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.
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.
• 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.
• 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”.
• 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.
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.