Tag Archives: craft beer

Sardinian holiday – sun, scrub and craft beer

A beach on Isola Caprera, Sardinia. Pic: Fran Hortop

Last week we went to Sardinia for a holiday. During our two years in Rome we tried to explore Italy, but it’s a disparate, varied and not always easily connected country so we left with a long list of places we’d failed to reach. Sardinia was high on that list.

Our friend Annely recommended Maddalena archipelago in northeastern Sardinia. We plumped for it without too much agonising as it seemed to fit the bill for us – beach, some wilds, and a fairly easy journey.

The islands have a long historical association with the Italian navy, and even NATO (a US nuclear sub ran aground there in 2003; oops). There is still a navy presence there, but mostly the archipelago is defined by being a national park, and a destination for people who like to play about in boats. We don’t do the latter – instead we stuck with buses and hiking on Caprera, a largely unpopulated island to the east of La Maddalena island itself. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great unifier, had a house there, and indeed we saw his deathbed on a tour. I was more interested in seeing his windmill and forno (oven), both perched on a rocky hilltop.

Garibaldi's forno (under tree on right) and mill (left,without sails)

Pleasant surprises
After our days wandering the scrubby, aromatic macchia*, with its thickets of wild lavender, helichrysum, juniper, myrtle and cork oak and lying around reading by turquoise seas, we went back to La Maddalena port. There, we were very happy to find that one bar had beers from a couple of Sardinian craft breweries. Funny really, as this place – Bar Fiume di Serra Francesco – looked very ordinary but had the interesting beers, while a hip bar a stone’s throw away just had industrial crap beer.

One of these is Ichnusa – a lager that pertains to be Sardinian, and brewed since 1912. Thing is, these days it’s owned by Heineken, and I’d challenge anyone to really distinguish between the two, or a dozen other best-selling industrial lagers, in a blind tasting.

Macchia scrub on Isola Caprera. Pic: Fran Hortop

Real Sardo beer
The real beers we tried were from Marduk Brewery and P3 Brewing Company. All the ones we tried were excellent, and a great reminder of how exciting Italian craft beer is.

I’m enjoying being back in Britain, and having access to our dual cultures of traditional, CAMRA-endorsed, cask-dispensed real ale and lively US-influenced craft beer, but I really miss Italian craft beer. It’s such a dynamic scene, partly influenced by Italy’s food and drink great traditions, partly free of them and able to be experimental.

I love how I can drink something like P3’s 50 Nodi (“50 knots”) and not only get a whiff of the heady juniper macchia we’ve just been walking in but also get a whole long trail of heritage. It’s an Italian beer that’s called an India Pale Ale, but really it’s an IPA in part inspired by US IPAs, which have themselves evolved from the less intense older British IPAs.

The spiel on these beers is such fun too. This one says it has “high notes of caramel and intense floral, citrus and exotic fruit perfumes”. Me and Fran got pineapple and Parma Violets, among other things. Furthermore, “Il suo carattere forte deriva da una miscela di luppoli inglesi, americani e neozelandesi che vi accompagneranno in un viaggio sensoriale ineguagliabile” – “It’s strong character derives from a mix of English, America and New Zealand hops that accompany you on an incomparable sensory voyage”! Love it. (Those hops are Simcoe, Pacific Jade, Citra, Goldings.)

P3 Riff and Marduk American Pale Ale

We also enjoyed P3’s Riff, which they call a “Session White IPA” and, along with two (barley) malts also contains wheat malt, wheat flakes and oat flakes, along with four hops of US and English origin: Fuggle, Styrian Golding, Willamette and Citra. And coriander. And orange zest. All of which makes its presence felt, but in a neatly balanced mix.

Grow your own
While P3 is in Sassari, Sardinia’s second-largest city, located in the northwest, Marduk, meanwhile, is in Irgoli, in the east. Their tagline says they’re a Birrificio agricolo – a farm-brewery, or words to that effect. Another blurb in Il Fiume’s menu about Marduk says, “Le nostre birre nascono da un’accurata selezione delle materie prime che produciamo direttamente in azienda” – that is, “Our beers are born from a careful selection of ingredients produced directly within the farm/business.”

Marduk label

They grow their own barley and “diverse varietà di luppolo” (“various types of hop”) to maintain a close control on the process – and food miles. I mean, we were about 60 miles (92km) away but it was the closest craft brewery. We tried their American Pale Ale and American IPA, which were both great, though surely an APA segues into an AIPA? And surely these are uniquely Italian pale ales now anyway?

My local brewery here in Lewes, Harveys, similarly sources its ingredients locally, but this is something fairly new in Italian brewing, as hops weren’t grown there. When we left La Maddalena we had one night in Olbia, and found a bar that claimed online to sell local craft beers. They didn’t, but they did have a bottle of Nazionale from Baladin.

Baladin is the brewery that both started the Italian craft brewing scene, and the owner of the bar in Rome that introduced me to it, so it was nice to have a Nazionale – which Baladin developed to be the “first 100% Italian beer made with Italian ingredients.”

Marduk American IPA aperitivo snack

So all in all, very pleasing beer drinking on holiday. Even more so as we were back in the land of the aperitivo snack. Now back in England, we went out for a few drinks for Fran’s birthday yesterday at the Brighton Beer Dispensary and while the beers were great, the table did seem a bit bare without a plate of cheeses, salumi and breads. While Fran loved the cured meat products, I enjoyed the local Sardinian crispbread, pane carasau, sprinkled with Sardinian pecorino and melted. So civilised.

(I’ve written two more posts about this holiday: second and third.)

 

 

* In English, we use the related French word maquis for this kind of scrub. Not much point us having a word for it I suppose, as we don’t have any – it’s specifically a Mediterranean environment.

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Craft beer penetration in the USA, and the question of temperatures

Speakeasy beers at Embarcadero Center cinema

Nothing saucy, I’m just amazed and impressed at the ubiquity of real beers and craft beer in the US. It seems to penetrate every corner of booze retailing: I’ve seen it in a stinky, deeply unprepossessing neighbourhood general store in Bed-Stuy, in posh-ish restaurants in Manhattan’s West Village, in a decidedly not posh barbecue joint in smalltown Kansas, and in another general store in the sparsely populated Big Sur, California, which had maybe 100 different beers.

