Category Archives: Breweries

A tour of my local brewery: the famed, historic Harveys of Lewes

Harveys chimney

Anyone who’s read my blog before will know I’m an advocate of local produce. And a big fan of real beer. For me, “local plus beer” means Harvey & Son Ltd (aka Harveys, Harveys of Lewes) – a traditional brewery that is a mere 800 metres as the crow flies from my house in Lewes, East Sussex.

Harveys also has an emphasis on local. The brewery gets uses water from a borehole, using local rain – or more specifically, as Edmund Jenner explained, local rain that’s been filtered through the rocks over the past 30 years. Locally grown hops and barley for their malt are the main other ingredients, and most of their beer is consumed within 60 miles of the brewery. Head brewer and joint managing director Miles Jenner has said ubiquity “diminishes the product”. It’s also an eminently sensible attitude in an era where the fuel burnt when transporting foodstuffs is a major contributor to climate change.

Shop poster

Shopaholic
Harveys also has an excellent shop in the centre of Lewes, where I buy my Harveys beers, then take the bottles back for reuse. I really am lucky to have this operation on my doorstep. And as I keep going and asking questions when I’m buying beer (and wine) from the shop, I got invited on a brewery tour – something that otherwise has a two-year waiting list. Even luckier!

The aforementioned Edmund is the son of Miles. As well being a member of the family that’s been brewing at Harveys for since the 1930s and a man who knows his brewing, he’s also a historian: which is ideal when talking about a firm that was established in 1790.

The original John Harvey was a wine merchant – hence the shop has an excellent selection of wine alongside the Harveys beers. (My favourite currently is from Danebury Vineyards – which grows on the flank of an Iron Age hill fort where I used to play and picnic a lot as a child.) Since medieval times, Lewes had been an important port, despite being about seven miles inland. Wharfs lined the banks of the Ouse in the centre of town, and John Harvey used these to bring in wines, spirits, and even coal – indeed, Harveys is still technically a coal merchant too, despite a spat with bureaucrats in 1948.

Danebury wine

Flood waters and liquor
The current brewery yard, alongside the river, used to contain a pile of coal – previously used as the principle fuel for the brewery. They were still burning through the pile when the floods of October 2000 hit Lewes, overwhelming the flood wall – then in construction – and rushing into the brewery. There’s a mark on the doors into the yard indicating the height the flood-waters reached. I’m more than six foot tall and it’s near my eye-level.

Ed explained they had just filled the hopbacks on the ground floor with 50 barrels (about 8,185 litres) with wort when the Ouse rushed in. They were used to flooding in the brewery, as indeed the whole of this stretch of the Ouse valley has a long history of it, but this inundation was atypical and extreme. Yet two days later, the hopbacks were intact in situ, the weight of the liquid holding them in place, despite damage to other equipment. The insurers said they wouldn’t be back in business for nine months, but they were actually brewing again in nine days, in part thanks to the help of other breweries like Kent’s Shepherd Neame. The beer that had been in fermenting upstairs during the crisis was saved and sold as the renowned “Ooze Booze”, with profits going to the flood appeal.

Back to the 1830s
John Harvey had acquired the Bridge Wharf site in 1838. Three of his offspring, Henry, Edwin and William, developed Harvey & Son. John himself died in 1862, while Henry and Edwin died in 1866. William, no brewer, brought in a chap with the wonderfully Victorian name of Henry Titlow-Barrett to handle the growing brewery business. The borehole that supplies the water  was one of T-B’s developments. His incentive? Well, Ed said there was a typhoid breakout, which was traced to the local utility company. That’s a pretty good motivator.

Any brewer will tell you of the importance of the water, or the “liquor” as it’s known by many British brewers, but Ed says that, “along with the yeast strain, it defines the character of the beer.”

Another of T-B’s major contributiuons to the history of the brewery was the redevelopment of the Bridge Wharf site, with substantial new buildings constructed in 1881, designed by famed brewery architect William Bradford.

The brewery still utilises Bradford’s energy-efficient tower design to this day, though a second tower was added in 1985 – just before the building acquired a Grade II listing. The building certainly has a memorable roofline, with its towers, flues and even a brick smokestack – part of the old coal-burning plant, which was half-demolished in the 1950s, then rebuilt in the 1970s, and is graced with a slight curve. I’ve read that some people call the grand old brewery building “Lewes Cathedral”, though I’ve yet to hear that.

Harveys malt room

Grains of truth
After a quick jaunt into the yard, to appreciate Bradford’s oriel window, we headed back inside and upstairs to the malt room. A grand chamber, it’s wood-lined and packed with sacks of malt, notably the popular Maris Otter.

Ed described the malting process, though I won’t go into too much detail about that here – suffice to say, the grain is tricked into germinating to unlock its sugars. The sugars are essential to brewing, as the fermentation involves feeding the yeast. And what does yeast like to eat? Sugars.

Ed also talked about the “extract potential” of grain – that is, how much sugar it will be able to yield. This has a bearing on brewing as strong beers need more sugars to feed the yeast, which then produces the alcohol. So either you have to use more malt, or use malt with a higher extract potential. Speciality malts – chocolate, roast, caramel, biscuit, crystal malts etc – are used to give beers colours and flavours but generally have lower extract potentials. So while Harveys’ Sussex Best Bitter, their flagship brew and what I was drinking in the Lewes Arms last night, contains just two per cent speciality malts, their Imperial Extra Double Stout contains up to a third.

Ed Jenner in hop room

The green stuff
Next door to the malt room is the hop storage room, with contains wooden alcoves resembling stalls for seriously truncated horses.

Here we got into the fascinating discussion – about the historical difference between ale and beer. Although these days both terms are used fairly generically, with ale meaning “not lager”, originally “beer” was a Dutch drink – made with malted barley and hops. The older British styles of drink were made with malted barley and potentially other herbs for flavouring and preservation (see my post about Harveys’ Priory Ale). English brewers were fairly prejudiced against hops, seeing them as foreign muck, but within few centuries of them arriving (c1500), most British ale was made with at least some hop, for its preservative qualities. The term “ale”had come to mean a “less well-hopped brew”.

Ed also described some of the key qualities of hops for us, notably their alpha acid characteristics. Whereas hops, and specifically home-grown hops, were used in Britain more for their preservative and certain bittering qualities, these days, many craft beers contain New World hops that are much more overtly flavoursome and stridently aromatic.

