Tag Archives: Italian beer

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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Birra del Borgo’s Rubus in Villa Doria Pamphili Park

Rubus beer, Birra del Borgo

Fruit beers. Strange drinks frequently made by simply adding fruit extracts or syrups to a finished brew, resulting in concoctions that are basically just flavoured beer.  Something I’ve never had any inclination to drink. But there are also other, more sophisticated fruit beers, where the fruit – real, unmolested fruit – plays an essential role in the brewing process.

Belgian lambics are the most famous of these beers, utilising wild yeasts and bacteria present on the skins of fruit for spontaneous fermentation. That is, rather than using a domesticated strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae – mankind’s longtime ally (or slave) in brewing, baking and winemaking – the wild yeasts and bacteria are used for the fermentation and give the brews distinctively different flavours, along with any flavour from the actual fruit used.

Birra del Borgo‘s Rubus may not stricly be a lambic – it doesn’t use the specific yeasts and bacteria of those Belgian beers – but it’s certainly a close relative. It’s made with raspberries (lamponi), which have just come into season here in Lazio. The ratio of fruit to beer in the brew is a about 10 per cent (” 100 grams of fresh fruit are added for every litre of beer”; a litre of liquid basically weighs a kilo) and does involve a controlled spontaneous fermentation.

No one seems quite sure how to define it though. While RateBeer does simply call it a Fruit Beer, on Birra del Borgo’s own site, it’s classified as a Spiced Ale, though spice isn’t the defining factor. BeerAdvocate, meanwhile, categorises it as an American Wild Ale – another related type of beer that’s been influenced by lambics. However it’s best categories, Rubus is a unique brew.

It’s based on Birra del Borgo’s classic Duchessa – a kind of saison that’s already fairly fruity, and is made not with malted barley but with an ancient wheat strain known in Italy as farro. Now, In Italy, the word farro is used to refer to three strains of wheat: Triticum monococcum (einkorn); Triticum dicoccum (emmer); and Triticum spelta (spelt). As Borgo make another brew specifically called Enkir with einkorn, I guesssed Duchessa is made either with emmer or spelt. But guessing’s not as good as hard facts, so I emailed the brewery and Luciana Squadrilli kindly replied and clarified: “Per la Duchessa utilizziamo il Triticum Dicoccum.” So it’s made with emmer. She explained it’s a traditional crop from Rietino, in Rieta, the province where the brewery is local.  Originally they bought from a small supplier near the brewery, but in the past few years as they’ve grown, they’ve started sourcing the grain from just over the border, in Abruzzo. Whether the grain used is from Lazio or Abruzzo, Duchessa is a great summer ale – smooth yet crisp and refreshing. Rubus is possibly even more so.

Birra del Borgo Cortigiana on tap, Rome farmers market

We had a chat with the girl selling Birra del Borgo’s wares at the famers’ market near Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) in central Rome the other day. I’d been intrigued reading about their latest monthly “bizarre beer” – in this case, Duchessic, a collaboration with Cantillon in Brussels, which blends Duchessa with a lambic – and wondered if it was available. She said no, as it was a small-scale experiment in the brewery, but recommended Rubus as an alternative. As we were planning a picnic, a fresh fruity beer seemed like a good idea. Though I also bought their Hoppy Cat Cascadian Dark Ale / IBA / BIPA,  just for comparison with the B Space Invader I wrote about a few days ago. She also gave us a sample of Cortigiana, their smooth, sweet golden ale.

So yesterday afternoon, we headed up to the park: the grounds of Villa Doria Pamphili in the west of Rome. It’s a great place, Rome’s equivalent of London’s Hampstead Heath. In the summer it’s frequented by sunbathers, families, men in ridiculous lycra on mountain bikes, shirtless runners showing off their physiques in the heat, Rome’s south Asian community having protracted games of cricket, Rome’s Pilipino community having vast get-togethers. Although there’s the occasional slightly dodgy area where the path peters out in undergrowth or a seemingly pleasant walk among the oleander turns into a giant toilet, it’s generally pleasant, especially on a hot day, with fountains, uncrowded fields, shady deciduous woods and stands of pines, and a lake. There’s even a nice café-bistro that uses organic produce and whatnot.