Never mind the Downtown San Francisco cinema we went to yesterday where the bar included 11 craft beers. (Though it fell down on a few more salient cinema practicalities: an obvious, tangible place to buy, you know, tickets, and clear signage to the actual, you know, auditoriums.) We drank local SF ales from Speakeasy brewery. The design is great; the beer was good too; and it was especially pleasant to be able to take it into the auditorium. (Despite then being told by an old biddy that I was “harassing” her, even though I was just sitting quietly minding my own business, supping ale and watching Dallas Buyers Club. I suspect she was riled by my tallness; but hey, I didn’t design the place and I had tried to sit right at the back.)

Embarcadero Center cinema bar menu - 11 craft beers!

Small and wide
I’ve seen small breweries all across the country, from Brooklyn, to Weston, Missouri, to Estes Park in the Rockies, to SF. I knew brewing was a thriving scene in places like SF, but this ubiquity and massive market penetration, this embrace of an artisan foodstuff in the country that sold the world the model of the worst industrialised pseudo-food (in the form of junk food chains, massive supermarkets etc) is enormously gratifyingly. And it puts the UK to shame.

Considering Britain is one of the spiritual homes of brewing we’re seriously lagging behind. The past 10 years have seen a massive resurgence in non-corporate, non-industrial brewing in the UK, with the number of breweries in London alone rising from a shocking two in 2006 to around 50 now, but the situation is still comparably dire. Even the classiest UK cinemas with bars could maybe only muster a few real beers, while our corner shops and general stores rarely have much beyond cans of Fosters and Stella. Or at least they do in the images that keep flashing through my mind’s eye from my memories of living in Blighty until we moved to Rome a few years ago. It might be marginally better now; I’ll find out when we settle back in home around Christmastime.

Board at the Magnolia, Haight

Fridge vs cellar
Having said all that, there’s one thing that the US seems to largely get wrong when it comes to real beer: the serving temperatures. The old joke goes that Brits like flat warm beer, but traditionally it’s not warm: it’s just not refrigerated. The proper temperature for a real beer is cellar temperature: not fridge temperature.

British brewers talk about this, Italian craft brewers talk about this; and in Italy, the craft beer (itself very inspired by US craft beer) in bottles almost always comes with temperature info on the label: it should be drunk at 8-14C (46-57F), depending on type. Cellar temperature. (Room temperature, meanwhile, may be around 20C (68C); that’d be a warm beer.)

Why you may ask? Well, it’s not just about tradition and ye olde temperature of ye olde cellars in ye olde British pubs. It’s about taste. When a beer, or a wine, is the wrong temperature, you don’t experience the taste to the full. When a beer is too cold, its scents will be quashed, so you want get the full preliminary smell, and your tongue’s receptors won’t be fully activated, so you won’t get the full taste experience.

Beers at Magnolia: Proving Ground IPA and Sara's Ruby Mild (right)

Yet all across the US I’ve been served really well made craft beers straight from the fridge, quashing their qualities. The whole “enjoy an ice cold beer” thing the big industrial brewers have promoted for their crappy lagers has taken over the entire spectrum of beer-drinking, it would seem, undermining the qualities of so many brews.

Of course, this is a generalisation. Different types of beers can be served at different temperatures. This piece (from California) on Ratebeer talks about how, generally, lighter beers can and should be served colder, and darker ales (eg Imperial stout) warmer (that is 14-16C, or 57-61F).

If you’re a fan of industrial lagers, meanwhile, knock yourself out with drinking them “ice cold” – it’ll suppress any flavour. In that respect, drinking ice cold lager is more like drinking bland soda pop: it’s refreshing because it’s cold (and I understand this appeal if it’s a really hot day), but it won’t provide any sort of interesting taste experience, it won’t provide a full organoleptic experience, if you want the fancy term.

This issue is one of the reasons I regret not having got onto a brewery tour during this journey across the US (they were booked up months ahead; we arrived at the wrong time; we just weren’t organised enough, etc). I really wanted to discuss it with some brewers. I suspect a lot of them would agree with me, but they can’t control how people store their products, and it’s hard to counter decades of “ice cold” marketing.

Fish and chips and ale at the Magnolia

Our last night, last night
Still, last night, our final night in the US, I at least had a nice chat with a guy in Magnolia on Haight. He was your standard craft beer hipster with a big beard and tattoos, but was informative and told us about how this brewgastropub uses “high end ingredients” (the menu talks about their enthusiasm for English bitter styles and Marris Otter malts) and how they’re “one of the few places that do” have a cellar, for storing their casks at the appropriate temperatures.

None of us knew what “aphotic” meant though, when Fran had an Aphotic Baltic Porter. Reading now, it’s the portion of a lake or ocean without sunlight, which is a great name for this inky black, blackcurranty beer.

We also drank two of Magnolia’s three own brews: Sara’s Ruby Mild, a 3.9% ale in a low carbonation English bitter style, deep red in colour, with a smell “like Bolognaise sauce” (Fran) and a maltiness that was more milky (like Ovaltine) than caramelly; and Proving Ground IPA, a fairly strong (7%), fairly acridly bitter, slightly salty hopped ale.

Like the Spotted Pig, where we went in the West Village in New York, Magnolia is one of those places that does the pub + food combo so much better than many gastropubs I’ve been too in the UK. They even did some great fish and chips. And did beer themed desserts.

Beer-themed desserts at the Magnolia

It was a great end to my beer odyssey across the States. I’m trying not to have any booze at lunchtime, as tonight we’re getting on a 13 hour/two day (date line, innit) flight and want to be feeling as fresh as possible before this dehydrating, discomforting, dehumanising aero-schlep.

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Post number 100, a celebration of Italian craft beer, and getting ready to leave Rome

Italian craft beers

According to WordPress’s strange date conventions I started this blog with a post published 2012/11/07. For most of the world1, this would otherwise be known as 07/11/2012, 7 November 2012.