Flavour and aroma distinctions are largely defined by the hops used, and the alpha acid levels of those hops. So while British hops might have alpha acids of about 4-6%, and give arguably more subtle bittering, New World hops might have up to 16% alpha acid (or higher). This higher alpha acid doesn’t just result in more explicit bitterness, but can also bring more overt aromas of tropical fruit, citrus and pine. Though it’s not just a question of the provenance of the hop variety, it’s also a question of where it’s grown, as the climate and terroir have an influence. Cascade is a classic American hop, originating in Oregon, though when grown in Britain, it will have different qualities – and indeed, Harveys use British Cascade in their intriguing Sussex Wild Hop, alongside a hedgerow variety discovered nearby in 2004. (This is a story I want to get to the bottom of; watch this space.) Hop essential oils are also significant for aromas.

Harveys copper mash tun

The mash tuns
Moving sideways and down a bit, we reached Harveys’ mash tuns. I always love any mention of mash tuns, as my the main pub of my teenage years was named The Mash Tun. Not all the memories are good – notably as it was the 1980s, when bad lager really dominated, and I was too ignorant to know anything about real beer – but I still have a fondness for these large vessels where the malt, ground into grist, is cooked up with liquor. I like the feel of the words in my mouth – as well as the promise of their product.

Harveys has two mash tuns one copper, located in the old tower, and one stainless, put in in 1985 in the new tower. The copper one was from a design patented in 1853 and was made in 1924. It was used by Page and Overton brewery in Croydon and in a 1954 auction, Mr Jenner had to go up against scrap merchants – who deferred to his bids when they learned he actually wanted it for brewing.

Each mash tun holds 120 barrels, that is about 19,650 litres. They’re first warmed by steaming to 70C (158F; Ed did everything in Fahrenheit, which is a foreign language to me). After the enzymes have worked the mash, freeing up more of those sugars, half the husk from the grist settles to a false floor in the vessels. The sweet wort is then gradually drained, lautered. It’s then sparged, sprayed with more water to get out as much of the goodness as possible.

Near the mash tuns, on the other side of the head brewer’s office, the brewery still contains two old steam engines, one of them, a small eight horsepower machine, is from the old Beards brewery. Beards was one of the dozen or so other Lewes breweries that didn’t survive the ebb and flow of the industry.

Harveys copper no 1

Flowing downhill
The wort then continues its journey, into receivers, then into the coppers, or boiling kettles. Harveys has two – Number 1 is copper, and looks very Jules Verne, but was actually made in 1999 in Scotland. Number 2 is stainless steel.

Here, hops are added at two different points, and the heating izomerises them – changing the atoms in the molecule into something that gives a bitter flavour . The liquid from the kettles then flows on downstairs again, into the abovementioned hopbacks. The journey continues with the liquid pumped through heat exchangers, cooling it enough for the addition of the yeast – for the next, perhaps most important stage: the fermentation.

After the wort is cooled to 15C (60F), yeast is added – Ed said at a rate of “one pound per barrel”, so that’s about 454g per 164 litres. (164 litres is more or less the size of a UK barrel, 36 imperial gallons. A US beer barrel is 31 US gallons, or 26 imperial gallons, about 117 litres. And that, folks, is why I like metric.)

Harveys, barm in fermenter

So if the day’s brewing starts at 6am, it takes until 4.30pm to get the liquid into the fermenters, which Ed also referred to as tuns. Once the yeast is added, this all-important organism, which I’ve previously made the argument for being man’s true best friend, gets to work. As ales are made using mostly top-fermenting yeasts, it diffuses through the liquid but mostly settles on the top. Anaerobically, it metabolises the sugars, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide – bubbles. To encourage the yeast to reproduce (asexually), the fermenting mix is aerated, the temperature kept low and steady.

The fermentation continues for three days, the yeast forming a thick crust on the top in an “intestine or brain pattern”, which protects the beer, keeps it pure.

Harveys, fermenter brain crust 2

Harveys has been using the same yeast culture since 1957, with Ed explaining it “gives us our flavour, our brand identity.” Before then, their yeast was supplied by the Burton Pure Yeast Company. When it went bust, Harveys had a scramble to try and find a replacement source of the same strain. The sample Harveys received was wrong, so they asked for further samples from breweries all over the country. They eventually received one from John Smiths in Tadcaster that was right, enabling Harveys to keep on brewing consistently.

Or almost consistently. Ed says that the yeast culture itself is changing subtly with every brew, every generation and he conjectures this “little variation stops it being dull to the palette”. I certainly like this idea – it’s like a sourdough culture that might be decades old, but colonies of yeasts and bacteria evolve and change slightly with every use, every generation.

Fermenters

The right temperature
After fermentation, the beer is cooled to 60F / 15C again: closer to cellar temperature, which CAMRA defines as 12-14C, and the optimal temperature for serving many ales. Descending, we reached the racking cellar, where some of the final steps take place – notably the clarification of the beer, using finings – that is, derivatives of fish swim bladders. Quite how anyone ever discovered they had this effect is bewildering, but long molecules of the finings sink through the liquid, collecting sediment.

The beer will undergo some secondary fermentation in the cask, adding some extra fizz. This period of cask conditioning varies depending on the beer in question. So their Old Ale is conditioned for four weeks, their Porter for six, and their Imperial Stout for 18 months.

Not that Ed is entirely staunch about just drinking cask beer. Like me, he agrees that good beer is good beer, if it’s made with knowledge and skill, if it’s served properly. So if it comes in a bottle or a keg, that can be fine too. I drink a lot of Harveys in bottles at home, as I mentioned at the start. Though I do prefer a hand-pumped cask beer, I’m not averse to real beer from a keg. In the meantime, we ended the tour by trying several of Harveys’ classics brews – from a handsome row of casks in the cellar.

All in all, a wonderful experience, and a fascinating compare and contrast with some of the other breweries I’ve visited the past few years, notably Mastri Birrai Umbri in Umbria. The latter is purpose-built, but relies on traditional knowledge and values from a family with a similarly long tradition of food production. And both have a not dissimilar output: Harveys produces 45,000 UK barrels per year, which in new money is about 74,000 hectolitres, while Mastri produces 100,000hl.

For more information about Harveys, their website is comprehensive – about everything from their beer to their history to their environmental credentials, though this doesn’t even mention that their new depot, a few hundred metres away over the river, has a roof covered in PV solar panels, which generated 98kW of power. Again, eminently sensible. What a great company.

