Category Archives: Italian beer

A week in Rome: Etruscan necropolis, Etrusca beer

Stone beds at Banditaccia necropolis, Cerveteri

We didn’t spend out entire holiday just eating and drinking. I made a point of doing a few day trips. One was to the Etruscan necropolis – city of the dead – of Banditaccia, a train ride, a bus ride and a surprisingly pleasant walk from Cerveteri, a town near the coast to the nortwest of Rome.

Banditaccia is such an evocative name. It makes me think of bandits and other unsavoury rural types using the old underground chambers (hypogea) to hide away in the middle ages. It’s quite likely they did too, though I can’t report that as fact.

The necropolis was established at the beginning of the 7th century BC, at least. I love this – you wander round Rome going “Wow, Colosseum…” but that particular monument only dates from the 1st century AD. Etruscan civilisation, which gave its name to Tuscany, was already remarkably sophisticated when Romulus and Remus were still just dirty wolf-boys shouting at each other, mythically, from huts on the adjacent hilltops of the Palatine and Aventine.

Etruscan pot, Cerveteri museum

Cerveteri, called Caere by the Etruscans and located a mile from Banditaccia, has a museum in the castle that dominates the centre of town. Even after all the best finds from excavations were filched by the Vatican, it’s still full of amazing finds, mostly ceramics. They show how closely the Etruscans traded through the Med, notably with the Greeks, as the art style is similar, as are the gods and mythological characters featured.

Multimedia hypogea
Visiting the tombs themselves, and imagining how they would have looked decorated with these urns and other funerary furnishings, is an amazing experience. The place was pretty much deserted when we visited, so a staff member was able to turn on multimedia installations for us in three of the hypogea. I have mixed feelings about all the holes in the tuff volcanic rock drilled so they could install projectors and speakers, but the systems work surprisingly well, lighting up the tombs and giving a sense of how these spaces were used.

What struck me, even centuries later, with the tombs mostly denuded of their decorations, is how homely they are. And this is just the point. The Etruscans created the necropolises as mirror images of the cities of the living. Each hypogeum was a home for several generations of family. The dead were initially body wrapped in cloth, then buried, or burned and put in urns. The hypogea consist of rooms with stone beds, and some even feature incredible decorations. The most famous example is Banditaccia’s Tomb of the Reliefs – amazing 3D designs of tools and utensils, for war and domestic work: those two most important activities of the living.

Tomb of the Reliefs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri (Photo: Fran Hortop)

As Fran pointed out, the notion of the tombs being the mirror image of homes is also expressed by the fact that these spaces, firstly large, rounded tumuli, then later in rows much like terraced housing, were carved out of the tuff. It was a process of creating a living space for the dead by hollowing out spaces in the ground. This contrasts with building a home above ground, creating space by erecting walls and roofs.

Terraced tombs, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s interesting too that although the Roman Republic eventually subsumed Etruria, the final three kings of the Roman Kingdom were an Etruscan dynasty (in the 7th-6th centuries BC, though this period isn’t well documented). And as they had so much common culture, the guide we spoke to said the Romans respected the Etruscan funerary arrangements enough to leave the necropolises alone, even after they had effectively quashed their civilisation. Indeed, there were still new tombs being carved in the 3rd century AD. It was only later they were semi-forgotten, becoming overgrown. Although some did provide strange cave-like spaces for shepherds – and bandits? – over the centuries, most were lost and the area resembled a series of lumps and small hills in the 19th century, before Raniero Mengarelli started his systematic excavations in 1909.

Tumulus Etruscan tomb, Banditaccia, Cerveteri

It’s a wonderful place, right up there with Ostia Antica for my favourite ancient sites in Italy: partly because these two are just undersubscribed compared to the better-known Pompey and Herculaneum, but also partly because Banditaccia has a reminded me of its fellow UNESCO site Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Banditaccia – or at least what’s been excavated – is a lot smaller but both have a similar substantialness and sense of mystery. Angkor Wat is a lot more recent (dating from the 11th-15th centuries AD) but I love these places where ancient stones have trees growing through the weathered old stonework, itself carved with sheer manpower.

Etruscan beer
After visiting Banditaccia we went beer shopping and it seemed only right to get a bottle of Birra del Borgo’s Etrusca “archeo birra”.