Pine trees in Villa Doria Pamphili park

We headed for our usual spot near the chapel in front of the villa, and got settled in, hoping our crappy busta termica (cooler bag) would do the job in the 35C heat while we waited for our friends. We couldn’t quite wait though, and had to crack open the Rubus while it was still hot. Clearly from the photo (top of post) we weren’t usual the ideal receptacles – plastic beakers don’t exactly offer a refined organoleptic experience – but they did the job nicely, as this did indeed turn out to be a suitable picnic beer.

It’s not a beer that’s all about the subtle interplay of hops and malt. It’s a well-carbonated, crisp drink that has more in common with a sparkling wine than a  beer, as it really is defined by fruit not grain or hop. Indeed, aside from the fact that it’s 5.8% ABV, it’s very easy to drink, it’s almost like a fizzy soda pop. It’s got a gently fruity, berry perfume, a loose, loose head that subsides fast and the taste tart, but not overly so. Any sourness is well balanced with a sweetness.

Looking at people’s reviews on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, I get the impression that it’s a fairly different experience when it’s on tap, so I will add an addendum if I get to try it alla spina. Previously, I’d rarely have chosen a fruit beer, but my enjoyment of this bottle of Rubus might help me push through any lingering prejudices.


Circo Massimo farmers market / Il Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo
Via di San Teodoro 74, 00186 Rome
Open Saturdays 9am-6pm, Sundays 9am-4pm. July: Saturdays only. August: closed.
Birra del Borgo’s stall is usually at the back.

Birra del Borgo
Birradelborgo.it (English site) | 07 463 1287 | info@birradelborgo.it

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Toccalmatto’s B Space Invader dark beer

Toccalmatto's B Space Invader Cascadian Dark Ale

This is a pretty bonkers beer. Its packaging is eccentric. The blurb on the label is wilful. The taste is full-on.

I bought this one the other day from a craft beer shop, drawn by the label and the name: B Space Invader. How could I not? I was a child of the late 70s and 80s. Everything conspired for kids (especially boys) born around 1970 to become science fiction obsessives: Star Wars arrived in 1977, when we were totally susceptible to Lucas’s films’ hokey recycled charms and stupendous special effects. The germ of SF geekdom was consolidated by the first flowering of videogaming, with Space Invaders (1978) cabinets arriving in our local ice rink when I was about 10. Then we encountered more grownup fare, like Blade Runner (1982), and things were set. The makers of B Space Invader at Toccalmatto brewery in Emilia-Romagna clearly have a similar frame of reference. As well as the actual name of this beer, the label even includes this quote: “E ho visto i raggi B balenare nel buio vincino alle porte di Tannhause…” Tweaked slightly, but here’s the original – from Blade Runner of course.

So yes, how could I resist. Perhaps you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s certainly fun to buy beers on the strength of their labels. Well, that and actually picking up the bottle and reading how it’s described. The label here calls it an “Intergalactic Black Cascadian Incredible Pale Ale / Birra Scura Estremamente Luppolata”. The latter part means “Extremely hoppy dark beer”. Which I find slightly confusing – a dark (v dark) pale ale? But yes, I should stop being so literal as this is a style of beer that’s become popular among craft brewers and fans the past few years.

Toccalmatto's B Space Invader Cascadian Dark Ale, rear label

Here’s a discussion of this style of beer, which evolved on the North American west coast, written by Matt Van Wyk of Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, USA. He says this beer “is known by three different names: Black IPA, India Black Ale (IBA), or Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA)”.  Here’s his definition of the style: “It’s dark in color of course, with a prominent ‘Northwest’ hop aroma – citrusy, piney and resinous. The body has some sweet malt flavors, with hints of roastiness and toasted malt. The flavors should strike a beautiful balance between citrusy-resinous Northwest hops and, to a lesser degree, roasted, chocolate malt or caramel notes. The finish should be semi-dry, not heavy like a porter or stout. Hop aromas and flavors should be prominent, but the malt balance should not be lost in an onslaught of hops. In other words, when closing your eyes, it should not simply taste like a typical American IPA.”

The Guardian’s Tony Naylor offers a more succinct definition, saying this style of beer offers: “a great upfront wallop of tropically fruity and acutely bitter hop flavours underpinned by the smokier, roasted malt character of a stout”.

Like the Italian APAs I’ve been enjoying, an Italian BIPA/IBA/CDA will also be something subtly different to its North American forebears, but broadly B Space Invader conforms to Naylor’s description, though perhaps less so to Van Wyk’s. The aroma is more blackberry, blackcurrant and prune than piney or citrussy. The flavour – once you’ve got past the thick, creamy head – is big and intense. A lot of hops, a lot of roasted malts, though not with the coffee or chocolate flavours you can get with porters. Nor is its body creamy like a porter; it’s crisp and medium carbonated.