It was started so I had a place to write about my baking experiments, my interest in the baked goods I encountered while living in Rome, where we moved in August 2011, and my burgeoning enthusiasm for Italian birre artigianali (artisan beers, craft beer).

Some Baladin beers

Leon, Wayan and Isaac from Baladin, the brewery that really kicked it all off in Italy and still produces many of the best, most intereting beers here.

Now, almost 11 months later, I’ve arrived at my 100th post…. just as we’re preparing to leave Rome after two roller-coaster years. These included:
difficult work (Fran);
unpaid work/unemployment (me; including one [dubious] SF-fantasy novel, an internship on the American Academy’s Sustainable Food Project, and this educating-myself-about beer and waffling on about baking project);
faltering attempts to learn Italian;
lots of baking (some great; some heavy; some that went mushy);
lots of food (some amazing, a lot mediocre);
lots of beer (mostly interesting);
bewilderment at the Italian ways of doing things (or not doing things; like having to wait five months to get our internet connected, or the post office that doesn’t sell stamps);
still no kids (sadly);
neighbours from hell (WTF!? It’s 4am! Again! Che cazzo state facendo?! Stiamo provando di dormire. Mortacci tua!);
zanzare;
some great new friends;
witnessing Palme d’Or winner Nanni Moretti move in next door;
and, overall, an incredible immersion in this bonkers, intoxicating, dilapidated, exasperating, traffic-choked, caffeine-fuelled, history-sozzled city.

Draco beer

Draco, from Birrificio Montegioco. Made with bilberry (aka blueberry) syrup, no less.

When I wrote the 99th post, I thought, “Accidenti! I better do something interesting for the arbitrary landmark of number 100″. But that stymied me.

So instead, here are a load of pictures of beer. They’re mostly from a party we had at the weekend that doubled tripled up as a goodbye, a free jumble sale, and a celebration of Italian craft beer. Although we had a great selection of fascinating brews, they are only the tip of the iceberg of the 500 or so birra artigianale breweries currently operating in Italy. I wish I could stay here and keep on drinking my way through them, but we need to return to Britain.

Noa Reserve

Noa Reserve – one of the strangest beers we had that evening. Aged in barrels, it basically tastes of whisky, brandy, or as our friend MM said, “a memory of foreign land you’ve never been too.”

I do hope any readers of this blog won’t be put off by the fact I won’t have the glamorous “I live in Rome” factor any more. For the next few months, we’ll be visiting friends and family in the US and NZ, before settling back home around Christmas. So the blog will change slightly – not its tone, but its context.

We’ll see how it goes.

I certainly have no intention of stopping baking and I’m really excited to get back to the real beer scene in the UK, which, like that of Italy, has grown exponentially the past few years, with 197 new breweries opening in the past year alone, while London alone has nearly 50, up from just two in 2006.

Ecco, more photos of beer:

Marche'l Re

Marchè’l Re from Loverbeer brewery. Possibly even stranger than Noa Reserve, me and chef Chris Behr concluded it was like “drinking fruit beer from an ashtray”.2

Gotica from Brasserie Lacu

Gotica from Brasserie Lacu, a light double malted Belgian abbey ale – made in Belgium for the Italian market.

Rubbiu MRL

Can’t really find out much about this one, Rubbiu, but it was a great gift – as it came from a small brewery in a friend’s small home town outside Rome.

Zagara beer from Barley brewery

Zagara beer, an orange blossom honey ale from Barley brewery in Sardinia. So the first Sardinian beer I’ve ever had.

Line-up left

Line-up, centre

Line-up, right

And finally, a bit of nocturnal ambience. Thanks to anti-mosquito candles.

Isaac, anti-mozzie candles

1 Except you contrarians in the US, of course, who would insist on confusing the rest of us by using putting 11/07/2012 for 7 November 2012.

2 We didn’t necessarily mean this in a bad sense. I wish I’d written about Loverbeer more in my time here, but I’ve only really discovered them fairly recently. (I did write about their Madamin.) As they really are producing some of the most interesting beers in Italy. They seem intent on combining the traditions and tastes of wine and beer. So their D’uva beer  is made with 20% grape must and tastes much more like a sparkling wine than a beer, not unlike say Birra del Borgo’s Rubus.

I’m increasingly interested in this whole area of making beer that doesn’t really taste of hops or malt. It’s fascinating, and I’m very divided. The above mentioned Noa Reserve, from Almond ’22 brewery, is another example, as is the fascinating Etrusca (which can be seen in one of the above pics), a beer made by three different breweries (Baladin and Borgo in Italy, and Dogfish Head in the US) according to an ancient recipe; it tastes much more like wine or mead than beer. I very much enjoyed experiencing the weirder beers we had, but I think my favourite of the evening was Ius Primae Noctis (“right of the first night”, Latin for “droit du seigneur”), a hoppy, citrussy Italian APA from Birrificio Aurelio, which is in Ladispoli, not far from Rome. So yes, I’m clearly not leaving behind hoppy beers any time soon.

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Fermentazioni 2013 beer festival, Rome

Cheers, sampling ales at Fermentazioni 2013

Saturday it was summer in Rome, with blazing sunshine, Sunday it was winter, with pouring rain. This kind of weather is probably helpful for us, as we’re leaving soon, and will be back living in England in a few months: where this kind of schizo weather is the norm.

Luckily, it was also warm and dry on Friday evening, when we went along to the first day of the first ever Fermentazioni Festival delle birre artigianali (“Craft beer festival”).

This event has been set up by Andrea Turco, beer expert and author of Italy’s principle beer blog, Cronache di Birra. Turco is a Roman who has been working to spread his passion for birre artigianale in and beyond the region for the past decade-ish. He founded Cronache di Birra in 2008 as “una sorta di aggregatore di notizie e opinioni birrarie in forma di blog” (“a sort of aggregator for news and opinions in the form of a blog”).

Although we only had one evening at the event, it seemed to (largely) go well. Around 30 (I didn’t write them all down1) of Italy’s most exciting craft beer producers were invited along, and set up in two compact rows in the confines of Officine Farneto, a handsome modernist building that’s been repurposed as a conference and events centre.

