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 hot spot 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 big beaches that are half an hour from the city. The mountains at your back. It’s a nice city without the problems of a big city, you know? It’s not congested, there’s no traffic. There’s a Spanish vibe, but at the same time, it’s really Mediterranean. Barcelona’s food culture gets more international all the time. Every day, a lot of young talented chefs come to Barcelona to live here and explore these possibilities. We had this big change that started 30 years ago with the molecular cuisine of Ferran Adria, but at the same time, Barcelona is very strict with its traditions. You still have these nice, old-school bars with local products and fantastic veggies in season all the time. There’s this contrast about having restaurants from Barcelona in the top five of the World’s 50 Best list, but at the same time you can find restaurant that have been there for 50, 60, 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. It was a trip to see some friends in Copenhagen in 2011 where I went to all these new new-wave places in Copenhagen and there were at least 10 places with this crazy list of natural wine. It was mind-blowing man. And so we decided: why not? Let’s try to have at least our own bottle shop, our own bar for us, and to move the situation a bit in Barcelona. This old bottle shop was closing so we took over and started to fix it and called friends that were making wine. It was a small community of friends and it was really, really nice. Then we decided to open Bar Brutal in 2013. But to be honest, when we opened it wasn’t a success because Spain is a wine producer and you can find a lot of classic wines by the glass quite cheap in Barcelona. Our wines were a little more complicated, a little more expensive. A lot of people weren’t with the flavour, with the colour. it was a little bit weird for a lot of people. It was really tough. At one point it was like, okay, well, if it’s not working, at least we can drink the wine. Then 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 kicking out people that didn’t like the wine: every night was a mess, but every day we were there again. The first wave of people came to see what the fuck we were doing, but international guests were good. People from France, Northern Europe, Italy: they used to come here as a destination. From day one we had the support of other friends like Noma and Chateaubriand and Les Amis in Paris. There was a sense of community to help each other out because we were the first ones in Barcelona to push. And it happened. Now in Barcelona, there’s a food and wine culture related to natural wine that is amazing. Now we have like 20 restaurants with natural wine. A lot of a lot of them are run by people that used to work with us. We can now go around the city and get drunk in every neighbourhood.

Barcelona’s New Generation Organic Wine Bars

We have beautiful restaurants and organic wine bars. There’s one place that opened a couple of years ago called La Graciosa. It’s a tiny house in Gràcia which is a young person’s neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Most of the time, it’s young people going there. The sommelier Gianluca was at Bar Brutal in our very first year and then started to import a little bit of wine from Italy. Then he and his partner Debora opened their own place. It’s not pretentious, it’s a good vibe. There’s a lot of cheese and home made charcuterie. They take a lot of care with the food but it’s not really a restaurant. Then we have L’Anima Del Vi which was run by this French couple that had one of Barcelona’s first bottle shops. They’ve been in the scene for the last 20 years, and it’s very close to Bar Brutal. They have their own way of doing things and have their own selection of wine and family-style dishes.

Old-School Bars Cooking Classic Catalan Dishes

I really love places that aren’t in the scene and don’t have natural wine, but they are classic old-school places with really good products. They’re still cheap and for locals. I have two places that are extremely good and have classical, cheap wines. One is called La Perla. I think it’s been there since the 60s. You go there and you have waiters that are like 50, 60 years old. And they still have the same menu. You can have a proper paella at 10 o’clock in the morning. They only opening during the daytime. There’s another place called Bar Gelida where they pull wine straight from the barrel. You sit down and you mix with the old people and young people from the university because it serves classic Catalan food that’s cheap and honest. There’s a word in Catalan called mar i muntanya which means mixing ingredients from the sea and from the mountain. You can have squid with beans, fish with artichokes, shrimps with mushrooms. That kind of style. You can have this amazing dish called cap i pota, which means the head and the leg. It’s sticky stew of veal, that’s a little spicy. That is really common to serve during autumn and wintertime.

Drinking Cocktails in Barcelona

Young people are coming back to the essence of cocktail bars and making simple, good cocktails in tiny, classic places. Dry Martini is a crazy, historic place which feels like you’re in the 50s. They serve classic cocktails and you can smoke a cigar there. They have a speakeasy restaurant at the back that is a real speakeasy from the 60s. Just before the pandemic, the bar celebrated selling its millionth dry martini. Marlowe Bar is another bar that’s really, really nice. Then there’s the new creative generation like Paradiso. They’ve won everything in World’s 50 Best Bars and are really pushing. It’s really creative but I’m too old for sweet, smoky cocktails: I’m more a dry Martini or Negroni drinker.