Van Wyk also says the American BIPA/IBA/CDA flavour is defined by the use of Pacific northwest hop varieties. B Space Invader is apparently made with Simcoe and Amarillo hops, varieties from Washington State, so that conforms. But it also apparently contains Australian Galaxy hops, shifting it well away from that North American West Coast context.

Toccalmatto's B Space Invader Cascadian Dark Ale, rear label

BIPA/IBA/CDA has also been subject of a debate about whether it’s genuinely a new style of beer. Certainly it reminds me of older black beers, things like Black Mac from Mac’s Brewery in New Zealand. Black Mac played a major role in my path to enjoyment of decent beers. After spending my 1980s adolescence drinking the vile lagers that were popular in the UK then – and, worse, snakebite; even thinking about it makes my head hurt – I gave up booze for several years. It was only while living on a small farm in NZ, aged 24, that I realised beer could be pleasant and interesting. Gosh. Flagons of Black Mac opened my eyes. (This was around 1994, back when Mac’s was the pre-eminent NZ craft brewery. In fact Terry McCashin, the founder, kicked off the microbrewery scene in NZ, much like Teo Musso of Baladin has in Italy.) Black Mac was one of my principle gateway beers, and although B Space Invader is a helluva lot bigger, stronger (6.3%) and more intense than Black Mac (4.8%), the similarities are there: notably in the balance of hoppiness and toasted malts. And yet Black Mac is defined as a dark ale or a Schwarzbier, styles of beer that have been around for since the Middle Ages.

So although B Space Invader is top fermented, unlike Schwarzbier, which is a dark lager and bottom fermented, flavour-wise the boundaries between BIPA/IBA/CDA and some older styles can be minimal. I’m not quite sure what B Space Invader has to do with Space Invaders or Blade Runner, or SF in general – though it made me buy it.

toccalmatto. it (sort of English site) | 05 2453 3289 | info@birratoccalmatto.it

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The Hangry Hour and Birra del Borgo’s ReAle

Birra del Borg's ReAle at The Hole, Trastevere

One aspect of Roman life I just cannot get used to is meal times. Or more specifically, dinner time. During the hot summer months (ie now) we’ll be going to bed around 11pm, thinking of that pesky alarm going off at 6.30am the following day, while the sound of chatter, and crockery and cutlery, and kids crying, wafts towards us from the restaurant a few doors down. How the heck can they still be eating at nearly midnight? What are those babies doing up at this hour? My body clock just couldn’t cope with those hours. I cannot even begin to imagine how I’d survive Barcelona.

My troubles usually start around 5pm. I’ve eaten a big lunch at 1-ish, I’ve had a few snacks during the afternoon, but still my body starts telling me it’s time to eat big towards late afternoon. I’m just too programmed. Growing up, the main meal of the evening was always at 7pm, or even earlier when I was a little kid. Around 6pm I’m getting hangry, and around 7pm I really really want to eat. Don’t talk to me. Just give me some damned protein. It’s the Hangry Hour. Or at least it used to be, but in Roma it can turn into the Hangry Two Hours, or more.

This problem often coincides with meeting Fran from her train home from work. On a summer’s evening, we sometimes head straight from the station to a bar for an aperitivo. Last night, this involved a jaunt to the less touristy part of Trastevere – that is, east of Viale di Trastevere, in the bend in the river. Specifically, Piazza del Ponziani.

Although neither of the bars there are any good for satisfying my Italian craft beer cravings, it’s just a nice spot. Although there are ex-pats and tourists there, for the most part it still just feels like an ordinary neighbourhood piazza, where the locals all seem to know each other. I even recognise a lot of them now, and their dogs, though I’m probably still just another straniero to them. I don’t think the girls in one of the bars, The Hole, recognise me yet either, but I still like their bar. I’m not sure what. It kinda lives up to its name, they’re reliably surly, and we even got shat on by gulls earlier this summer, but we keep going back.

As it was The Hangry Hour, Fran insisted with get a snack. In a lot of places, you get a snack (or even a buffet) included in the price of your drink at aperitivo time, but not at The Hole. We paid €8 for a plate of salumi e formaggi (cold cuts and cheese), which turned out to be just the latter. And they were pretty poor. A worse culinary crime, however, was the bread.