Borgo Etrusca label

Etrusca is actually the name of three beers, first made during a fascinating project in 2012 by Birra del Borgo (in Lazio, east of Rome), Baladin brewery (in Piedmont, NW Italy) and Dogfish Head (in Delaware, US). The brewmasters of all three worked with Dr Patrick McGovern, an archaeology professor and director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, who had worked on various other ancient ale projects previously with Dogfish Head.

Together they established a list of ingredients that were consumed by the Etruscans. The Baladin site says, “Under Dr Pat’s supervision, ingredients have been selected on the basis of the findings made at several Italian archaeological sites.” According to a post on the Dogfish Head site, meanwhile, “the team clearly found that the Etruscans had a taste for ale.”

I know the ancient Romans drank beer, so it’s not a stretch to imagine the Etruscans did too true. Although grain-based beer is more associated with northern Europe, grain was of course grown in ancient Italy too, and the Dogfish site continues “The backbone of Birra Etrusca comes from two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat.” This wheat is ‘Senatore Cappelli’, which I saw in several Italian craft beers on this recent visit.

Italian society never underwent the seismic changes experienced in Britain during our comprehensive industrial revolution. Nor did it embrace as fully as Britain or the US the post-war approaches to agriculture based on rejecting ancient practices in favour of plying farmland with tonnes and tonnes and endless tonnes of petrochemical industry derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Plus, pockets of mountainous Italy remain isolated to this day. Unlike Britain, where we rejected our heritage grains in favour of modern varieties bred by agri-corporations to thrive with said chemicals, Italy still grows some of the same varieties of grain it has grown for centuries. Cappelli, however, arguably isn’t such a grain: it was selectively bred from Tunisian ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ durum wheat at the start of the 20th century. It’s conjecture, but ‘Jenah Rhetifah’ may have ancient heritage, and may indeed have been related to grain traded or cultivated by the Etruscans. I don’t know; I need to consult an expert more. Or find some funding to bloody well do a PhD!

Weird and wonderful
The beer also contains various other weird and wonderful ingredients, based on, according to the Baladin site, “research carried out on Etruscan habits, as they would [have] spiced fermented drinks with hazelnut flour, pomegranate and pomegranate juice, honeys, sultanas, natural resin and gentian root”. The “natural resin” in question is probably what the Dogfish site refers to as “the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin.” The myrrh and gentian are the bittering agents, though the recipe does also include a “handful of whole-flower hops”.

Recording cultivation of hops in Europe didn’t come until centuries later, though as Humulus lupulus is native to Eurasia and north Africa there’s the chance it was utilised by the Etruscans. Wondering about this, I sent an email to Dr McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”. Though busy on a lecture tour in Australia he kindly replied and said, “There is some evidence of hops being found in association with beverages at Etruscan sites, but not much.” I’ve just ordered his most recent book, ‘Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages’ (Berkeley: University of California, 2009) so perhaps that will tell me more. Check out the article ‘The Brewing of Etrusca Beer’ via Dr Pat’s site here (a PDF download) as it gives more detail of the procedure, while a second article on the same page, ‘Ancient Italic Beer The archaeological finds at Pombia (NO), discusses the evidence of hop usage in this era, though it refers to finds from a “proto-Celtic” population in Piedmont/Piemonte, nortern Italy, that is north of ancient Etruria.

Birra del Borgo's Etrusca

So what does it taste like?
Evaluating the experience of drinking a beer like this is tricky as the story of its genesis is so fascinating it’s potentially distracting. Not only was the recipe created with Dr Pat’s expert input, but the three breweries used different materials for the ferment. Dogfish used some bronze plates in in the vats, Baladin used wooden barrels, and Borgo used specially made terracotta jars. This is appropriate given the importance of terracotta for storing liquids in ancient Italy. We were staying in Testaccio, and drank our bottle of Etrusca there, a mere 100m or so from Monte Testaccio, which is also known as Monte dei cocci – which could be translated as “Hill of the earthenware shards”. Yes, the hill is a massive mound of broken ancient Roman amphorae.

Suitably enough, given our day trip, Fran said the beer, which is a pale, cloudy golden colour, “smells like an old cave somewhere”, with all that nuttiness, fruit and fermentation giving a certain mustiness.

Dammit can't read the label

Fran got more earthy smells from it – mushrooms, humus (leaf litter not chickpea). I got a more sharp, sauerkraut smell, with honey. The taste was sour, honey, balsamic, metallic. Fran thought it tasted like fermented tomato juice: not that she’s ever drunk that, as far as I know, but it did have a certain minerally, Bloody Mary quality.