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Harveys’ Priory Ale and the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes

Harveys Priory Ale, 11 May 2014

Harveys of Lewes, my local brewery, founded in 1790, has just released a new brew: Priory Ale. Although I drink Harveys Best often in the pub, and I’ve been enjoying working my way through their bottled beers, this is a novelty. The 6% ABV ale has been brewed especially to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes, which is being celebrated this weekend.

For those who don’t know their English 13th century history, the Battle of Lewes was a clash between the forces of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, and those of King Henry III. The royal forces outnumbered those of Simon (10,000 versus 5,000) but he won anyway, and as a result he and his allies were able to force a reduction in the king’s autocratic powers.

The battle for democracy
Although you could see the battle as a squabble between Norman aristocrats, idealists instead couch it as an important step in the journey towards parliamentary democracy in England. That’s certainly the line taken here in Sussex and in Lewes, a town with strong links to the history of democracy. (Thomas Paine lived here for six years before heading to America in 1774, where his writing and philosophies contributed to the American Revolution and helped shape the ensuing nation’s democracy.)

The Priory Ale is the most interesting beer I’ve drunk in a while. Harveys’ head brewer and joint managing director Miles A Jenner and brewer Peter Yartlett have created a fascinating concoction, a kind of historical recreation of a 13th century-style beer. (I love this kind of thing – check out my efforts to make a bread using beer barm, as they would have done for centuries in Britain before yeast became something that could be cultivated in the late 19th century.)

The label says the ale “is brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes in 1264, where a brew house was known to exist.” Which is nice, as we visited the ruins of the priory on Sunday too – or at least all that’s left of it, mostly just the foundations of massive medeival toilet blocks. The rest, including a vast church (128m long internally) was knocked down in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Interestingly, Henry employed an Italian engineer – who was presumably a catholic. Surely he must have had his doubts about his path to the afterlife being employed by an excommunicated reformer to knock down catholic houses?

For centuries, the site was used a quarry. Then the Victorians topped the vandalism by ploughing a massive railway cutting through the middle. Much as I love railways, I probably love historical buildings more, or at least am shocked at their mistreatment. I thought we didn’t do that anymore in England – certainly the local authority here is fussing about us building an extension, saying we have to have an archaeologist present. But then my mum and dad, whose house’s foundations are on the Roman walls of the city of Winchester, told me developers up the road were allowed to demolish a stretch of those walls to build some new flats!!!!!! My jaw genuinely dropped when I heard this.

Anyway, I digress.

Priory Ale label text, 11 May 2014

Harveys’ description of the Priory Ale also says, “Fermentable sugars are produced from a mash of barley, oats and wheat prior to being boiled with hops and yarrow to impart bitterness.” Though hops (Humulus lupulus) were not used in British ales in the 13th century. Chatting to Ed Page in the Harveys shop, we concurred on the notion that hops didn’t become commonplace in British brewing until the 16th century, with him saying they probably came over with Flemish workman. He also said these workmen probably invented cricket around the same time too. Ed explained Harveys used hops in the Priory Ale as their modern yeast strains simply couldn’t cope without some of the chemicals provided by the hops, the fermentation wouldn’t work.*

Hops in England
On this question of when hops arrived in Britain, Martyn Cornell gives his usual levels of detail and research into the history of the plant in brewing here. They were being grown in the Netherlands in the 14th century, and “The first import of Low Countries ‘beere’ into England seems to have come in 1362/63”. Though he continues, “However, the first brewer of the hopped drink in England does not appear until 1412.”

He corroborates what I’d been chatting about in the Harveys shop, saying, “The English beer trade seems to have stayed in the hands of immigrants from the Low Countries for the next century, as the conservative-minded natives stuck to their unhopped ale. As a result, the first beer brewers in England apparently imported all their hops from across the Channel, with no attempt to cultivate the plant here until early in the 16th century.” Hop growing in southeast England became established in the middle of the 16th century and had spread to “at least 14 English counties” by 1655.

As for other plants used in brewing, Cornwell says, before hops brewers “had been using a huge range of other plants to flavour their ale in the meanwhile: the bushy, aromatic moorland shrub bog myrtle, for example, the grassland weed yarrow, the hedgerow plant ground-ivy, even rosemary and sage.” He later mentions “bitter hop alternatives such as broom and wormwood”. Harveys are using yarrow (Achillea millefolium) alongside hops in the boil. They do use other herbs for flavouring, though: “The resultant brew is conditioned in vats with ale cost, also known as tansy, rosemary and thyme.”

The Lewes Priory ruins include a wonderful herb garden now, where all these herbs can be found, emulating the site’s original, somewhat larger herb garden.

Strangely, the resulting beer has a somewhat ginger-beery taste, though I would say the thyme (Thymus vulgaris) provides the dominant flavour. Or more likely the thyme essential oil, thymol, which lends a distinctive herbal-antiseptic odour.

What is “ale cost”?
I’d never heard of “ale cost” before, so that got me investigating. A couple of Google book searches specify “alecost”, “ale-cost” or “ale cost” is specifically a name for the herb Tanacetum balsamita, also known as costmary. It’s related to the abovementioned tansy, which is Tanacetum vulgare.

Tansy

‘Breverton’s Complete Herbal’ (2011), an updating of ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’ (originally published 1653) says, “‘Cost’ refers to costus, a spicy Asian plant related to ginger, which has a slightly similar flavour. … ‘Alecost’ translates into ale-cost or ‘spicy herb for ale’ as it [Tanacetum balsamita] was once an important flavouring of ales.” (Link here.) This is confirmed by the wonderfully titled 1823 ‘Universal Technological Dictionary Or Familiar Explanation of the Terms Used in All Arts and Sciences Containing Definitions Drawn From The Original Writers’, here. The costus in question, also Costi amari radix or costus root, which the costmary or alecost is reminiscent of and partly named after, was apparently an important trade item for the ancient Romans. It’s been identified as a member of the Saussurea genus, S. lappa.Which isn’t related to ginger at all.

So, yes, Harveys, I very much enjoyed your Priory Ale, both as a striking, slightly strange ale and as a historical experiment. And as a stimulant to learn more about random old herbs and plants and the term “ale cost” – which arguably Harveys are using with some poetic brewers’ license.

Oh, and among the info boards at the priory is this one, explaining the sign language used by the monks when eating in their refectory. It doesn’t include the sign for “ale”, surprisingly, as this was of course made at the priory, a hugely important drink and quite possibly somewhat like a murkier version of Harveys’ Priory Ale – but without the hops. Perhaps they just used the same sign we do – imaginary glass held up in front of mouth, hand tilted back and forth slightly.