Many foreigners still labour under the delusion that you can’t get bad food in Italy, it’s all artisan and hand-made. And blah. Seriously, blah. That’s just a load of bollocks. The bread The Hole gave us was what’s known as pancarré in Italian – basically industrial white sliced bread. It’s not unlike British white sliced made with the Chorleywood Bread Process, the industrial invention that did more than anything else to destroy the craft of baking in Britain.

The process turned 50 last year, and continues to dominate wheat-based industrial “food” products in the UK, despite its nutritional poverty and the fact that it’s quite likely at the heart of people’s problems with eating wheat products, from feelings of bloating to Coeliac disorder. Although certain quarters have been determined to deny Chorleywood products are problematic, other – scientific – work has proved that long fermentation breads are digestible to people with coeliac. Ironically, this work lead by a scientist from the University of Naples.

So yeah, despite the Hangry, I couldn’t really eat that pancarré – I tried a nibble, but it was spongy and bland. And stale.


At least The Hole has the one Italian craft beer on their menu available this time. That beer is ReAle, from Birra del Borgo.

Like Birradamare (which I talked about here) Birra del Borgo is one of Lazio’s main local micro-breweries and fairly easy to find in Rome. The 6.4% ABV ReAle is a classic Italian craft beer. It’s an APA – and most Italian craft breweries seem to do APA style beers. So much so that Italian APAs really need a name or category of their own, as they’re evolving from APA much like APA evolved from IPA and other pale ales. (Even though Italian APAs still use American hops, like the ever-popular Cascade. Maybe one day they’ll grow more hops in Italy, and have enough to realy hone a fully Italian APA.)

Italian APAs are generally less hoppy and more malty than genuine US APAs, to suit the Italian palette. ReAle is no exception – the predominant flavours here are malt – notably crystal malts, as the beer has a nice slightly-burnt-caramel flavour, along with a certain orange or grapefruit fruitiness. It’s a very nicely balanced beer, with a certain warmth – not warm like a nice cup of cocoa, but warm from the bright amber-copper colour and flavour.

So even though the beer didn’t exactly take the edge off the hanger, it certainly distracted me from the terrible pancarré and dodgy cheese. Afterwards, we eschewed the dubious delights of Trastevere and headed back to Osteria Pistoia on Via Portuense for a pretty decent dinner.

Birra del Borgo
Birradelborgo.it (English site) | 07 463 1287 | info@birradelborgo.it

The Hole
Via dei Vascellari 16, Rome
06 589 4432

Random addendum
Talking of hangry, among the many T-shirt designs I’ve mused about over the years, how about a pic of Hulk (smashing, perhaps) with the text: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m Hangry!” If you do have a T-shirt printing operation, feel free to steal this idea – but drop me a line if you do!


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

Birradamare’s Birra Roma at Zoc, Rome

Birradamare's Birra Roma and 'Na Biretta Rossa

Saturday lunchtime we stopped by Zoc trattoria (aka Zoc 22) for some food and ale. Zoc is owned by the same people as the more established Urbana 47 in the Monti neighbourhood of Rome. Urbana 47 is stylish place where the food is produced along sound principles, with an emphasis on season and local (“KM0”), the provenance of ingredients front and centre on the menu.

As it should be.

We eat far too much food where we have no idea of the origins of the ingredients. This is important for all ingredients, but especially so for meat and dairy, where barbaric industrial techniques have cheapened the human relationship with animals, resulting in a form of de-humanised husbandry that emphasises quantity at any cost. Sadly, many people have been duped by the persuasiveness of the meat industry and supermarkets. Your intensively reared beef, pig unit pork, or industrial broiler chickens really aren’t that cheap if you factor in the subsidies and the cost we’ll all have to pay in the long run for the accompanying pollution and disease.

The bar at Zoc, Rome

So yes, bravo Urbana for its principles. These principles are similarly followed at Zoc, where the menu lists not just the ingredients, but the azienda that’s provided them. The trattoria even has photos on the wall of some of their suppliers, including one chap Fran recognised as the guy we’ve bought salumi from at the market in the Testaccio Ex-Mattatoio (currently closed for the summer – go figure).

I was also encouraged by the drinks list, which mostly consists of local wines, but also includes four bottled beers from Birradamare. Birradamare has pretty much established itself as the craft brewery for Rome. Although it’s not in the city, but instead is located at Fiumicino, the town at the mouth of the Tiber near the airport of the same name, its products are fairly ubiquitous here. If a Rome venue has just one craft beer brand on offer, chances are it’ll be Birradamare (eg here).

