Tag Archives: malt

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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Malted wheat bread

Malted wheat bread made with Wessex Cobber flour

After my recent problems with bread-making at home in Rome, I was keen to try and make some bread during my visit to England last week. Although everyone kept telling me they’d just had three weeks of sun and 30C+ temperatures, when I arrived the British weather returned to form. I left the heat of Rome and was met by rain and grey at Gatwick. (There was one day when it was hot and sunny again, but I spent most of it in transit: on a train, then waiting for a very late-running bus, then waiting on the roadside in a village in the middle of nowhere in Devon when said very late bus broke down. Overheated.)

Eventually I made it to my folks’ place in the middle of nowhere in another part of the Devon countryside. I visited the local town, Holsworthy, bought some flour and yeast, then made some bread. That day, the weather was mixed and barely more than 20C. So nice and familiar and manageable, unlike the 40C ish Roman inferno.

The flour I bought was Wessex Cobber Bread Flour from Wessex Mill. Now, for those without even a passing knowledge of English history (or the literature of Thomas Hardy), Wessex is an ancient English kingdom, where the West Saxons (Wes-sax – geddit?) not only conquered neighbouring Anglo-Saxon tribes, but also fought the Vikings to a standstill under Alfred the Great, effectively creating the first version of an English nation in the 9th century. Or at least that’s my précis. Proper historians who would probably tell it differently, but I have Wessex campanilismo. Either way, Wessex, unlike Essex and two Sussexes, no longer exists as a county. Though at its height, it did dominate much of Devon, a region then mostly still inhabited by Britain’s older, “Celtic” inhabitants. Anyway, the point I’m making is that although it wasn’t a local flour brand, it wasn’t that far away from being local.

Except that when I read the packet more closely it said that because of Britain’s poor cereal yields in 2012 (ruined by the non-summer), the flour was instead milled from Canadian grain. D’oh. Seriously, when I leave Italy and return to tediously supermarket dominated and tragically climate-change-ravaged England locavorism is going to be an interesting challenge. Here in Rome I can buy numerous flours ground from grains grown in neighbouring regions.

*Sigh*

I went ahead and made some bread anyway. Wessex Cobber Bread Flour is a roller-milled wheat flour, containing some barley malt flour and malted wheat grains. The type of bread it makes is more commonly known in the UK as “Granary”, but Granary is in fact a trademarked malted flour owned by Premier Foods, owner of the Hovis brand. So much like you can’t call a Kölsch-style beer “Kölsch” unless it’s made in Cologne the right way, you can’t technically call a Granary loaf “Granary” unless it’s actually made with Rank Hovis flour.

For this bread I used the reliable proportions of 1000g flour / 700g water / 20g fresh yeast / 20g fine salt, ie 70% hydration, though I tend to halve that for a smaller loaf. And I just did a basic bulk fermentation, proving twice until doubled in size. No flies were included in the mix.

Wessex Cobber flour, with fly, and bread

The results were a bit dense, but it was moist and chewy, and after a few days I didn’t get any of the problems I’ve had recently in Rome with the centre of the loaf damply disintegrating. Although that still doesn’t help me diagnose said problems.

Hi ho.

Oh and I’m not entirely sure what a cobber is. I’m guessing it’s a dialect variation on cob, the more common British English name for a round loaf, equivalent to the French boule. It rings a bell. Though the main usage of cobber that springs to mind is the Australian English for “mate, buddy, chum”.

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