Monastic sign language

* Since writing this, I’ve been ruminating about it, and chatting to brewers. I can’t really understand how yeast – which feeds on the sugars in the wort, from the mashed malt – would be affected by the presence, or not, of yeast. I hope to try and ask Ed Page in Harveys to clarify this. Addendum 2: I spoke to Ed again yesterday and he reiterated that their yeast does need a bit of hop in the fermentation. He said they’ve had the same yeast culture for 60 years, so at about 300 brews a year, that’s about 18,000 generations of yeast – and he said it’s become so used to the hop in the mix that while it will still ferment, “it doesn’t function to its best without it”.
Addendum 3 (24 May 2014): So I met Edmund Jenner, son of head brewer Miles Jenner. He’s called “Beer ambassador” on the Harveys site, and is certainly very knowledgebale – as you’d expect from a member of this renowned brewing family. He called their yeast “hop dependent”, explaining they need the alpha acids from the hops “to perform”. For the brew, they use a small amount of Alsace-grown Savinski Goldings hops (which I believe are Styrian Goldings, a Slovenian form of the British Fuggles hop.)
Addedum 4 (7 June 2014): Ran into Edmund again, and he said that although he’d talked about hop dependency of yeast at Brewlab, when he mentioned it to the brewing team at Harveys they weren’t convinced. So now I’m confused. Again. Ed says he’ll look into it further and I’m sure we’ll discuss it further next time we meet.

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Thornbridge acronym ale taste test

Thornbridge's Jaipur and Chiron

Very pleasant, somewhat flying visit to Sheffield over the weekend to visit friends, and celebrate a Big Birthday. Said birthday celebrations took place in the Beauchief Hotel, which serves Thornbridge beers. Andrew Drinkwater over at Andrew Drinks classifies Thornbridge as a “big regionals” along with Adnams, and presumably Harveys down here in Sussex.

I talked a fair bit about Thornbridge over here, back when I encountered their Tzara, a Kölsch-style beer at the Cut Bar in London.  It was really good to have a chance to try more of their range though.

Long boozy lunch
It’s said that long, long, rambling, amiable lunches are a more Mediterranean thing, but we – about 40 Brits – managed to do about five hours of eating and drinking and chatting. During this time, I mostly drank Thornbridge’s Lord Marples, a 4%, fairly dark British cask bitter that was toffee apple, slightly spicy, a great winter drink. Yes, it’s been hot for March the past few weeks in England, but it was cool and rainy again on this particular Saturday.

A vs I
I tried several other Thornbridge ales, with the most interesting test being a comparison between their mutli-award-winning Jaipur and Chiron (both from kegs). The former is a 5.9% IPA, the latter a 5% APA. It’s a shame the bar didn’t also have Thornbridge’s Kipling “South Pacific Pale Ale” and Halcyon (“Imperial IPA” – ie stronger) to complete the journey through closely related, hoppy ales.

Two was good though, with the IPA being a classic 19th century style of English ale, now highly influenced by APA, an American style of ale that emerged in the 1970s as arguably an evolution of the IPA, or more specifically as an evolution on American IPA. So what we had here was a modern English take on an older English style of ale, and a British take on a related style of American ale. Broadly, you could say a more traditional, English IPA was defined by its inclusion of English hops, with their subtle, dry, bitter flavours. Jaipur, however, is made with a range of American hops, and as such had a bigger, more overt citrussy flavour along with its crispness.

Yes, but…
The Chiron is bigger though, more aromatic, tangier, more fruity, with more citrus, pine, passionfruit in both the aroma and the taste, as you’d expert from an actual US APA. Both delicious. But I do wonder why Thornbridge call the Jaipur an IPA when it’s so heavily influenced by APA you could just as easily market it as an (English) APA.

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On granary row

Harbour Street Oamaru

As readers of this blog will know, I’m somewhat obsessed with humanity’s relationship with grain. So it was a great pleasure to discover a single street (more or less) in the old Tyne-Harbour Street historic district of Oamaru, a town on the southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island that had not just an excellent bakery, but also a shop selling NZ whisky, and, just across the way, a craft brewery.

We had arrived in Oamaru on a wet and miserable Wednesday night. Our hosts at the excellent Oamaru Creek B&B warned us that it might be hard to find much open on a Wednesday, but had told us about the brewery, Scotts, which had a tasting bar (and, like so many names, seems to have lost its possessive apostrophe).

Soggy ghost town
Dashing under the Christmas decorations, which in the 12-ish C temperatures and rain felt very much like a familiar south of England take on seasonal festivities, over the railway line, which goes all the way from Picton in the north to Invercargill in the south but steadfastly refuses to run any environmentally pragmatic passenger services, then past the steampunk museum, with its steam engine lurching skyward, we went down Harbour Street, with its handsome 19th century whitestone warehouses – and found Scotts… just closed.

Scotts brewery, Oamaru

They gave us a few tips about where to find their wares, but the wine bar they mentioned was closed and the nearby Criterion Hotel only carried one, Nineteen 05, a kolsch – a lager-like ale style that, not being a lager drinker, I’m not a big fan of. Otherwise, the Criterion had an Emerson’s ‘Bookbinder’, but Emerson’s is one of NZ’s many breweries (Macs, Speight’s, Monteith’s) that’s been bought out by Lion – that is Kirin, that is Mitsubishi. So really not very NZ any more at all.

On this mission (and always) I’m much more keen to drink beer from independently NZ owned, smaller breweries. Like the decidedly rustic Brew Moon in Amberley, just north of Christchurch, which we visited while driving south.

Brew Moon, Amberley

Kiwi cuisine
We did however, have a decent dinner in a new, nominally Italian restaurant round the corner on Itchen Street. Oamaru is a place of streets named after British rivers, but this one was perfect for me as I grew up playing by, on or in the Itchen, in Hampshire.

The restaurant, Cucina, presented its menu in approximately Italian meal-structure terms (antipasti, primi, secondi, as well as pizza), but they didn’t have any Italian staff and much of the food was basically Kiwi. NZ seems to have confidence problems with its cuisine. Many places call themselves “French” or “Italian” but with a few tweaks, they could assert their food as proudly, distinctly Kiwi. Especially as NZ has such varied climate zones and is surrounded by relatively rich seas, so much good produce is available here.