Despite the place’s post-industrial charms, some shortcomings of the venue became immediately obvious. It’s tucked up behind the Olimpic Stadium in northwest Rome, and neither the event’s nor the venue’s website gave any information about how to get there on public transport. That’s typically Roman; they’re mad for cars. Except there wasn’t really any parking either.

Cambi gettoni, "Token exchange", Fermentazioni 2013

No matter, we made it in the end, got in (€8) and managed to exchange cash for gettoni (tokens). Each €1 token was good for one 10cl2 beer sample. There was food too: six tokens got you a Gabriele Bonci burger, €5 got you a small Stefano Callegari trappizzino3.

Unfortunately, we didn’t exchange enough cash initially, and later on the queue for the gettoni was enormous and very slow. And of course it was an Italian queue, something that can be something stressful if you’re British. We’re expert queuers; we take our queues very seriously.

I don’t think I can go through all the beers I tried (quite a few, between 8.30pm and 1am), partly as my notes, in retrospect, aren’t very ordered, but among those I enjoyed were:

Almond ʼ22ʼs Pink IPA which smelt of sour fruit but was very sweet and velvety smooth to taste. It’s made with, among other things, pink peppercorns.
• Almond ʼ22ʼs Torbata, a barley wine that was smooth to drink, with notes of nuts, dried fruit.
• Almond ʼ22ʼs Farrotta, which also had a similar combination of sharply fruit smell and smooth to drink. Made with farro – Italian’s multipurpose name for three older varieties of wheat, so, yes, it’s effectively a kind of wheat beer.

Almond '22 at Fermentazioni 2013

Amitaʼs Marsilia (??), a beer that’s salty yet refreshing, fruity and smooth.
Croce di Maltoʼs Acerbus (I think), which was the closest I’ve experienced to a certain type of strong English bitter from an Italian craft brewery. Hand-pumped, lean head, brown colour, balanced flavour.
Eremoʼs Magnifica amber ale. This was yummy. Really nicely balance and easy, but also full-bodied. Orange, caramel, apple scents and flavours. (Oh, and if you do visit the site,  the landing page has a video of a modelly girl looking really harried working in the beer bar, presumably in Assisi, where the brewery is based. It’s a bit of a strange message: you enjoy the beer while she suffers.)
Karmaʼs Sumera, a spiced golden ale with bergamot with notes of toffee, banana and, yes, Earl Grey.
• Karmaʼs Radica, which is made with gentian roots but rather than being bitter like the digestivo amaro di genziana (gentian bitters), was surprisingly sweet, maybe because it’s also made with liquorice and ginger roots. Scent like fresh laundry.

Lambrate at Fermentazioni 2013

Lambrateʼs Quarantot, a double IPA that had a slightly sweaty smell, but is sharp, tart, very bitter, dry and crisp but also smooth and gently sweet. Our friend Nora said it was like a Vin Santo beer, which was spot-on.
Piccolo Birrificio Clandestinoʼs Montinera imperial stout. Full-bodied and seriously red meaty, with liquorice notes.
• Piccolo Birrificio Clandestinoʼs Villa Serena blonde ale, floral perume, very fresh and light to drink. Cute name for the outfit too – “Little Clandestine Brewery”.

Toccalmatto at Fermentazioni 2013

Toccalmattoʼs Salty Angel. An even weirder salt ale – made with red currants and Maldon sea salt. When I asked why they used this salt from Essex, England, not an Italian sea-salt, I don’t think he heard me as his answer was like a politician’s, ie unrelated to the question. (It was later on and the music really was too flippin’ loud.) Either it’s an interesting challenge or the flavours are fighting each other. I’d like to try it again.
Turanʼs Sfumatura Imperial Stout, on a hand pump. I thought this would be my wife Fran’s best ever beer as she’s a stout drinker, and she loves bacon, and even yucky “bacon flavoured” crisps. This stout has a massive smoky bacon hit, a suggestion the guy serving didn’t seem to like.

Mostly, I was drawn to the weirder or more innovative stuff. I’m increasingly enjoying beers I find a bit challenging, so by later on this is what I was asking for. I even took one away, Noa from Almond ’22, on the recommendation of Hande Leimer, sommelier and founder of VinoRoma. It sounds like an interesting and exciting beer, but I haven’t opened my bottle yet. (Think I’m going to do a weird-and-wonderful-beers tasting session one evening soon).

As the evening wore on, the DJs, playing rock, pop, grunge and whatnot, started cranking up the volume. This gave the event a more studenty/club atmosphere, which might have suited the young, and surprisingly gender-mixed, crowd, but it kinda inhibited talking to the brewery representatives or discussing the beers. Overall though, the beers were great. Indeed, my friend Michele Sensidoni, master brewer at Umbrian brewery Mastri Birrai Umbri, said it was the best selection of Italian craft beers he’s experienced, and he really knows the scene inside out.

Fermentazioni 2013 glass pouch

Footnotes
1 The website lists 30. Apparently there are 586 craft breweries operating in Italy at present, Sept 2013.
2 That is, 100ml, or just under a fifth of a pint (imperial), or 3.5 imperial fluid oz, or 3.4 US fluid oz.
3 So a tad pricier than actually visiting the hole-in-the-wall outlet for this filled triangular pizza pocket – 00100 Pizza in Testaccio, Rome.

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Loverbeer’s Madamin oak amber ale at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà?

Loverbeer's Madamin at Ma Che Siete a Fa, Trastevere, Rome

Exactly two years ago, me and Fran, the missus, moved to Rome. We opted to travel by train, leaving England in a mild-mannered 17C and arriving in Rome to a fierce 40C-ish heat.

So naturally we were thirsty.

Before we moved into what would be our home for the next two years, we spent a few nights in a flat in cutesy old Trastevere. And would you believe it, right at the end of our street was one of Rome’s best beer bars. This was Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà? The wonderful name means “But what have you come here to do?” It’s apparently a football chant – effectively taunting the rival team with “why bother?”. But in context of walking into this Hobbity hole-in-the-wall boozer, the obvious answer is “drink quality beer, of course”. The bar does have a football thing going on, with two TV screens, I didn’t really register this element initially, as they had such an intriguing selection of beers.

