Tag Archives: mastri birrai umbri

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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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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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.

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Chocolate cake with dark double-malt beer

 

Chocolate cake made with "birra scura doppio malto" (dark, double-malted beer)

One of my favourite breweries here in Italy is Mastri Birrai Umbri. They currently do three beers, one of which is Cotta 74, a doppio malto scura – a dark double-malt beer. A “birra doppio malto” is an Italian legal classification but this specific beer is made with a well-roasted malt as is not unlike a porter or stout. It’s got a warm, deep flavour, with a slight burnt caramel taste and hints of chocolate. So, thought I, why not try and use it in a chocolate cake recipe?

Mastri Birrai Umbri’s beers, developed by master brewer Michele Sensidoni,  also all use a unique ingredient, something distinctly Umbrian. In the case of Cotta 74, that ingredient is lentils, which are a traditional crop in Umbria. I believe they give the beer a slight nuttiness and earthiness. Also good for a chocolate cake, thunk I.

Anyway, available here is a recipe for a chocolate cake made with Guinness. It’s a Nigella Lawson recipe. I never had good results from her cake recipes, I found them unpredicable and unreliable. And nor do I like Guinness (it’s tastes too much like iron and mud, it’s too creamy). But the recipe proved a good foundation for a cake made with Cotta 74.

Of course this is a versatile recipe, so use whatever stout or porter you have to hand. Though I would recommend something good quality from a small brewery. Large scale industrial beer is never as nice.

(Note – I do liquids in grams. It’s more accurate, and perfectly easy if you’re using bowls and electronic scales. If you’re unconvinced, just use the liquid measures in ml.)

250g scura doppio malto, stout or porter
250g unsalted butter
100g cocoa
340g caster sugar
140g mascarpone
20g yogurt
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
270g plain flour
1.5 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon baking power

Preheat oven to 180C.
Grease and line a 23cm tin. (Springform is easier but not essential.)

In a pan, melt the butter in the beer.
Pour into a large mixing bowl.
Beat the cocoa and sugar into the beer/butter mix.
Allow this mixture to cool slightly.

Beat together the mascarpone, yogurt, eggs and vanilla essence.
When the main mix is cool enough, beat in the mascarpone mixture. (If it’s too hot, you’ll scramble the egg content.)

Sieve together the flour and raising agents.
Add this to the mixture and beat well.

Pour the mixture into the tin.

Bake for around 1 around, until it’s well risen and no longer too wobbly.

Leave to cool completely in the tin, on a wire rack.

Make a topping with
100g mascarpone
150g icing sugar

Sieve the icing sugar into the mascarpone and mix.
If it’s too sloppy, add more sieved icing sugar.

Enjoy!

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