It’s not a beer to spend a relaxing evening with, perhaps, but it’s unique. I wish I could try the Dogfish Head version, but I’ve never seen any of their ales for sale in Italy or the UK, sadly. The comparison would be interesting, and Dr Pat says that he finds the “pomegranate and myrrh are more pronounced and better integrated” with the Dogfish version.

Either way, I love these historical experiments, like Harveys’ Priory Ale from earlier this year, commemorating a slightly more recent bit of history, the Battle of Lewes 750 years ago. Dogfish Head has produced a series of these experimental brews, with their most recent collaboration with Dr McGovern a prehistoric-style Nordic ale they’re called Kvasir. There’s more about their working process, and why we lost our inclination to make such diverse brews, in an article on The Atlantic’s site here.

So anyway, Etruscan remains, Etrusca archaeological ale recreations: what a great day. And far too long a post. I was planning to mention a few other beers I tried on the trip but that will have to wait.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breweries, Discussion, Italian beer, Misc, Rome

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

Final beer at home in Rome

Birra del Borgo's ReAle 8

We’re leaving Rome tomorrow. The shipments of boxes we sent a few weeks ago has arrived in England, the cats similarly made it home on their road trip. But we’re still here until tomorrow, with just a suitcase and rucksack each. And massive piles of clobber to fit therein. It seems to have bred since we packed the boxes.

And of course we have a few final bottles of beer, one of which is this Birra del Borgo eighth anniversary brew, ReAle 8, from their birthday back in May 2013.

Along with Baladin, Birra del Borgo is one of Italy’s most respected breweries. Plus, it’s in Lazio, so, during our time in Rome, I could drink a lot of their wares while also maintaining locavore inclinations. Yay.

Birra del Borgo's ReAle 8 label

ReAle 8 is an Italian American Pale Ale-style brew, amber in colour and part of their annual birthday celebration variations on a theme. I’d love to tell you about the scent/nose/odour/smell, but I’ve got a stinking cold. All Fran can say is “metallic”.

The taste, however, I am getting (at least in part): it’s full-bodied, rich and fruity, providing one of those great, almost chewy mouthfuls with its well-balanced flavour of malts, stewed apple, caramel, and a hoppiness that’s fresh rather than overly bitter. It’s also made with gentian, but I’d be lying if I said I got that.

Thanks to Michele Sensidoni from Mastri Birrai Umbri, who gave us this beer, along with five bottles of one his new test brews. One of which I’m hoping to smuggle back to Britain tomorrow. He’s been a big part of my education in Italian craft beer.

Thanks also to everyone who’s ever served me a craft beer here in Italy, notably Elise Grazzini at Open Baladin whose knowledge and multilingual skills also helped with my  education, after we first found the bar early in our time here.

Oh, and thanks to Nanni Moretti too. His film Caro Diario (Dear Diary, 1993) was one of the first specifically Rome-based films we watched when we moved here, and it helped give us a sense of affection for, and some rudimentary glimpses of understanding of, the city. And, would you believe it, he moved in next door a few weeks ago. So we arrive seeing him on film, riding his motorino up Via Dandalo, and we leave seeing him in the RW, parking his motorino just outside our palazzo.

Borgo 8, leaving Rome home

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Filed under Ale, beer, Italian beer

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

Italian craft beers

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

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

Some Baladin beers

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

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

Draco beer

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

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

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

Noa Reserve

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

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

We’ll see how it goes.

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

Ecco, more photos of beer:

Marche'l Re

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

Gotica from Brasserie Lacu

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

Rubbiu MRL

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

Zagara beer from Barley brewery

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

Line-up left

Line-up, centre

Line-up, right

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

Isaac, anti-mozzie candles

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

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

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

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Filed under Ale, beer, Discussion, Italian beer

Birrificio Italiano Bibock at Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Trastevere, Rome

Bibock from Birrificio Italiano at Antica Foccaceria di San Francesco, Trastevere, Rome

Unless it’s a curry or a kebab, we don’t normally eat in Trastevere. If you want Italian, or more specifically Roman food, it’s about the worst neighbourhood, as so many of the dense thicket of restaurants – in our experience – are lazy and mediocre. However, a friend drew our attention to the Antica Focacceria San Francesco, part of a Sicilian micro-chain whose management has apparently taken a stand against the Mafia.

