The second weekend of November, we visited the handsome Tuscan town of Lucca. Avoiding the storms then ravaging much of northern Italy, we dived into a restaurant. After several evenings drinking wine with my oenophile parents, I was pleased to see this place had some beer on the menu and, more specifically, some real, craft beers. I’ve got no time for the big name Italian lagers – ick – but the craft beer movement here is incredibly rich and dynamic.
In this case, the beers on offer were from a brewery in Lucca province: La Petrognola. A quick visit to their website gives some idea of what they’re about: “From the most ancient wheat known to man is born a new craft beer, with its own unique and unmistakable taste, like the land from where it was born.” Or words to that effect (Here’s the original if your Italian is better than mine: “Dal più antico frumento conosciuto dall’uomo nasce una nuova birra di produzione artigianale. Un gusto unico e inconfodibile proprio come la terra in cui nasce.”). It’s earthy. It’s steeped in history.
This got me thinking though. Can Italian beer be steeped in history? Surely the warm Med was always a wine region, whereas it was the cooler north of Europe that has a more solid history in beer and brewing. Well, yes and no. Beer, like most of Western culture, has its origins in the (warm) ancient Middle East. (I’m not going to comment on the irony of that region now being dominated by conventions that deny a healthy ongoing engagement with the culture of alcohol.) And like much of that ancient Middle Eastern culture, beer reached Europe, including Rome. In Rome, it was considered a “barbarian” drink. Now, it must be clarified that the word “barbarian” has its origins in a Latin, then Greek, then even Sanskrit word that alluded to stammering, or incomprehensible speech. So, for the ancient Romans, “barbarian” didn’t imply savage so much as foreign. Anyway, as the Roman empire was so massive it also naturally included territories where beer and mead were the everyday drinks though in Rome itself it was a peasant drink, cheaper than the cheapest wine.
So beer has been here in Italy for at least two millennia, though it’s not exactly been at the heart of culinary heritage. Today, many of new craft beers are tied into the more overt culinary heritage by the use of local, traditional ingredients. Of the Petragnola beers we drank in Lucca, one, for example uses 100% malted farro (that is, spelt; though specifically what strain of spelt I don’t know. Wheat taxonomy is a thorny, or perhaps beardy, subject I will tackle at some stage [EDIT: I have now done so, see this post]). Another uses sweet chestnuts. I’m really enjoying chestnut beers these days. Borgo brewery also does one. We ordered it in Oasi della Birra in Testaccio last night, but they didn’t have it – but what they did have instead was Petrognola one, Marron. It’s a smooth, sweet beer (not bitter) with wholesome body, a dark amber colour and a nice depth of flavour. It’s 6.5% ABV, so strong by UK standards, but not that strong by Italian standards.
Between these two sessions quaffing sweet chestnut beer, I’d paid a visit to Blighty. My father-in-law had got some decent beers in and among them was this Conker King. A conker, of course, is a horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) and – I didn’t realise this till now – not even in the same taxonomical order as the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), despite the similarities in the seed and leaf forms. And indeed while the sweet chestnut is edible, the horse chestnut isn’t: it’s mildly toxic, though has traditionally had medical uses.
So while I enjoyed the superficial connection between all these chestnut beers, the Conker King does not contain chestnuts, sweet or horse. It’s named thus simply to evoke things Autumnal. The blurb on the Holsworthy Ales site says: “Conker King is an Autumnal Ale, the copper brown colour of falling leaves. Made using hops harvested in England, this brew is beautifully balanced and thirst quenching – just what you need after a hard day gathering conkers.” Like the Marron it has a lovely burnt amber colour, but it’s a more bitter beer, with a lower ABV: 3.9% ABV.
I’m very much enjoying the emergence of Holsworthy ales, as my family has a house there, in northwest Devon, and I’ve been visiting the area for more than a decade. According to the publican in Holsworthy’s best beer pub, CAMRA champ the Old Market Inn, it was was set up by a chap (Dave Slocombe) escaping London and an office job, whose passion for home brewing has grown into something commercial (though still on a craft scale). My 2013 Guida alle birre d’Italia says something similar about La Petrognola, which was set up by one Roberto Giannarelli, who had been homebrewing in his garage before setting up the brewery. Gotta love the craft beer movement, nuts and all.
(Apologies for the quality of the photos – all taken on rubbish phone.)