I ordered a Birra Roma, Fran a ʼNa Biretta Rossa. I’ve had the latter before – it’s a decent malty beer, inspired by German bocks, sweet and medium bodied, with 6.4% ABV. Its colour is amber or copper. Surprisingly, the Birra Roma was a similar colour (see pic, above), despite being called a birra oro (golden ale) on Birradamare’s site or even bionda (blonde) on the label. Birradamare’s own site says the Roma is 35EBC, which is about right, but there’s no way the Rossa is 74EBC (a serious porter tone). Surely that’s an error?

Anyway, the Birra Roma (5.5% ABV). Like Baladin’s Nazionale, which I tried a few days ago, the Roma seems to be one of the many experiments going on to create specifically, uniquely Italian style beers. In this case, even a specifically Roman beer. It’s a beer that clearly takes into consideration Italians’ love for fairly straightforward but strong lagers, as it was inspired by Bavarian Märzen lagers. I found it had a slight orange aroma, slightly hoppy. Taste-wise, it’s hoppy but not bitter (35 IBU apparently), crisp, fresh, with very faint smokiness and more body than a lager. Interestingly, Fran said it reminded her of the sea, of seaweed and salt and Breton Atlantic  beaches, the Côte Sauvage, which is far more poetic than I can be about it.

Birra Roma at Zoc Rome

So anyway, we were enjoying the beers, and the ambiance of the place, which is located in a 1950s block on the Centro Storico side of the river near the Ponte Sisto. The dining area is spacious, with high ceilings and some great design features, like an enlarged detail of a nautical map (I love maps). Much of the furniture is for sale, with price tags, so there’s a slightly distracting feeling of eating in a hip secondhand furniture showroom. There’s also a decent sized courtyard at the back, though it was a pretty hot day when we visited, and they seemed to be trying to cool it off with misters – which only succeeded in making everything soggy.

When the food finally arrived, it was pretty tasty. Fran had three chicken legs and a fig, the flavour profile a nice change to much Roman food, with some turmeric, cumin, rosemary. But it really was just three drumsticks and a fig, for €16. Mine, meanwhile, was half an aubergine (/ melanzana / eggplant) and one piece of cheese toast. Like Fran’s, the flavours were a nice change, more north African say, though it was underseasoned. And just plain meagre (for €9). I’m more than happy to pay for quality and provenance, for more ethical food, but there’s got to be some balance – the portions were so small we left feeling hungry, which isn’t what you want when your bill comes to €44. We even had to ask for bread (a dense, white sourdough, somewhat stale), and there we no other contorni (side dishes). Essentially we paid meal prices for a snack.

Blown up nautical charts on the wall of Zoc

This is all something they need to work on, to make for a more satisfying experience. They could also do with working on the service. The staff were amiable enough but just seemed a bit apathetic. When, for example, a fuse tripped, cutting out the fans and lights, the waiter wandered around for a while first before going to click it back on. He wasn’t busy either, there were just a few covers there for Saturday lunch. Perhaps it’s busier in the evening. Although it’s right near two very popular areas – Trastevere and the Centro Storico around Campo de’ Fiori – it’s just off the main drag. Although Urbana 47 suffers from the same small portions/ high-ish prices issue at least it’s got a bit more atmosphere from being busier, as Via Urbana is a more lively street.

So, Zoc: nice spot, good beer, sound principles, iffy value for money. Must try harder (er, as I may have had on my school reports a few times in days of yore).

Via delle Zoccolette 22, 00186 Rome, Italy
zoc22.it (English site, sort of) / 06 6819 2515 / info@zoc22.it

Birradamare.it (English homepage) / 06 658 2021 / info@birradamare.it


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Mastri Birrai Umbri’s Cotta 74 at home, now

Mastri Birrai Umbri Cotta 74 Doppio Malto

My introduction to Italian craft beers came by way of the birreria Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa (aka the “football pub”), which was located at the end of street where we spent our first week in Rome, in that ex-pat and tourist favourite neighbourhood Trastevere, along with Open Baladin bar, which we discovered soon after, and this brewery – Mastri Birrai Umbri.

