena, which celebrates the evolution of this tradition. It has beautiful sandwiches and nice dishes at 8 o’clock in the morning; and you sit at a table with old ladies having cafe au lait.

Celebrating Special Occasions on the Beach

I love to celebrate on the beach and there are lots of nice options for that on the coast, half an hour from Barcelona. I like Villa Mas: the food is amazing and it’s in a historical building just in front of this beautiful beach. What most people don’t know is that the owner is a wine enthusiast and has a huge cellar with beautiful wines. The food menu is nice and simple with fresh paella and beautiful seafood dishes. Every time we go there to celebrate something, we stay for hours and hours. We start with lunch but end up staying for dinner. We don’t let go of our table: we jump in the sea and go back to our seats. You never know when you’ll finish.

Barcelona’s Most Interesting Wine Region and Winemaker

Catalonia is the most interesting wine region in Spain and one of the best spots to explore this is an hour’s drive from Barcelona in a place called La Conca. It’s home of Escoda-Sanahuja, a wine cellar with a beautiful restaurant called Tossal Gross. The winemaker, Joan Ramon Escoda, is a character and is one of the grandfathers of organic wine in Spain. He was one of the creators of Brutal wine, so you can have the Brutal cuvee at his cellar. He has huge amphoras where he ferments and keeps the wine. You can visit the cellar, the vineyards and the entire property, which has a nice terrace with beautiful mountain views.

Where To Buy Natural Wine in Barcelona

Cuvée 3000 opened a beautiful bottle shop called Cuvée Bottleshop, which I think is the best shop in town to buy natural wine. You can have a glass of wine and chat about what you’d like to buy. There’s another shop called Món Vínic Store that has beautiful organic wine and cheese. It’s got the same nice vibe as Cuvée: you can sit there, have some cheese and taste the wine before you buy it.

Championing Italian Cuisine

Xemei is a classic Venetian trattoria we opened in 2005. My brother [Max Colombo] comes from a fine-dining background, but he wanted to keep it easy and real at Xemei. Everything is focused on getting the best products. We are also massive pizza lovers and we found this big industrial space on the way to the airport, just outside the city. We put in an oven and started making artisan, sourdough pizza. It’s something we love in Italy that there wasn’t a lot of in Barcelona at the time. Lolo Lorenzo, one of our friends from Rome, was at Bonci Pizzarium and decided to move to Barcelona for this. Can Pizza was initially meant to be somewhere good and cheap for people in the industry to go and relax, but we now have nine places around Barcelona, as well as one in Ibiza. The pizza movement in Barcelona is crazy right now. I can walk anywhere in Barcelona, and every 10 minutes, stumble on good pizza.

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