Here comes the sun
The following morning, the sun, and the summer, revived itself somewhat, and we returned to Harbour Street. At number 4, there’s Harbour Street Bakery (site – may not be working), a small artisan bakery run by Dutch expat Ed Balsink.

Master baker Ed Balsink at Harbour Street Bakery, Oamaru

Ed’s been in here around a decade, arriving at a point when bakers were among the skilled professions the NZ government was keen to encourage to immigrate. After a fairly frustrating sounding experience in a small town north of Auckland, he made his way south.

NZ, like the UK and US, is dominated by the industrialisation of the food chain, but people like Ed are exponents of and envoys for quality food made using traditional skills and no-nonsense ingredients. “Everything is available here,” Ed said. NZ grows a great selection of grains for flours (and brewing), and imports other stuff from Australia. He says his bosses up north just wouldn’t believe people would be interested in naturally fermented products, but that’s an argument his current success is disproving. Indeed, I’ve talked to other people who’ve faced similar prejudice and ignorance – like a north Devon publican who was told his clients only wanted industrial lager, but then they embraced his real ales, and his pub won awards.

Ed, who trained in a special Dutch school that focussed on baking, cheffing and waiting, and became a master baker, provides a great array of naturally leavened breads, breads made with fresh (aka cake, aka bakers’) yeast, in various European styles, as well as pastries and biscuits, including speculaas. This is a Dutch spiced almond biscuit, and Ed uses a 1742 recipe from Delft.

Speculaas at Harbour Street Bakery, Oamaru

It contains cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and “a special mix”, and comes from that medieval tradition when such spices were worth a literal fortune. Indeed, Ed said the Netherlands had “the first stock exchange in the world because of the spices” and mariners returning from Indonesia would be searched much like contemporary diamond miners.

It was great chatting with Ed, and I’ve just very much enjoyed one of his almond tarts and some of his multiseed sourdough.

Cake and coffee at Housekeepers, in the Loan and Mercantile, Oamaru

Southern hemisphere prohibition
Afterwards, we blundered into a whisky shop, New Zealand Whisky Company, down the street at number 14 in the 1882 Loan and Mercantile warehouse building, which also houses Housekeepers, a new café and design shop with some decent coffee and chocolate cake (“award-winning” apparently).Despite my love of beer and bread, I can’t really handle whisky, so am totally ignorant about it.

It’s an interesting place though – they have the last remaining stock, around 600 barrels, from the Willowbank Distilllery, in Dunedin, just down the coast from Oamaru. One of the world’s most southerly distilleries. It was bought out by the Canadian Seagrams in the 1980s, then later sold to Fosters (before that Austrailian brand itself became part of SABMiller). Fosters “mothballed the company in 2000, and sent the silent stills to Fiji to make rum!”

We learned a lot more about the history of boozing in this part of the world when we went back to Scotts – now open. Phil Scott, the director and head brewer, served us a taster of their three new beers. They have four currently (including a gluten-free beer), but are developing a new range, including a Vienna lager. Phil explained how they’d operated in Auckland for seven years but have moved back to his hometown, opened “last Sunday”, and are going to be fully licensed “hopefully by tomorrow”.

The brewery is something of a landmark for Oamaru, as it represents the first beer being brewed (openly) since 1905. The town was apparently the fastest-growing in the southern hemisphere, with four breweries (and sundry brothels), until an unfortunate election saw prohibitionists take power in Northern Otago. They killed the breweries and effectively put paid to the port as sailors really did have certain very specific requirements. Amazingly, the prohibition was only ended in the 1960s.

Phil Scott of Scotts Brewery, Oamaru

The three, very bright and direct, Scotts beers we tried were the kolsch Nineteen 05, which suits the Kiwi taste for cold, easy lagers but is top-fermented like an ale and doesn’t require lagering (cold maturation): “it’s grain to glass in a week and a half” Phil says, unlike the six-eight weeks for lager. Then the Boulder Pale Ale, which uses five malts and four hops, and is a mild balance between citrus, gooseberry fruitiness and a subtle maltiness. And finally the B10 Steam Porter, named after a local steam train. This is a sweet, fairly carbonated dark ale that’s much lighter than many porters.

All were served a bit cold, but Phil explains this is really just a requirement of the Kiwi taste for cold beer. Despite how much such beer-consumers are be depriving themselves of the full organoleptic smell and taste sensation!

Real Kiwi cuisine
Phil gave us some tips for other beer venues to visit, and we headed off down the coast, to the little seaside village of Moeraki, famous for a clutch of spherical boulders on its beach. And for Fleurs Place, another place that’s lost its apostrophe, but not its character. This is a great example of a place that does a uniquely NZ style of cuisine with a quiet pride.

Giant biscotto and creme brulee at Fleurs Place, Moeraki

They’re right beside the old jetty, and get their seafood fresh from a small cluster of boats that land their catch mere metres away every day. They also use local produce, such as asparagus from just down the road in Palmerston. They seemed to have a good local wine list, though their beer list was strangely at odds with the local, quality ethos, featuring no good local brews, only generic international tosh or Mitsubishi-owned formerly NZ brands. They really should start stocking Scotts, from 40km up the highway!

Our seafood tasting plate was stupendous – simply cooked, no nonsense, nice sauces, and couldn’t be fresher. The crème brulée and huge biscotto wasn’t half bad too. All in all a great day.

Now if only our hostel in Dunedin could include genuine WiFi I could finish this post a bit more damned easily. Honestly, internet in NZ really is like going back 10 years. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about that though, as when I first came to NZ in the 1980s it did indeed frequently conform to the old joke that said it resembled 1950s Britain. It doesn’t any more, at all, but the internet thing is frustrating, especially after the ease we’d experienced across most of the USA.

[It’s now the following morning, and we’re on the WiFi in the Octagon in the centre of Dunedin. It’s infuriating hit and miss, at times as slow as dial-up, but at least it’s genuinely free.]

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Filed under Bakeries, Breweries, New Zealand beer, Other food, Restaurants etc, Travelling

Departures, rip-offs, cocoa beans and kernels

We finally left Rome on Wednesday. The flat was scoured, the kitchen was re-cluttered with the piles of stuff belonging to our landlady that we’d stashed in the basement, and, well, the place didn’t really look very different. It was sad to leave Rome, but it wasn’t exactly sad to leave that flat, where we always felt besieged by the other denizens of the palazzo: mad, sad or just pretty unfriendly to know. And all of them shouters, barkers and door-slammers.