Mastri Birrai Umbri is currently Italy’s biggest craft brewer, and I’ll be writing more about it, and a visit to their brewery, in a month or so to accompany an entry by Jeremey Cherfas of Eat This Podcast. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse of life a casa Bread, Cakes and Ale. It’s Sunday night, it’s 3o-ish degrees (that’s mid-80s  in that weird old currency some people insist on using), thunder is rumbling, the cats are demanding their dinner, and me and the missus are both on our laptops trying to sort stuff. To accompany our activities, we’ve opened a bottle of Mastri Birrai Umbri’s Cotta 74. Partly cos it’s delicious but also partly because we might need the bottle, with its fancy cap, as we’re making some spicey plum ketchup in the kitchen as we speak, thanks to a large consignment of fruit from a neighbour.

I talked about Cotta 74 a bit over here, when I used it to as an ingredient in a chocolate cake. No chocolate is involved tonight, just plain old supping. The beer, a 6% ABV double-malted dark brew in an Abbey Dubbel style is tasting good – tangy, malty, light on the hops, with hints of charcoal.


Filed under Ale, beer

Casa Veccia’s Molo

Back at Oasi della Birra in Testaccio, with my chum Rachel and my wife Fran. Fran’s beers of choice are unfailingly porters and stouts. As the bar – disappointingly – doesn’t have any Italian beers on tap, we were drinking bottled beers. We asked for a 32 Via dei Birra Altra, a double-malted dark brown ale. They’d run out, but offered us another dark beer. This turned out to be Molo from a micro birrifficio (microbrewery) called Casa Veccia. Not one I’d heard of before. Turns out it’s in Povegliano, in Treviso province of the Veneto, inland from Venice.

Reading the info on Casa Veccia’s Facebook page, the story of the brewery seems not unlike that of several of the other Italian microbreweries I’ve been learning about. (Indeed, it’s a story that’s repeated in the microbrewery scene across the world.) Ivan Borsato, a chef and cookery teacher, says he started making beer for a laugh with three friends in April 2009 but by the end of the year he’d glimpsed an opportunity take it to a professional level. By January 2011 they were producing their first commercial beer, Dazio, an American Pale Ale, then Formenton, a wheat beer.

Borsato, meanwhile, is recognised on all the labels, which says “Micro Birrificio Casa Veccia Ivan Borsato Birraio” with birraio meaning master brewer. (And veccia meaning “vetch“, that is the Vicia genus of Fabaceae, the pea family or legumes.) In fact, I’m not really even sure what the brewery is called, as my beer guidebook simply lists it as Ivan Borsato Birraio.

The labels are also distinctive for their Matt Groening-esque cartoons. (Actually designed by Kulkuxumusu from Pamplona, Spain.) Molo’s label seems to feature some kind of exchange between salty sea dogs, swapping a fish for a bottle of beer.

Anyway. Enough pre-amble. The beer.

The most notable thing about Molo is that it’s a dark, dense 6.5% stout that contains tawny porto, that is tawny port – port that’s been aged in wooden barrels and, according to Wikipedia, imparted with a nutty flavour through gradual oxidation. Now personally, I don’t touch port, not after a work Christmas party about 20 years ago when I learned the hard way how it  gives the worst hangovers. Something to do with congeners. But it certainly added a depth of flavour to the Molo, an almost rare meatiness alongside the more typical stouty flavours of well-roasted and toasted malt, slightly burnt biscuit etc. Though nothing fishy, despite the image on the label.


Filed under Uncategorized

Another beer from 32 Via dei birrai brewery – Audace

Back at the Oasi della Birra in Testaccio last night. That’s “wah-zee”, not “oh-ace-ee” della Birra. My pronunciation got corrected (rightfully so) just the other day.

As per usual, you ask for beers from the scrappy menu, and they haven’t got them. So he suggested something else and as we were busy yacking we just said okay. We ended up having another of the range from 32 Via dei birrai birrificio (brewery), with their snazzily designed bottles, here terribly photographed on my phone.

Last time, I tried their Atra, a strong brown ale (7.3% ABV). This time it was Audace. On their site, 32 describes it as a birra bionda forte (Belgian strong ale). The first bit means strong blonde beer – and indeed it was strong, even more so than the Atra, which is already hefty enough for someone who’s grown up with British ales. When I say “grown up with”, I of course mean, “learned to enjoy responsibly at a legal age”. So yes, Audace is 8.4% ABV. Audace indeed. In case you hadn’t guessed from the Latin root, the name means “audacious”.