Furthermore, as we’d just moved from Lewes in southern England, it was amusing to discover posters for Harvey’s Brewery, a Lewes institution, in Ma Che’s (generally fairly smelly, now redecorated and still fairly smelly) back room.

Harvey's brewery poster at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa', Trastevere, Rome

As 25 August was our two-years-in-Rome anniversary, I thought we needed to go back to Ma Che and drink some more interesting beer.

Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces
We’d already had three or so fairly boozy days, so I vowed to just have one beer. I wanted something weird and challenging after all the nice easy golden ales I’ve been drinking lately. There was a selection of about 16 beers on tap, with three on hand pump. They rotate their stock, but on this visit the beers were from Italy, Germany, Belgium and Norway.

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa' beers, 25 August 2013

I try to only drink beer from the nation I’m in at the time, so it had to be Italian, giving me a choice of nine. Ruling out the golden ale, pils and IPA narrowed it down more. Stouts are Fran’s department, so that ruled out another two. In the end, I chose Madamin Oak Amber Ale from Loverbeer brewery, which is in the Turin region of Piedmont, northwest Italy.

adamin is an unusual beer by any standards.  It’s very fruity as it’s been conditioned in “tini di rovere” – oak vats, formerly used for wine production. I found it very sour and tart, and the initial fruitiness I got in the smell and taste was more sour cherry, plum and blackcurrant than grape. Maybe this was my memory playing tricks on me though as one of the first ever beers I had in Ma Che two years earlier was a kriek lambic.

Anyway. Some more info. It’s a top fermentation beer, inspired, according to the blurb on Loverbeer’s site, by Belgian beers – meaning lambics, as the fermentation here relies on wild yeasts in the wood of the vats, specifically Brettanomyces (aka Brett, Dekkera), in contrast to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae more commonly associated with controlled bread, beer and wine production.

Taps, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa', Trastevere, Rome

Beer, wine, scrumpy
The blurb also says that the process heightens the acidity and restrains the bitterness of the beer, making it a versatile drink that’s suitable accompaniment for Mediterranean cuisine.  (“L’acidità appena pronunciata e l’amaro molto contenuto, rendono questa birra versatile  negli abbinamenti e adatta ai piatti tipici della cucina mediterranea.”) I’m not sure about this: do Italians want their beers to be more sour and fruity? I get the impression from the amount of vile strong import lager (Ceres, Tennent’s) Italians drink, many prefer acrid, metallic lagers.

Either way, I’m not sure it’d be a good meal accompaniment. It was too deciso (“decisive”). And indeed, it’s a beer that simultaneously complex and strangely rustic, like some pungent, low carbonation farmhouse scrumpy from the Southwest of England.

Loverbeer Madamin and Brewfist Fear at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa'?

So this 5.7% ABV, handsomely reddish-brown, medium-light bodied beer, named after the Piedmontese dialect for “young lady” (madamin, closer to the French mademoiselle than the Italian signorina), was certainly an interesting choice. A memorable beer to celebrate our two-year anniversary in Rome. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll be rushing to buy it again. Though I’m always happy to try the wares at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà?, an essential destination for any beer enthusiasts visiting Rome.

Info
Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà?
Address: Via di Benedetta 25, Trastevere, 00153 Rome, Italy
Tel (+39) 380 507 4938 | football-pub.com (English site)

Lovebeer di Valter Loverier
Strada Pellinciona 7, 10020 Marentino, Piedmont, Italy
Tel (+39) 3473636680 | loverbeer.com | info@loverbeer.it

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Real beer, real bread, and how to define “craft” foods

Bottled beer conditioning at Mastri Birrai Umbri

(I know long-form blogging isn’t popular these days, but think of this more as an essay. Hell, it’s no longer than an article in the paper.)

Visiting Mastri Birrai Umbri (MBU) and talking with MBU’s master brewer Michele Sensidoni and science and food communicator Jeremy Cherfas, who did a podcast about the visit here, really got me thinking about the whole question of craft foods. Especially beer and bread, as they’re my obsessions and they’re siblings born together at the start of human civilisation. Specifically, it got me thinking more about how one defines such craft foods. If you’re a baker, brewer or beer enthusiast, this is something you probably think about too.

I’ve visited MBU before, last year, and one thing that struck me then, and on the second visit with Jeremy, was the sense that the brewery was a place of industry and science. Of course it is, in literal terms – with industry meaning diligently creating something, and brewing (like baking) being a process that involves a sophisticated balance of biological processes. But also, it seemed industrial in the more technological sense, of large-scale metal equipment, and a small scale human presence. The fact that MBU is currently Italy’s biggest craft brewery, producing 1 million litres of beer a year, would seem to confirm this. And yet it is still a craft brewery.

Putting it perspective
Of course “Craft brewery” and “microbrewery” are difficult terms. Different countries have various legal or tax-related definitions of them, different organisation or beer writers have varying semantic interpretations of them.

In the broadest sense, though, a craft brewery is small, independent and uses traditional techniques. The Brewers Association in the US indeed includes these parameters in its definition, but then it goes on to define the production limit as “6 million [US] barrels or less” that is around 700 million litres or 7 million hectolitres (hl). Which is a helluva lot bigger than MBU, and doesn’t sound that small. But compared to the mega-brewery conglomerates it is. This 2010 Reuters article says Anheuser-Busch InBev (producer of the US Budweiser, amongst other brands) produced 350 million hl in 2009, and SABMiller (which owns innumerable brands including the nominally Italian Peroni Nastro Azzuro), just less than 250 million hl.

Which does put into perspective.

That perspective goes even more squiffy, however, when you consider that in the UK a craft brewery, or microbrewery, is generally considered to be one producing less than 500,000 litres (5,000 hl).

This definition of sorts came about because of the Progressive Beer Duty, a system introduced in the UK in 2002 to help encourage small, local breweries, with lower taxation based on the scale of the operation. The system originated in Germany and although it has its critics, it has been credited as one of the key factors in the rapid expansion of the small brewery scene in the UK and elsewhere.