One final, expensive international-house-move hiccough happened when we tried to check in our bags at the airport. We’re not naive, and understand perfectly that budget airlines make their money by hitting you from all sides with extra ways, many unexpected, to help you part with your cash, but EasyJet’s luggage policy is especially dubious. We didn’t think to question that spending money to carry extra luggage meant you were spending money to carry extra weight. That’s a logical assumption. You’re paying for the extra weight, right? Um, no – you’re paying simply to have the option to spread your luggage between more bags. So one hold bag: 20kg. Two hold bags: 20kg. Eh?

We’re both pretty web literate, but this info isn’t exactly front and centre on the site when you’re booking; it’s stashed, to help encourage punters to make this costly mistake. Being told we had to pay several hundred euro extra there and then before our clobber would be added to the flight was a shocker.

Oddly, carry-on has “No weight restriction applies as long as you can place and retrieve the cabin bag safely in the overhead lockers without assistance.” I’ve always treated carry-on as a means of transporting my passport and my reading matter, not being one of those people who blocks up boarding and disembarking. So yeah, I suppose I am naive. And the bank account is somewhat lighter too. Ouch.

Still, at least our arrival in Blighty was fairly painless; if British railways’ gulp-inducing prices could ever be considered painless. (No they can’t – they’re a national disgrace, each year leaping ahead of the rate of inflation with undisguised exploitative neoliberal glee.) Struggling with our marginally hefty, now somewhat highly priced luggage, we went into London then out again to our old hood, Herne Hill, where we met the friend Becca, who, with husband Ceri and daughter Angharad, is looking after our cats, who survived their road trip from Rome.

A taxi took us to their house, and a reunion with the beasts in question, Lux and Pip. They’d settled in well. Further reunions followed when we headed further into deepest sarf London and Honor Oak. Some were of the human variety, with old friends Jo and Lawrence and their somewhat enlarged, considerably more articulate kids, and some were with beer.

This isn’t a blog about child development though, so I’ll stick to the latter.

Meantime at Donde

We went to a tapas place called Donde, where they had Meantime London Pale Ale and London Stout on tap. Founded in 2000, Meantime was on the first of the new generation of London breweries I drank their products a reasonable amount before we moved out of London in 2011, and always enjoyed them. Although I enjoyed my pint of London Pale Ale, it struck me as somewhat generic and decided over-carbonised; the latter is partly because it was keg not cask. The former is – I don’t know – perhaps it’s one of those cases where a traditional brewery has got so successful and grown so much that the product, while still good quality, has lost its distinction.

Sure they still exemplify a continuity in the great brewing traditions of London, but with a more industrial approach. They, for example, had a relationship with supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to make some of their own-branded beers. I’m really not sure about this. Surely something as avowedly authentic and artisanal as traditionally brewed beer shouldn’t really cosy up with something as antithetical to all things artisanal, local and traditional as a corporate supermarket.

I really can’t decide what I think about all this. Do success and scale implicitly go hand in hand with a compromise in quality?

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot through two years of enjoying Italian craft beers, especially given that a friend, Michele Sensidoni, is master brewer at one of Italy’s biggest craft breweries. A brewery with an output that some in Italy won’t even acknowledge as “artigianale” (100,000hl / 6,097 UK barrels / 8,547 US barrels – big for Italy, but tiny by US or multinational standards). I talked about Michele’s brewery here, then went on to discuss this question of what defines craft beer: for me, with fermented products like bread and beer, time is one of key factors. Not rushing. Michele doesn’t rush their beers: they’re bottle conditioned for long periods and remain unpasteurised and unfiltered. He also regularly brews up new tests beers, a very hands-on process.

One such beer was smuggled in the luggage I paid an arm and a leg to transport back to Britain. As such, it’s not only the first of its kind to reach these shores, it also had a pretty substantial relative value, thanks to EasyJet’s €14 per excess kilo. (Yes, €14 – about £12, or US$19. I still need a take a breath when I think about that).

Mastri Birra Umbri chocolate stout

The beer is a stout. As with many of Michele’s beers, it’s made with atypical ingredients. So while there’s nothing new about stout that tastes very chocolaty, this one is specifically made with cocoa/cacao beans. They give the beer a delicious smell of chocolate. The beer itself was pretty carbonised and had a similarly delicious taste of chocolate, well toasted malts, charcoal. I’d want perhaps a little less carbon and a bit more body ultimately though.

We drank the beer over dinner, with Ceri and Becca and the cats, then moved on to a bottle of The Kernel Breweryʼs Table Beer. This added a nice balance to the evening: I started drinking beer from one of the founders of London’s new generation of breweries, said farewell to Italian craft beer in the middle, then continued with one of the big success stories of more recent London craft breweries.

The Kernel was founded in 2009. Sadly, I didn’t even become aware of it until I left London in early 2011, but during my time in Rome its name came up a lot as being at the heart of London’s newly revitalised craft brewing scene. The brewery was part of the burgeoning real food scene in Maltby Street, in Bermondsey, southeast London. Like Meantime, they quickly established a reputation and moved to bigger premises in 2012. I’ve only tried a few of their beers so far, but both have been great.

The Table Beer features The Kernel’s neat, pleasing brown packing paper style labels, where, while completely failing to take a photo, I noticed it was just 3.3% ABV. This was an interesting surprise after so many strong beers in Italy. It’s also a delicious beer, very easy drinking with a floral scent and fresh, citrusy taste. Compared to the Meantime London Pale Ale, this is a thinner kind of pale ale, with less body, but it’s also perfectly carbonised, very drinkable and feels, well, uncomplicated but eager. It’s eager to sit on your table and be drunk along with food in lieu of a table wine.

Now  I’m sitting here at the kitchen table in my parents’ house in Winchester, the ancient capital of England. I grew up here, looking out over the hillfort that predated the Roman settlement whose street plan still dictates something of the nature of the contemporary city. Rome itself is about 850 miles or 1370km to my south. It was cold and blue and beautiful this morning, but now the rain is sheeting down and the cliché of English weather is asserting itself.

We’ve got a few days here in Blighty, enough time to do one of the best things this island has to offer: avoiding the rain by going to pubs. Then we’ll be off to New York City, and whatever bread, cakes and ale I encounter there. Just to add to the neatness of Wednesday’s beer consumption reflected my current trajectory, Ceri also opened a bottle of Brooklyn Breweryʼs Brooklyn Lager. In a week or so we’ll be able to try it again, mere miles from where it’s brewed.