The City’s Vermouth Culture

Drinking vermouth is a classic thing in Barcelona during summer, Sundays, and just before dinner. It was an old person’s thing before, but a lot of young people have switched from beer to vermouth. It’s a nice culture. El Xampanyet (“little Champagne” in Catalan) is a really historic place that’s close to Bar Brutal and just in front of the Piccaso Museum. It’s a destination for anyone who wants to have vermouth or anchovies, mussels and beautiful, canned food like tuna. Nobody knows this but they have a sick selection of old Champagne. Everybody goes there for the vermouth and the tapas but you can ask the owner to have a bottle of Champagne from the 30s, 50s, 60s and 80s. They really take care of that side of things. Cala del Vermut is another classic, tiny bar with cans, anchovies and that sort of stuff. There’s a new generation of people that are distilling and making their own vermouth. It’ll be nice in a few years to see how it will evolve. Because we’re obsessed with the organic and the natural, a few years ago we collaborated with organic winemaker Partida Creus to make a vermouth that we have in the bar at Bar Brutal. It’s also available to buy in Australia.

The New-Wave Coffee Revolution

In a few years, new-wave coffee has become huge. These guys called Nomad Coffee are leading the new generation. They have a big factory where they roast their beans and have a couple of spots in town where they do things really serious. There’s a lot of places now that you can have good coffee. Before it was that fake espresso with lots of extraction.

A Classic Catalan Recovery Breakfast

The fork breakfast is very classic Catalan to thing to do and involves gathering early in the morning to have lots of traditional dishes for breakfast. 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. It’s a mixture of people. Some like taxi drivers and street-cleaners have just finished their work. Then there are hospital workers and young people going to university who want a big meal in the morning. You start your day with a nice plate of fried squid, lentils or croquetas. It’s very traditional for Catalan people to start the day with that, skip lunch, then have vermouth and dinner later. It’s a classic hangover recovery breakfast. The best one in the Bocqueria is Bar Pinotxo. Then there’s Granja Elena which is like the new evolution of this tradition. You have beautiful sandwiches and nice dishes at 8 o’clock in the morning and sit at tables 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 places on the coast half an hour from Barcelona. I like Villa Mas. The food is amazing and it’s just in front of this beautiful beach. The secret is that the owner is a wine enthusiast and has a huge, crazy cellar with a beautiful wine list. The food is nice and simple: fresh paella and beautiful seafood. And it’s in a historical building just in front of the beach. Every time we go there to celebrate, we start with lunch but eventually stay there for dinner. We don’t move from the table. We jump in the sea, we go back. We stay there for hours and hours. You never know when you finish.

Barcelona’s Most Interesting Wine Region and Winemaker

The most interesting wine region is Catalunya. One of the best spots is an hour from Barcelona and is called La Conca. It’s the home of Escoda-Sanahuja which is a wine cellar with this beautiful restaurant called Tossal Gross with an amazing view. The winemaker is Joan Ramon Escoda who is crazy and one of the grandfathers of organic wine here in Spain. He was one of the creators of the Brutal wine so you can have Brutal cuvee there. He has these huge amphorras where he ferments and keeps the wine. You can see the cellar, you can see the property, you can see the vineyard, you can see this nice terrace outside with this beautiful view of the mountain.

Where To Buy Natural Wine in Barcelona

Cuvee 3000 opened a beautiful bottle shop in Barcelona called Cuvee Bottle Shop which hasa very good selection of natural wines. You can have a glass of wine and a little chat about the wines you want to buy. I think it’s the best shop in town to buy natural wine. There’s another one called Món Vínic Store. It’s really nice with beautiful organic wine and beautiful cheese. It’s nice because it’s the same vibe. It’s a bottle shop but you can sit there, have a little cheese, then taste some wine before you buy.

Championing Italian Cuisine

Xemei is our classic Venetian trattoria we opened in 2005. My brother [Max Colombo] used to cook fine-dining and Michelin stuff, but he wanted to keep it easy and real, so everything is about products. We’re very focused on our products and keeping it fresh and nice. We are also massive pizza lovers and there was this big industrial space just outside Barcelona on the way to the airport. We put in an oven and started to do artisan sourdough pizza: something we love from Italy that there wasn’t a lot of in Barcelona at the time. Lolo Lorenzo, one of our friends from Rome was at Pizzarium Bonci and decided to move to Barcelona. It was initially somewhere goo and cheap for people in the industry to go and relax. That’s how Can Pizza started and now we have nine places around Barcelona as well as one on Ibiza. The pizza movement in Barcelona is crazy now. Now I can walk anywhere in Barcelona and every 10 minutes, there’s good pizza.

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