Progressive Beer Duty was adopted throughout the EU and was potentially a factor in the expansion of the Italian craft beer scene too. There are currently around 500 craft breweries in Italy. A threshold for their production is 10,000hl per year, though the country has no other, specific legal definition of craft brewery. Indeed, in Jeremy’s interview, Michele discusses how introducing a legal definition in Italy could have a negative impact, as there’s so much variation in the Italian craft brewery scene it could impose restrictions on creativity. (And have no tangible effect on quality.)

Honest beer
For Michele, craft brewing is more about the ingredients and how you use them, about innovation, and about how much you care about the quality of the product. He also believes that although large-scale breweries could produce quality craft beers, instead they compromise. They rush. So whereas a brewery like MBU might condition their brews for months, a large scale industrial brewer might rush the process in 12 days or so. This rush, he said, “is not the best for the beer, but it’s the best for your distribution chain, it’s the best for your sales manager, it’s the best for your volume production.”

Jeremy mooted a potential definition of MBU’s beer as not craft or artisanal or industrial, but “honest” – where there’s total clarity, indeed pride, about the ingredients. But this notion of large scale industrial beer being rushed also immediately made me think of bread. Or more specifically the principle problem with rushed, large-scale industrial wheat-based products. From the spongy, plastic wrapped products made with Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) that dominate the UK to Italy’s comparable crime against nutrition, tradition, and taste, pancarré.

A few years ago, when I was still living in the UK, I became a supporter of the Real Bread Campaign (RBC). This was founded in 2008 under the aegis of Sustain, “the alliance for better food and farming” and its rise in prominence has paralleled the renaissance in interest in real baking. In some ways, the Real Bread Campaign is a cousin to CAMRA, the UK-Irish Campaign for Real Ale that was founded in 1971 to counter the rising tide of bad industrial beer that was then starting to dominate bars. Likewise, the RBC was started, in part, to counter the white sliced crap and encourage people to demand the real deal.

I’m not a CAMRA member, but I enjoy visiting pubs they’ve endorse and respect their goals, specifically to protect the production of real ale, and educate about it. They have specific definitions of what qualifies as “real ale”, a term they coined. The full definition can be found here, but it starts by saying “Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”

The Real Bread Campaign has not dissimilar definitions. After all, both bread and beer depend on the naturally occurring, unrushed action of living yeast (and bacteria) for fermentation: the process that transforms grains into digestible and delicious products. Of course, the key difference between the siblings is that baking kills the yeast, so the ultimate bread product is not a living thing like real ale, where the process is ongoing (until your stomach kills the yeasts).

The Real Bread Campaign’s definitions are here but the crux is: “Real Bread is that made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives.” It continues, “Technically, the only ingredients essential for making bread are flour and water. With these two things you can make flatbreads and sourdoughs. That said, without a little pinch of salt bread can be a tad bland, and you might prefer to let someone else culture the yeast, rather than do it yourself. So, for plain Real Bread that gives us at most: flour, water, yeast, salt. Anything else is, by definition, unnecessary.”

They do say “plain Real Bread” and allow that you can add other ingredients “as long as they are natural” (eg seeds, milk etc). I like this about the Real Bread Campaign, it’s clear and passionate, but not unrealistic. I have the sense that CAMRA, for example, wouldn’t have liked the beer I was drinking last night as it contained spices and jasmine blossom; even though it was top fermented, bottle conditioned and these added ingredients were natural.

Anyway, according to RBC definitions CBP products simply are not bread; they have too many dubious additives, they’re made in too much of a rush.

Keepin’ it real

So for me, rather than talking about real ale, or craft beer, or microbrewery beer, or honest beer, I’d rather just talk about real beer. It’s a term that’s come from these discourses about real ale and real bread. I feel  I can’t use the term “real ale” unless the beer in question stricly conforms to CAMRA’s definition: and that would exclude much of Italy’s wonderful birre artigianale (artisan beer). Indeed, there’s arguably a danger than CAMRA can be overly dogmatic in its perception of tradition, and traditional beer.

Respect for tradition is essential for craft food production, but there’s a danger of being reactionary, which isn’t.

One thing I love about the Italian birre artigianale scene is how dynamic it is, how open to ideas. So much of Italy food culture is mired in tradition, and as such can be hidebound. Just read John Dickie’s great book Delizia and the chapter about what qualifies as pesto, for example. It’s absurd. Likewise, viniculture here is effectively strictly regulated by tradition, with very little room for creativity.

As I said in my previous post, there’s been beer in Italy for millennia, but as it’s never been a dominant drink, it never got so mired in tradition. So now, all these craft breweries are able to take inspiration from all over the world, notably from the dynamic US craft beer scene, but also from Britain, Belgium, and beyond.

Plus, they can also dip into local tradition, to give their products distinctive, like MBU using local legumes in the brew for example. Or they can dip into classical history, for things like the Etrusca experiment co-ordinated between Italy’s great craft breweries Baladin and Birra del Borgo and the US big name craft brewer Dogfish Head, which involved working with a biomolecular archaeologist to create a beer made with ingredients consumed by the Etruscans two and a half millennia-plus ago.

Time – too important to rush
Quality beer is the result of respecting proper fermentation and conditioning times. Likewise, quality bread is the result of respecting proper fermentation times. Proper fermentation means waiting.

The Real Bread Campaign says, “Real Bread is a natural product and just as with fruit or cheese it takes time for it to ripen. Although research so far has been limited, there is growing evidence that leaving dough to rise for longer periods can have a range of benefits to the consumer.” Benefits to the point of being more digestible, or even being able to help reduce disorders such as coeliac. One such piece of evidence comes from scientists in Italy who concluded “a 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with celiac disease.”

This is the main problem with the Chorleywood Bread Process.* Throughout history, bread has been made by slowly fermenting wheat flour, then the CBP was developed in the 1960s, millennia-old fermentation times were thrown out and since then more and more people have reported digestive problems from eating CBP products.

Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.

A definition of real bread and real beer
So my definition of real beer, or real bread, would be a product that’s made with the proper respect for time. (Indeed, all good produce requires time – hence the Slow Food movement’s name.) Time, quality natural ingredients, a passion for the product.