Info
Donde Tapas
37–39 Honor Oak Park, Honor Oak, London SE23 1DZ
(+44) 20 8291 2822 | dondetapas.com | share@dondetapas.com

Meantime Brewery
Lawrence Trading Estate, Blackwall Lann, Greenwich, London SE10 0AR
(+44) 20 8293 1111 | meantimebrewing.com | sales@meantimebrewing.com

The Kernel Brewery
1 Spa Business Park, Spa Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 4QT
+44 (0)20 7231 4516 | thekernelbrewery.com | contact@thekernelbrewery.com

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, British beer, Discussion, Italian beer

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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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Events, Italian beer

Lambrate’s Ortiga golden ale at Birrifugio, Portuense, Rome

Dark Star Revelation and Lambrate Ortiga, Birrifugio

We finally made it to another of Rome’s beer bars the other day: Birrifugio. It’s a place we’ve passed many a time, when we’ve been feeling like a 6pm beer but it’s run along Roman beer bar hours, not opening until 7.30pm. It’s one of the self-styled “6 historic pubs of the capital”1. It’s also styled as “Birrifugio Trastevere” on the business cards and website. Except it’s not in Trastevere.

Trastevere is one of the city’s rioni, neighbourhoods that were mostly established in medieval Rome. Apart from Prati, the area north of the Vatican, these rioni are all within the 3rd century Aurelian Walls. Birrifugio – whose name is a nice little pun, “beer-refuge” – is just off Viale Trastevere, but about a kilometer outside the walls, which cut across the boulevard at the Ministry of Education.

The hospitality industry does like to be liberal with its definition of Trastevere, as it’s such a popular area, with its narrow cobbled streets hung with laundry, churches, restaurants and whatnot. But no, Birrifugio is firmly esconced in the postwar urbanisation between the Viale and the Tiber, in the same area as Sunday’s sprawling Porta Portese market So what is this area?

It’s something that’s bugged me for ages, as we live just up the hill and traverse it often en route to Testaccio etc. We just resorted to calling it “that triangle”. But apparently it’s technically within Portuense, which isn’t a rione, it’s a quartiere. This name – “quarter” –  is used for some of the districts that developed with the urban sprawl of the 20th century.

Sorry, I had to get that straight. But the point is, if you go looking for Birrifugio, it’s not a pub in the depths of cutesy Trastevere like Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà? It’s in a very different neighbourhood –  but is no less decent a bar.

Birrifugio beer menu

Indeed, we arrived just as it was opening and the barman was immediately friendly and helpful. He gave us menus, talked us through the beers, both in the menu and on the blackboard, and chatted about his recent trip to a beer festival in London.

Unlike, say, Open Baladin or No.Au, Birrifugio (and its sister bar in Ostia) doesn’t have a great emphasis on Italian products. Instead, it has an international selection, on this occasion including brews from Belgian, England, etc. It also has a fairly comprehensive food menu, including Roman favourites and a more diverse choice: wurst, goulash, crêpes, sauerkraut. And something listed as “fish & chips”…

As the place feels not unlike a British pub (albeit a fairly modern one fitted out to feel a bit olde), I went for the latter. Just cos. It wasn’t really fish and chips in the proper sense (that, really, can only be done well in Britain or NZ, in my experience), and nor was the fish filetto di baccalà, the traditional Roman battered salt cod that is actually fairly similar to British chippie fish. It was instead a crumbed affair, probably from frozen. But no matter: the antipasti we had, speck rolled around mozzarella and walnut and served with a sauce made with a lot of mustard and weiss beer, was clearly freshly made and delicious. As was Fran’s burger, again handmade.

Birrifugio taps

But we weren’t really there for the food, we were there for the beer

I had the only Italian beer they had on tap, and Fran went for a Revelation from Dark Star. This is a brewery in West Sussex, in the south of England, not far from where we may well be living next year. Revelation is a seriously hoppy APA style ale. My beer on the other hand was an Ortiga from Lambrate brewery in Milan.

This is an immediately likeable, easy-drinking 5% ABV golden ale (“in stile English golden Ale“), one of those top-fermented beers that could open a whole new world up to lager drinkers. It’s a bright, clear orange-yellow colour. It’s made with pilsner and crystal malt. It’s got a light, fresh aroma, slightly piney, slightly citrusy, but nothing very strong, and a flavour that’s similarly fresh and very crisp.

It’s got a clean, dry mouthfeel, and is very hoppy at the end. I can’t state with certainty which hops are used though. Lambrate’s site doesn’t say, and other sources aren’t entirely in agreement. It’s either Aurora and Cascade (according to the Guida alle birre d’Italia 2013) or Aurora and Styrian Golding (according to Ratebeer). Ratebeer also says it’s dry hopped, which really sounds about right.

Lambrate Ortiga label

It’s a pity I didn’t know about this brewery when we visited Milan last year, as it’s got a brewpub and another bar in the Lambrate district of the city, and the Guida has a quote that says the former is “probably the best brewpub in Italy”.

Oh, and Lambrate’s beers have great labels too. They’re designed by an artist called Roger Webber, whose work can be seen here. I sort of get the text2 on Ortiga’s comic strip-style label, but when I Googled it for more info, I got a wiki page written in Lombàrt orientàl, that is East Lombardian, the language used in Milan and thereabouts. Considering I’m struggling enough with Standard Italian, this was a challenge. According to (English) Wikipedia, “Milanese and Italian are distinct Romance languages and are not mutually intelligible.” Or, as I’d probably prefer to phrase it, they’re mutually unintelligible.

So a friendly, professional beer (and whisky) bar, a pleasant beer, and a label with linguistic implications I don’t even want to think about too much.

Info
Birrifugio
Via Federico Rosazza 6, 00153 Roma
(+39) 06 5830 3189 | birrifugio.com | trastevere@birrifugio.com

(Also at Via Ferdinando Acton 18, 00122 Ostia)

Birrificio Lambrate
Brewpub Via Adelchi 5, 20131 Milano
Pub Via Golgi 60, 20133 Milano
Tel (+39) 02 70606746 | birrificiolambrate.com | birra@birrificiolambrate.com

Notes
1 It’s on a flyer I picked up at Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà? The six are: Ma Che, Birrifugio, Il Serpente (San Lorenzo), Le Bon Bock (Gianicolense), Mastro Titta (Ostiense), Treefolk’s (near the Colosseum).