As much as I’m aware of the big corporations of the (Sicilian) Mafia aka Cosa Nostra, (Calabrese) ʼNdrangheta and (Neopolitan) Camorra, as well as the other immigrant mafias that operate in Italy (Filipino, Chinese, etc), I naively assumed that the touristy Roman restaurant scene would be better protected. Ho ho. Another friend who’s lived in Italy for decades says most places – cafés, restaurants, shops – have to pay the pizzo (protection money), which is what makes Antica Focacceria San Francesco’s stand notable: they said no. The New York Times gives more of the story here (though it gets the address wrong, which makes me question its fact-checking slightly).

So anyway, we headed down to the Trastevere branch on a Friday evening. It’s set in one of this cute quartiere‘s cute piazze, just round the corner from Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà? and the strip of boozers that’s generally heaving on a summer weekend evening.

When our group all assembled and some menus arrived, I was pleased to see the Slow Food symbol. I was also pleased to see the wine menu had two pages dedicated to Italian birre artigianali (craft beers).

So while we ordered a tonne of Sicilian snacks (schiticchi), antipasti and secondi, I also ordered a beer. I got a Bibock from Birrificio Italiano, a brewery located in Lombardia, south of Lake Como. What a name – they’re just called “Italian Brewery”. Though they probably have a right to wield such a grand name: the brewery was founded in 1996, the same year as the renowned Baladin, and as such can be considered, in the words of the Guide alle birre d’Italia 2013, “one of the principle players in the affirmation of the craft beer scene in our country”.

The warmly copper-brown Bibock smells of raspberries, toffee, rose. It’s got a reasonably frothy head. Its taste also has notes of caramel and toffee, along with a very nicely balanced cereal-maltiness and bitter-hoppiness and a fairly dry mouthfeel. It’s bottom-fermented (as befits its roots in German, bock brewing), 6.2% ABV and has a medium body. Very nice.

I’ve no idea if it was a good choice to accompany the food though. I really, really need to learn more about food and beer matching. I’m sorry. But I’ve never made any bones about my beer blogging here being anything but a learning process.

Antica Foccaceria San Franciso, Trastevere, Rome

As for said food, it was pretty good. The Sicilian street food pre-antipasti nibbles were tasty, especially the chickpea fritters (panelle). And the sardines balls were pleasant too. Who’d have thunk it? One flaw in the experience, though, was that pretty much everyone seemed to involve caponata.

Now I love this slightly sour Sicilian dish made with aubergines (/eggplant/ melanzane), tomatoes, capers etc. I like it so much I’d made it the day previously at home, and had it for two days running. Now I found myself eating more; it was getting to the point of OD. The Antica Focacceria must have had a giant cauldron of the stuff in their kitchen.

The only other flaw with the meal came later on when the very sweet and entertaining waitress tried to sell us some desserts. We were already pretty full (of caponata) so had our doubts, but when she said they were sent in every day from Palermo I had even more. She was so excited to tell us this (“And the fish!”) but for me it was like a red rag to a bull. Sent in? “In aero?” I asked. “In a plane?” Really? Really?

How in the blazes does this carbon puddingprint fit in with the place’s nominal Slow Food ethos, of local and sustainable? Even a short hop flight is toxic, particularly as in aviation a lot of the fuel is used getting the beast off the ground in the first place.

If you want Sicilian pastries in Rome, have a Sicilian pastry chef make them on site in Rome. The products won’t just be fresher and better as they’ll only travel a few metres, the whole package will also be more credible in sustainability and environment terms.

The beer was good, the food was good, even the caponata was good (albeit excessive) but I’m sorry, flying in your desserts is just fucking insane. Especially if your menu is plastered with the Slow Food snail symbol. Reality check please!

Info
Antica Focacceria San Francesco, Piazza di San Giovanni della Malva 14, Trastevere, Rome
(+39) 06 581 9503 | roma.lamalva@afsf.it | afsf.it

Birrificio Italiano
(+39) 031 895 450 | info@birrificio.it | birrificio.it

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Fermentazioni 2013 beer festival, Rome

Cheers, sampling ales at Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Cambi gettoni, "Token exchange", Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

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

Almond '22 at Fermentazioni 2013

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

Lambrate at Fermentazioni 2013

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

Toccalmatto at Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

Fermentazioni 2013 glass pouch

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

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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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