It doesn’t matter if the brewery or bakery in question is all shiny stainless steel or a more rudimentary shed. What matters are time, quality natural ingredients and passion.

I’d even add that it requires a respect for and knowledge of tradition, but not a dogmatic adherence to it. Like Italy’s craft brewers, free from being mired in tradition. Not all their beers are necessarily great, but I at least admire their willingness to experiment, to enjoy their craft – and to relish taking the time to try make great real beer.

* I know the CBP was developed to enable British bakers to use lower-protein British flours, to reduce UK dependence on imported, higher protein (14-15%) flours, but that’s a whole other argument. Indeed, as far as I can tell, many Italian bakers still make stupendous traditional breads without recourse to Manitoba (ie Canadian strong flour), instead relying on traditional Italian flours with lower protein (11-12%).

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Mastri Birrai Umbri brewery visit

Light malt at Mastri Birra Umbri

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.

The sala cottura, or brewhouse, at Mastri Birrai Umbri

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.

Cicerchia, aka chickling vedge or grass peas, used in Mastri Birrai Umbri's Cotta 37 amber ale

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.

The fancy German-made mash tun at Mastri Birrai Umbri

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.

Bottling conveyor at Mastri Birrai Umbri

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.

Master brewer Michele Sensidoni at Mastri Birrai Umbri

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.

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Revelation Cat beers at Brasserie 4:20, Rome

Brasserie 4:20 Rome, the bar

Brasserie 4:20 is not in a prepossessing location. Sure it’s located not far from Porta Portese, a 17th century gate in Rome’s 3rd century Aurelian Wall. And sure the actual street, Via Potuense, is historical, constructed in the 1st century AD to connect the city to Portus at the mouth of the Tiber. And sure the section where Brasserie 4:20 is located comes alive on Sundays for the Porta Portese market, a kilometre-plus of stalls selling tat clothes, cheap electricals and bric-a-brac. It’s even the place to go in Rome to buy bikes or scooters of occasionally dubious provenance. (Porta Portese is one of the locations of Antonio’s desperate search in Vittorio De Sica’s unbearably heartwrenching neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di biciclette, 1948]: go to 9:52 here.)

But, frankly, this stretch of Via Portuense is a scruffy rat-run.

At rush hour, it’s an untrammelled racetrack for Rome’s horrendous car population, and not a great place to tackle on foot – there are no pavements, just potholed gutters. One side of the road is given over to semi-derelict buildings, wasteland and one restaurant overlooking the Tiber. The other side, where 4:20 is located, consists of a large, graffitied wall punctuated with arches. Even when 4:20 is open, it doesn’t exactly look inviting – a dark entrance in the wall, a few smokers outside.

So I’ve walked past dozens of times, without even quite making it inside. Shame on me really, as it’s a) not that far from where I live and b) one of Rome’s most significant birrerie (beer bars).

We resolved to finally visit on Saturday, meeting several Italian friends, many of them counfounding stereotypes by enjoying good beer as much as wine.

Fortunately, at 5.45pm on a Saturday the stretch of Via Portuense was quiet, Brasserie 4:20 safe to approach on foot. The bar was quiet too as although the sun is well and truly over the yardarm as far as we (and other Brits) are concerned, 6-ish is a freaky time to have a drink for Italians, as one of our friends commented straight away on their arrival. Still, at least it meant we had our choice of seating.

Some of the beers available at Brasserie 4:20 Rome

Downstairs is an atmospherically gloomy cavern of bare brick walls, a long bar featuring a barricade of taps, and seating that includes a couple of inviting (though tight) horseshoe-shaped booths. We settled into one of these, not realising there was also an upstairs terrace, with awnings. This was handy as we’d just had a massive thunderstorm, which had given way to blazing sunshine. After ordering our first beers, we relocated upstairs to enjoy the space and partake of an aperitivo buffet. It was basic – some couscous, some pasta salad, bread, a few dips – but included in the price of the drinks at that time of the evening.

As for the drinks, 4:20 only has beer, whiskey and water. Downstairs, there are apparently 47 taps, including 12 hand pumps, though I didn’t count them. Upstairs, there’s a more limited selection, with six taps, but hey, it’s hardly a long schlep back, down some stairs and past a mound of containers of fry oil. Yes, there’s also food. In this case, that means burgers (mostly), the smell of which was filling the air on the terrace. They use beer a lot in the preparation of the food, though we didn’t sample anything beyond the buffet.

Some more of the beers available at Brasserie 4:20 Rome

Beer-wise, there are menus on blackboards on the wall. We weren’t offered an actual menu, though they may exist, especially as they have a selection of bottled beers. These are the only refrigerated beers, as the tap beers are kept in a cellar and served at ambient temperature – important for the “organoleptic quality” according to their site. What this means is that the precise qualities of a bar are better experienced – by smell, taste etc – at ambient temperature. (Ice cold beer is of course nice on a hot day but that’s another argument.)

The beer comes from a variety of craft breweries, some Italian, but also a lot of Belgian, British etc. Among the Italian breweries, a major presence here is Revelation Cat (English site) – a Rome-based outfit whose products are distributed by Impex, which owns 4:20 as far as I can tell. So Revelation Cat is effectively the house brewery.

When we visited, there were 13 Revelation Cat beers available. Fran chose their Little Lover, a 4.5% ABV stout so chocolaty it could almost have been mistaken for a milkshake in a blind tasting. Okay, not really, but it was very pleasant, in a sweet, mild, creamy kind of way.

I’m still on a quest to find a perfect golden summer ale, so I was torn between Salada from Lariano brewery, in Lombardy – a golden ale al sale, “with salt” – and Magical Mystery Gold from Free Lions, a brewery I talked about over here. I got the latter as it was from a little closer to home, Tuscania, northwest of Rome. I’ve still not found my ultimate golden ale, but Magical Mystery Gold wasn’t bad. I seem to be drinking a lot of citrussy beers at the moment, and this was no exception with an aroma of grapefruit. Taste-wise, it was strongly hopped, dry and crisp.