2 The label says: “Faceva il palo nella banda dell ortica, ma era sguercio non ci vedeva quasi più ed è così che li hanno presi tutti senza fatica, li hanno presi tutti, quasi tutti tutti, fuorchè lui.” Which is standard Italian I think and means something like “He was on lookout duty for the Nettle Gang, but he was cross-eyed and he pretty didn’t see them [the cops], and just like that, they caught everyone without hassle, they took everyone, almost everyone, except him.” Or, in you prefer, in Milanese: “Faceva il palo nella banda de l’Ortiga, ma l’era sguercc, el ghe vedeva quasi pù, e l’è staa inscì che j’hann ciappaa senza fadiga, j’hann ciappaa tucc, ma proppi tucc, foeura che lù.” More info about the song here. In Milanese.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc, Breweries

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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Baladin and del Borgo beers at No.Au bistrot, Rome

Baladin Nazionale, Bira del Borgo Keto Reporter at no.au

Just to the northwest of the faintly grotesque tourist nexus that is Piazza Navona, Rome’s Centro Storico (“historic centre”) offers a maze of streets, alleyways and piazzette. There, it’s possible to wander, get lost, find yourself again, elude the tourists mobs, bump into them again, and even find filming locations from Eat Pray Love (ugh). Among the cobbles and crumbling apartment blocks are numerous bars, restaurants and gelaterie. Our destination last night was No.Au, a bar/restaurant located between the handsome Chiostro del Bramante and the somewhat chichi Via dei Coronari (which even boasts one of Rome’s few cupcake shops these days. Bloody cupcakes).

No.Au, which opened in summer 2012, is a collaboration between several big names in Italy’s craft brewing and food scene who wanted to “recreate the atmosphere of a Parisian bistro, with quality products and good company, in the centre of Rome.” You’ll find the whole spiel (in English), and an explanation of the name of the place, here on the Baladin site. Why is it on the Baladin site? Because one of those (five) big names is Teo Musso, the founder and master brewer of Baladin, Italy’s biggest craft brewer.The bar and taps at No.Au Rome

So key is Musso in the Italian craft brewery scene, a biography has even recently been published. It’s called ‘La birra artigianale è tutta colpa di Teo’ (“Baladin. Craft beer is Teo’s fault” – ie Musso is to blame, ie responsible, for the whole craft beer scene in Italy.) Presumably the title is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but certainly Musso is among the most influential of Italy’s craft brewers. His collaborators here are Luca Tosato (also of Baladin), Leonardo di Vincenzo (master brewer of Birra del Borgo), Paolo Bertani (also of Borgo, and previously Baladin) and Gabriele Bonci (renowned pizzaiolo and TV regular whose company produces the breads for Open Baladin bar. We did a pizza course with him last year).

It’s no surprise, then, that at No.Au, the main beers you’ll find on tap are from Baladin and del Borgo, but they also have others, in bottles, both Italian and international. Beside where we sat was an old box of US brewer Dogfish Head’s intriguing/strange Midas Touch. I stayed with Baladin for my first choice. As I’d tried a lot of the offerings on tap, I went for a Nazionale (6.5% ABV), which the friendly, helpful waitress described as a “simple” beer. It’s described as an Italian Ale – as it’s top fermented and also because it’s made with entirely Italian ingredients. This includes the hops – which was a pleasant surprise, as so many Italian craft beers seem to depend on international hops.

No.Au Rome snacks

This really was a pleasing beer, perfect to accompany the antipasti we’d ordered:  a plate of bufala e prosciutto and some very fine freshly cooked potato crisps/chips accompanied by three flavours of mayo. As the waitress said, it was simple – a golden yellow, with a quickly subsiding soft head, very subtle aroma of ginger and lemon, and a fairly sweet, mildly hoppy smooth taste (27 IBU). Molto beverina.

Fran’s first beer was Keto RePorter (5.2% ABV) from Birra del Borgo. This porter is made with the addition of Kentucky tobacco leaves, but it was also very mild from the few sips I had.

As the beers were served in half-pints, and we’d finished the antipasti, I fancied trying something a little more interesting, so the waitress recommended Baladin’s Open Rolling Stone, which they described as an Italian APA on their blackboard, but as an IPA on Ratebeer. Either way, this beer, branded for the magazine of the same name, is very tasty. It’s relatively strong, at 7.5%, and had a slight perfume of camomile and a reasonable head. At first taste it was soft and sweet, but this gave way to a drier, slightly hoppy flavour (it’s still only a fairly moderate 36 IBU though, according to Baladin’s site). I was enjoying this one, but about half-way through my half-pint it started getting a bit detergenty, losing its crispness.

Wine, food, beer at No.Au Rome

Fran’s second one was a Genziana from del Borgo. I’ve had this before, though didn’t try it last night. It’s a really interesting beer made with bitter gentian flowers.

When some friends arrived, we ordered some more food. The emphasis here is on snacks and food that’s either stirato (“ironed” ) or crudo (“raw”). The ironing takes place on a piastra (flat top grill).  I was slightly surprised to see a lot meat available (such as sandwiches made with burger buns and sliced roast beef), as over at Katie Parla’s site she reports how Bonci’s places are going vegetarian for a month to protest Rome’s lack of appreciation of Lazio’s farmers and producers. I asked the waitress, and she said the menu was in transition. So if you visit any time in late July, there may be more vegetarian food.  I had seppia (cuttlefish), which had been ironed in a folded sheet of parchment, with zucchini. Served with an ink mayo, it wasn’t bad, but I would say this place is more about the drinks and antipasti, more a place for aperitivi or after-dinner drinks.

Talking of after-dinner drinks, when we’d eaten, I ordered one more (hey, that still makes just one and a half pints).  I got Baladin’s Isaac, a 5% blanche made with orange zest and coriander and it was a perfect palette cleanser.

No.Au exterior, note like of sign

All in all, a very pleasant evening. Although the place only started to fill up, and the lights went down, around 8.30-9.00pm, it’s definitely a good place to visit for quality Italian craft beers. And plates of cheese. And maybe even some wine. Oh, and the music was pretty good too. All this within a stone’s throw of Piazza Navona and its thoroughly-worth-avoiding eating and drinking options.

Info
No.Au, Piazza di Montevecchio 16A, 00186, Rome
No.Au blog / noauroma@gmail.com / 06 45 65 27 70

Baladin brewery (English site)

Birra del Borgo brewery (English site)

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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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