(6% Italian make from 375ml bottle) What comes to mind when you think of Italy? The sophistication, opulence and conquering spirit of the Roman Empire? Perhaps the eroding decay of the Dark Ages accompanied by the loss of the Greek and Roman advances in art, knowledge and governance? Or perhaps the triumphal return in the Renaissance where we again began to see the humanism of the Greeks and Romans perfected and advanced under the quill pen stroke of Galileo, the chisel of Donetello or the paint brush of Michelangelo?
Or maybe, just maybe, you go immediately to a modern day Emperor Nero, the current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his utter disregard for the future of his state. Maybe you just go to that kitchen calender of Tuscany and sigh for a glass of white wine and a slice of tranquility.
One thing which might not come to mind is beer! Italian beer is the stuff of Peroni and Moretti nightmares right? Apparently not. My interest in Italian craft beer was stoked by a collaboration brew between Dogfish Head and Birra del Borga called My Antonia. And after a recent trip I can say that I have discovered what others have known for a few years now. Italy has a small but thriving craft brewing scene dedicated to creating artisan beers through the utilisation of local and sometimes inventive ingredients. It is a fruitful combination of Italian style and creativity infused with the spirit of the American craft brewing scene. Both start with the old world styles, and offer their own inventive spins personalising the beers to create unique signature beers.
Keep the wine, pass me an Italian beer…
One of the pioneering and driving forces behind the Italian craft brewing scene is Ted Musso, “a brewmaster with near-rock-star status in the Italian culinary scene” (NYTimes 2008). After running for a pub on his own for ten years he decided to pursue his interests in beer further, and trained in Belgium on the art of brewing. He then founded his own brewery, Birrificio Baladin, in 1996 in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Within a few years he was winning international awards at the Great British Beer Festival and well on his way to becoming renown for his beers. According to Teo, “I want people to think of my beer as something that belongs on a table in a good restaurant” (NYTimes 2008), and at his Casa Baladin restaurant and hotel this is what guests can expect . Both the Italian and American craft beer scenes have found friends in the culinary scene by matching beers to food, and its a perfect pairing for when thinking about Italy.
While still small, the movement is creating some great results. According to the Chicago Tribune:
“What results are intensely complex beers rich with flavor and deeply drinkable. Abundant local ingredients, like faro and chestnuts, are common, but you can also easily find fruit (peaches or blueberries), vegetables (green pepper) and spices (chili) in your Italian craft beer. Yet the flavors are handled so deftly that you might not know they’re in there. Whatever you wind up tasting, odds are it will be memorable” (Chicago Tribune 2011).
Albeit slightly more difficult to track down outside of Italy due to the limited trading abilities of these mostly small enterprises, if you have the chance to sample some it could be well worth a try.
Seeking to start with something which embodied some of the central tenets of Italian craft brewing, I am reporting on something which combines Italian style with a traditional recipe. The brewer, Almond ’22, is so named because their brewery is housed in a factory which processed almonds to create the ‘famous confetti of Solmona“. The ’22 is for the year the factory was founded (1922), but the art of making sweets called ‘confetti’ goes back Roman times. Interestingly, honey had to be used until the introduction of sugarcane from the colonies in the 15th century.
As per their website (with their own translation):
The spices and raw cane sugars come from the fair trade and are carefully selected; the honeys come from the green mountains and hills of our region. Malts and hops are the best available and are carefully selected from our supplier. Pure spring water from the mountains near Farindola is used to brew and no chemicals or preservatives are added.
This beer is an Italian interpretation of a Belgian Wit brewed using pink peppercorns. Sounds interesting and slightly daring, but why pink peppercorns? And what the hell are pink peppercorns again?
True red peppercorns are the fully ripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine from which black, white and green peppercorns also come. (The differences in color, flavor and aroma are due to different harvesting times and processing methods.) Red peppercorns are left on the vine to soak up the sun until the berries are mature. Just as they turn yellow and red, they are plucked by hand (Spice Lines 2008).
And finally, why would you use them in brewing?
According to Cambridge Brewing Co who brewed a beer recently using peppercorns, “Pink pepper provides a high, floral character mostly as an aromatic”.
Now, how did it all come together? On the pour it was a hazy golden straw orange colour with a fluffy white head. The smell carried a sweet fruity aroma, and the taste followed suit with a slightly dry, fruity sweet taste with mild hop notes and spices. The mouthfeel was creamy, and not overly carbonated though there was a nice bubble. Overall, more flavourful than the previously reviewed Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Wit, and a nice first venture into the world of bottled Italian real ale.
The Italian Job
The Italian scene has been credited as following in the pioneering footsteps of the American craft brewing scene in its level of innovation of classic styles along with the use of inventive and sometimes unconventional ingredients. A further demonstration of their compatibility and collaboration is the nearly completed rooftop brewery in NYC high atop the Eataly Shop. The brewery and restaurant will be serving up the Birreria Brothers’ best, and no surprise here, its a collaboration of some of the best in both American and Italian craft brewing including Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Teo Musso (Birrificio Baladin),and Leonardo Di Vincenzo (Birra del Borgo).
According to Calagione, “The goal for all the Eataly beers is to have them be super-flavorful, super-food friendly, and very sessionable” (Dogfish Head 2010). In a very interesting note to those of us who prefer cask ales, Calagione noted as well that, “all beers made on the rooftop’s copper clad 3.5 barrel brewhouse will be served unpasteurized and cask conditioned directly from hand-pulled beer engines,” (Wine Enthusiast 2011). One can only hope that the trend of serving real ale which has been cask conditioned and hand pumped will continue catching on in the States where upon my most recent visits I have seen more than one pub with their own handpulls. From the most recent post I could find about the project (20/04/2011), the brewery is completed and an awaiting inspection of the boiler (Dogfish Head 2011).
However, if you cannot get to NYC anytime soon, why not go to the source? When in the Rome over Easter, I came to find a number of establishments in the ever enjoyable medieval section of town called Trastevere. A minor haven from the overly touristy areas of town, albiet a major destination in it own right, there were a number of fine establishments well worth a tasting tour. See below for map for a few places and also some bottle shops to seek out when next in the Eternal City.
A few, just a few places to check out in Rome! If you have any good suggestions please let me know!