Mastri Birrai Umbri’s beers have featured on this blog several times (eg here and here). When I first moved to Rome a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about Italian birra artigianale (craft beer), but that soon changed: in part because I discovered beer bars Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà? and Open Baladin and in part because it turned out the boyfriend of a London friend was actually a brewer in Umbria. This was Michele Sensidoni, master brewer of Mastri Birrai Umbri, whose beers don’t feature on the menus of the birrerie (beer bars), but were to be found on the shelves of my local supermarket.
Last month, Jeremy Cherfas and I paid a visit to Michele at the brewery, located in the charmingly named village of Bastardo in central Umbria. Over at Eat This Podcast, Jeremy’s done a comprehensive podcast about the visit, but I want to add a few more things here, along with some more photos.
The brewery, whose name means “master brewers of Umbria” or “Umbrian master brewers”, was founded by the Farchioni family: one of biggest names in olive oil in Italy. The Farchioni family has been farming and producing foodstuffs for centuries. Although they weren’t previously involved in brewing, Umbria has a beer history, with a brewery, Fabrica della Birra Perugia, that closed in 1929. Indeed, Italy itself has an ancient association with beer. Cervisia or cerevisia, as it was known in Latin (and the clear root word for the Spanish word cerveza and even the uncommon Italian word cervogia*), was used as payment for troops in ancient Rome, and was a common drink among the poorer members of society.
Obviously, wine was more important as the viniculture became more dominant, though barley (orzo) has long been grown in Italy, and experiments into hop-growing were done in Perugia at the start of the 20th century (check out this archived newspaper story, in English, from 1912). They’re even starting again now – and why not? If you look at this interesting conjectural map from 1919, the north of New Zealand’s South Island, a major hop-growing area, is similarly located to central Italy in terms of longitude. Mastri Birrai Umbri hope to eventually locally source all their ingredients, though hops may be last.
Michele has a doctorate in food science and technology from the University of Perugia, he was head brewer at the pilot plant of CERB (Centre di Excellenza per la Ricerca sulla Birra; the Italian Brewing Research Centre), he did an internship at Campden BRI (the beer research institute in Surrey, UK) and he has a background in homebrewing. He’s also a proud Umbrian and as such was the ideal candidate to run the purpose-built brewery for the Farchionis and pursue a remit to make brews featuring typical local ingredients. He started experimenting with brews in 2010.
The brewery currently produces four beers, all top fermented, non-pasteurised, unfiltered and bottle conditioned. Cotta 21 is a blonde, made with farro, an ancient strain of wheat grown in Umbria for centuries. Cotta 37 is an amber ale made with roasted caramel malts and cicerchia (chickling vetch, grass pea; Lathyrus sativus); Cotta 74 is a doubled malted dark ale made with 15% lentils; and Cotta 68, which is also double malted, but is a paler, strong ale (7.5% – which isn’t actually that strong for an Italian beer). All of which are delicious.
The use of these atypical ingredients brings about some interesting challenges. A special mashing process, for example, is required to break down the proteins in the legumes. (Michele explained barley is about 10.5-11% protein, the legumes more like 18-19%.)
It’s certainly a very impressive brewery, with state-of-the-art German equipment and even facilities to automate the first brew of the day, which starts at 1am. Indeed, the whole impression is a more industrial operation, though perhaps that’s a misconception. We assume craft breweries are based in rough sheds with rudimentary equipment and labels stuck on by hand, but there’s clearly a broad spectrum. Especially in Italy, where there’s currently no legal definition of a “craft brewery” or “microbrewery”. This is an interesting question that Jeremy’s podcast gets into and something I talk about more in the following post.
Michele says they produce 100,000 hectolitres a year, that is 1 million litres. Or if you prefer that’s equivalent to about 6,097 UK barrels (36 imperial gallons, 43 US gallons, 164l) or 8,547 US barrels (26 imperial gallons, 31 US gallons, 117l). He says they’re the “biggest craft brewery in Italy, currently”. As a comparison, Baladin, the brewery that really started the whole craft brewing scene in Italy in the 1990s, produces 12,000hl a year. Dogfish Head in the US, meanwhile, apparently produced 75,000 US barrels in 2008: 877,500hl. How about that for a serious spread in what can be considered a craft brewery, or even microbrewery?
For Mastri Birrai Umbri and Michele, it’s not about legal definitions, though, it’s about quality of ingredients; quality of production process (where time is perhaps the most important factor; not rushing the brew); quality and consistency of product; and a product that’s distinctive. He questions why you’d even want to create a legal definition for “craft beer” or “microbrewery”, as that could “put some borders” on your process, constrain your creativity.
So ultimately, Mastri Birrai Umbri might be fairly large scale, but with Michele as master brewer and the similarly proud Umbrian Marco Farchioni as his boss, its ideology remains firmly based on producing a quality product with passion, both for the brew itself and for traditional local ingredients used in the beers. All questions of craft beer, scale and strange ingredients aside, Michele simply says “We want to be a quality beer for every day.” They’re certainly making an impact, though if you want to try the beer in the UK, it’s currently available at Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion, an Umbrian restaurant in London.
To hear Michele giving us a tour of the brewery and further discussion of the concept of craft beer in relation to his product, check out Jeremy Cherfas’s Eat This Podcast.
* For fellow etymology geeks, these words may have their origins in viz + cerere, with viz the Latin for “force”, “strength”, and cerere related to our word “cereal” and the goddess of the harvest, Ceres (aka Demeter to the Greeks). So: drinks that contain the strength of cereal grains. There’s an Italian etymological explanation here.