Whenever I visit Open Baladin, possibly Rome’s finest birreria, I like to sample some novelties. It’s not hard, as they generally have several dozen beers on tap, of many ilks and genres. The menu, which changes every few days, is divided into categories. Yesterday these were: Blanche/Weizen (white and wheat beers); Bitter/Pale Ale/IPA/APA; Brown Ale; Saison; Lager; Belgian Strong Ale (style, not necessarily origin – they’re mostly Italian); Lambic; Smoked Ale; Golden Ale; Belgian Ale (again, mostly actually Italian); Honey Ale; Stout/Porter; Birra Alla Castagne (chestnut beers); Barley Wine. There were around 50 in total.
The first category on the menu, however, is generally Birre cha fanno stile a se’. I’m not sure I can translate this quite right, but it means something like “Beers with a style of their own”. That is, beers that don’t quite fit into the other, more conventional, categories. Not that a lot of those are conventional, especially by British standards – Saison are enigmatic ales, and chestnut beers are elusive in the UK.
Anyway, I like to go for the first category, see what’s new, what’s novel. So, without consulting the staff in any way, I ordered a Pepper, a 6% ABV mystery from Baladin’s own brewery. (On US site/app Untappd, it’s classified as a Saison / Farmhouse Ale, but that’s not how Baladin themselves categorise it). The menu said it’s produced with pepper, and called it fresh and lightly spiced. I love black pepper in cooking, and like spices, so it sounded good. When it arrived, though, I was baffled. Firstly, it had absolutely no head (schiuma, foam, froth – the term used for beer, waves and cappucini alike). Many of the Italian craft beers I’ve tried have a serious head on them, something that takes some getting used to as a British beer drinker. It was entirely still, not a bubble in sight. Sure un-fizzy ale isn’t a great rarity, it was just so surprisingly flat, inert. Check out the photo – it could almost be a wine or a liquor, visually.
As for the smell and flavours, the first thing that hit me as it neared my considerable snozz was nothing to do with pepper or spice, it was banana, which continued with the first sip, along with hints of honey. I had to reach a quiet, zen place before I could taste any elusive pepperyness. (And offer it to my wife, who said she could.)
It just didn’t seem right, somehow. I managed to ask a friend who works there and is very knowledgeable, and she confirmed it was indeed liscia, smooth, by character and not error and that she’s never order it herself! Oops. So she suggested my second beer. We’d only stopped for a swift one, but who was I to resist?
So beer number two for the evening (and only two, as my friend had a stinking cold and wasn’t up for it) was Maledetta, from Borgo, NE of Rome. It’s a great name for a beer – meaning damned or words to that effect. This 6% ABV Belgian Ale (Belgian style, Italian-made) was a much more enjoyable affair. The glass was a third full of head (again, it might be strange to a Brit, who’d probably ask for a top-up, but it’s important here, where the beer criticism talks about the character of the head alongside the smell, taste and colour of the liquid itself), and the first scent was of caramel, sugar just starting to burn. Tasted, it was was more grapefruity, with a nice full, almost chewy, body. I didn’t curse it, despite the name. Instead, I drank it with a mellow sense of satisfaction.