Brasserie 4:20 Rome, the roof terrace, July 2013

We managed to get in a couple more after this, from the small selection on the terrace. These were California Moonset and Take My Adweisse. We had to order the latter on the strength of the terrible pun alone. Both are from Revelation Cat. These were served in jars. This seems like a strange affectation; I’d rather drink from something that doesn’t have a thread on the lip. The beers were both interesting though.

Take My Adweisse is a 4.5% hoppy American wheat ale. It’s not terribly bitter, but instead is crisp, fairly floral (elder, etc), and refreshing. California Moonset, on the other hand, was fairly odd. It’s nominally a 7% IPA, but I found it pretty challenging, with a pungent odour of, well…. rot? Cat pee? I’d need to drink it again to really nail the description, but I found the smell almost off-putting. Taste-wise it was pretty hoppy, with some serious clashing flavours – resin, citrus, malt. I’m not sure whether it was interesting or unrefined.

Take My Adweisse (left) and California Moonset (right) from Revelation Cat. In jars.

Anyway, after all that we had to go – as we had a birthday to attend at Open Baladin, perhaps Rome’s best known beer bar. This experience of two key beer Roman birrerie in one day was telling. Although we had a good time at 4:20, and I’ll definitely go again, I found our welcome a bit unfriendly there, with three staff just giving us a cool stare when we first arrived. Baladin, on the other hand, I’ve always found more friendly, and the staff ready with advice.

Also, I had my most interesting beer of the evening at Baladin. I asked a friend who works there what she thought was their best beer at the moment, and she recommended a Wallonie saison beer, from Extraomnes, another Lombardy brewery. I’m increasingly getting into saisons as they seem to be challenging without the confusion of a beer like California Moonset. This 6.7% beer was golden-orange in colour, with a serious head and an inviting perfume of herbs and spice. Flavour-wise it balanced a slight peppery piquancy with notable, but not overly bitter, hoppiness and a broad fruitiness, tending finally to crisp and dry. In my notes I wrote “fermenting fruit, bubblegum”. Hm.

All in all, a great evening of socialising and beer sampling. And I’m definitely keen to get back to 4:20, see if I can warm them up a bit asking for recommendations, as it’s certainly a serious beer joint, for fans of real beer.

Infodump:
Brasserie 4:20, Via Portuense 82, 00153 Rome
Impexbeer.com 4:20 site (English)
Open Mon-Sat from 5pm, Sun from 7pm.

Revelation Cat brewery

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Baladin’s Nora at Le Café Vert, Monteverde, Rome

Thursday night, difficult week. Me and Mrs BC&A, aka Fran, decided we deserved a drink. Though we couldn’t be bothered to range beyond our Roman neighbourhood, Monteverde Vecchio. It’s not a best hood for a beer, but one café-bar-bistro has a reasonable selection of bottled craft beers (or whatever you want to call microbrewery fare. It’s called birra artigianale here in Italy – artisan beer). This is Le Café Vert, which opened not much more than a year ago, demonstrating how Italy’s urge to eat and drink continues to defy The Global Depression. As King Silvio said back in November 2011, “The life in Italy is the life of a wealthy country: consumptions haven’t diminished, it’s hard to find seats on planes, our restaurants are full of people.”

Quite why this bar has French name, and the lady serving us kept saying voila not the Italian equivalent ecco, I don’t know, but rest assured it’s in Rome, with great Italian beers and aperitivo snacks included in the price of the drink for a period every evening. According to their site, they stock beers from four Italian microbeweries: Baladin (which is Piedmont, NW Italy); Birra del Borgo (which is in Lazio, the central Italian region around Rome); ‘na Birretta (which is also in Lazio); and Birra di Fiemme (which is in Trentino, NE Italy).

We entered, glanced around, and I saw Baladin’s distinctive labels. I’ll be honest and say I don’t really like Baladin’s design style, which pervades Open Baladin bar in Rome and the labels on the bottle. It’s kinda scrappy, cartoony, vaguely Keith Haring, vaguley hippy, like someone’s mate did it, someone who’s not a professional designer. But remember kids, don’t judge a beer by its label. Baladin beers remain among my favourites, in part because Open Baladin was my entry point to birre artigianale. It’s not cosy like a nice British pub, its food is middling (especially if you’re not a fan of beef burgers on brioche buns), but its beer selection is stupendous, with dozens of craft beers, mostly Italian, on tap, and there are some very knowledgeable, helpful staff there too.

Anyway. We chose a Baladin “Nora” – we had to, as it was our friend Nora’s birthday, so we could drink it in her honour. This beer was named after another Nora – the wife of Teo Musso, the founder and master brewer of Baladin. Musso is a big name in the Italian beer scene, and for good reason. Baladin is apparently the biggest microbrewery by volume-produced in Italy (according to my chum, who is the brewmaster of the second-biggest, Mastri Birrai Umbri). Baladin brewery produces around a dozen varied, fascinating brews. Musso and his colleagues aren’t afraid of experimenting, of unusual ingredients, and Nora is no exception.

At first glance and sip, Nora’s a wheat beer, relatively pale, aromatic, slightly sickly-sweet (in a good way – if that’s possible. I’m not a big fan of wheat beers, so maybe that’s just me). But it’s not made with wheat, or at least it’s not made with a modern wheat strain. Instead, it contains both malted barley and “Kamut”, which is a branded version of Khorosan wheat (Triticum turanicum), an ancient strain. (I discuss wheat strains here.)

There are other ingredients too that make their presence felt in a certain spiciness and perfume: ginger and, get this, myrrh. Now we all know the latter was one of the gifts the Baby J got in Bethlehem, but did you know it’s a resin from the thorny shrub Commiphora myrrha. It’s an ingredient more commonly used in medicine and for incense (ah, memories of being the thurifer). As such Nora, is a beer that’s both sweet, citrussy and easily drinkable, and complex and slightly confounding. It’s also quite strong, if you’re British, but not that strong if you’re Italian: 7%ABV.

Final geek detail, it also alta rifermentata in bottiglie, which literally means “high-re-fermented in the bottle”, but I believe we’d say it’s top-fermented and bottle conditioned. Though I need to double-check that.

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