It’s audacious on a couple of levels. Firstly and foremostly because it’s ridiculously drinkable for such a strong beer. Even the Guida alle birrre d’italia (Guide to Italian Beers) 2013 says it’s molto beverina, nonostante l’alta gradazione alcolica: “very drinkable, notwithstanding the high alcohol content”. Secondly, it’s got a really notable citrus, slighty spicey, flavour. The brewery’s in-house experts have got it right when they refer to its taste giving una sensazione citrica astringente: “an astringent citrus sensation”. It’s reasonably hoppy, but that is balanced beautifully by the citrus flavours, spicyness and malt (it’s double malted).

Just reading 32’s site some more now, it says something appropriate to the current flap in the UK media about certain stray red meat.

The site suggests what food it pairs well with: Cibi senza salse grasse ma sostanziosi, affumicati come gli sfilacci di cavallo, o salati come montasio stravecchio e ostriche, in quanto birra poco luppolata. Which means (ish), “As a lightly hopped beer, it goes well with hearty foods without greasy sauces, smoked foods like shredded, cured horsemeat, or savoury/salty foods like Montasio Stravecchio [a type of cheese] and oysters.” The northeastern food suggestions – both the horse and the cheese – are in part because 32 is in the Veneto, inland from Venice.

I’ve never encountered horsemeat in Rome, though it’s probably available here and, frankly, sfilacci di cavallo has got to be nicer than the pajata alla griglia I tried the other day. It’s the intestines of unweaned veal (though some say lamb), grilled. It smelled and tasted of the digestive tract. Which doesn’t come as a surpirse. What surprises me is some people’s passion for it. (Sorry Rachel – I know I had to experience it, but I can’t pretend I enjoyed it!)

Unsurprisingly, half a 75cl bottle later I was feeling quite amenable. While there wasn’t any sfilacci di cavallo available, the boss of Oasi did encourage mean to buy another of 32’s beers to take away. I won’t say “one for the road” as that a bloody silly expression as it implies driving. Come on people: Walk. Public transport. Taxi. Designated drivers.

Anyway. Watch this space. I’ll be reporting back on 32’s Oppale soon. Untappd calls it a Belgian pale ale, the gaffer at Oasi referred to it as a lager. It’s only 5.5%, which is another surprise considering these previous experiences with 32’s beers.


Filed under Ale, beer

Things I miss from home. And the question of beer.

In no particular order:
A good pub* (preferably in the company of old friends).
Interstate in Covent Garden, so I can buy some new jeans. Been buying my jeans (as well as sundry satchels and undies) there for about 12 years or more. [Edit: Interstate closed down while we were in Roma! End of an era]
Vaguely reliable, functional postal services.
Cinema. There are plenty of cinemas here, but unlike in Paris say, it’s hard to see English-language films in versione originale. And I’m damned if I’ll watch a dubbed film, especially in a language I don’t understand very well. I detest dubbing. There is one cinema here that shows films in VO, but for some reason they had The Iron Lady on there for three long effin’ months. I adore the big screen, indeed it was central to my job for a decade or so, so this dearth of big screen action is a difficulty for me.
Simple brand products – soap, roll-on etc that’s not perfumed, not coloured, just kind.

Things I don’t miss:
The sheer trashiness of Britain and British culture.
The unfailing uniformity of British shopping streets (mobile phone shops, Boots, Tesco Metro, generic coffee franchises etc).
The grotesque ubiquity of CCTV. I remember my feelings of shock and discomfort when I first became aware of CCTV cameras, such as outside a bar in Radford in Nottingham, c1992, where dealers congregated. Thanks to Blair and co, we’re all treated like potential now criminals in the UK. So much for valuing our freedoms. Never mind the Olympics factor.
The lack of lizards.

By no means a complete list. And is it prejudiced and classist? Who knows. Me ne frego.

* I don’t necessarily have a painful longing for British beer. As much as I love a pint of proper British ale, there’s no shortage of decent beer here in Italy, thanks to what I understand to be a fairly recent growth of artigianale (artisan, or traditional) beer production.

In Rome, we just need to go to Ma Che Sieta Venuti a Fa’ or Open Baladin, or other birrerie (beer bars), or specialist beer shops. We can even get great ales from the supermarket. Last year, the boyfriend of a friend launched a new beer in Italy, and after being unable to source it in the specialist shops, I spied it in our local supermarket. And very nice it is too: Mastri Birrai Umbri.


Filed under Food misc, Main thread, Rome