Tag Archives: real beer

Fermentazioni 2013 beer festival, Rome

Cheers, sampling ales at Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Cambi gettoni, "Token exchange", Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

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

Almond '22 at Fermentazioni 2013

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

Lambrate at Fermentazioni 2013

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

Toccalmatto at Fermentazioni 2013

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

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

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

Fermentazioni 2013 glass pouch

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

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

Loverbeer’s Madamin oak amber ale at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà?

Loverbeer's Madamin at Ma Che Siete a Fa, Trastevere, Rome

Exactly two years ago, me and Fran, the missus, moved to Rome. We opted to travel by train, leaving England in a mild-mannered 17C and arriving in Rome to a fierce 40C-ish heat.

So naturally we were thirsty.

Before we moved into what would be our home for the next two years, we spent a few nights in a flat in cutesy old Trastevere. And would you believe it, right at the end of our street was one of Rome’s best beer bars. This was Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà? The wonderful name means “But what have you come here to do?” It’s apparently a football chant – effectively taunting the rival team with “why bother?”. But in context of walking into this Hobbity hole-in-the-wall boozer, the obvious answer is “drink quality beer, of course”. The bar does have a football thing going on, with two TV screens, I didn’t really register this element initially, as they had such an intriguing selection of beers.

Furthermore, as we’d just moved from Lewes in southern England, it was amusing to discover posters for Harvey’s Brewery, a Lewes institution, in Ma Che’s (generally fairly smelly, now redecorated and still fairly smelly) back room.

Harvey's brewery poster at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa', Trastevere, Rome

As 25 August was our two-years-in-Rome anniversary, I thought we needed to go back to Ma Che and drink some more interesting beer.

Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces
We’d already had three or so fairly boozy days, so I vowed to just have one beer. I wanted something weird and challenging after all the nice easy golden ales I’ve been drinking lately. There was a selection of about 16 beers on tap, with three on hand pump. They rotate their stock, but on this visit the beers were from Italy, Germany, Belgium and Norway.

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa' beers, 25 August 2013

I try to only drink beer from the nation I’m in at the time, so it had to be Italian, giving me a choice of nine. Ruling out the golden ale, pils and IPA narrowed it down more. Stouts are Fran’s department, so that ruled out another two. In the end, I chose Madamin Oak Amber Ale from Loverbeer brewery, which is in the Turin region of Piedmont, northwest Italy.

adamin is an unusual beer by any standards.  It’s very fruity as it’s been conditioned in “tini di rovere” – oak vats, formerly used for wine production. I found it very sour and tart, and the initial fruitiness I got in the smell and taste was more sour cherry, plum and blackcurrant than grape. Maybe this was my memory playing tricks on me though as one of the first ever beers I had in Ma Che two years earlier was a kriek lambic.

Anyway. Some more info. It’s a top fermentation beer, inspired, according to the blurb on Loverbeer’s site, by Belgian beers – meaning lambics, as the fermentation here relies on wild yeasts in the wood of the vats, specifically Brettanomyces (aka Brett, Dekkera), in contrast to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae more commonly associated with controlled bread, beer and wine production.

Taps, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa', Trastevere, Rome

Beer, wine, scrumpy
The blurb also says that the process heightens the acidity and restrains the bitterness of the beer, making it a versatile drink that’s suitable accompaniment for Mediterranean cuisine.  (“L’acidità appena pronunciata e l’amaro molto contenuto, rendono questa birra versatile  negli abbinamenti e adatta ai piatti tipici della cucina mediterranea.”) I’m not sure about this: do Italians want their beers to be more sour and fruity? I get the impression from the amount of vile strong import lager (Ceres, Tennent’s) Italians drink, many prefer acrid, metallic lagers.

Either way, I’m not sure it’d be a good meal accompaniment. It was too deciso (“decisive”). And indeed, it’s a beer that simultaneously complex and strangely rustic, like some pungent, low carbonation farmhouse scrumpy from the Southwest of England.

Loverbeer Madamin and Brewfist Fear at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa'?

So this 5.7% ABV, handsomely reddish-brown, medium-light bodied beer, named after the Piedmontese dialect for “young lady” (madamin, closer to the French mademoiselle than the Italian signorina), was certainly an interesting choice. A memorable beer to celebrate our two-year anniversary in Rome. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll be rushing to buy it again. Though I’m always happy to try the wares at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà?, an essential destination for any beer enthusiasts visiting Rome.

Info
Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà?
Address: Via di Benedetta 25, Trastevere, 00153 Rome, Italy
Tel (+39) 380 507 4938 | football-pub.com (English site)

Lovebeer di Valter Loverier
Strada Pellinciona 7, 10020 Marentino, Piedmont, Italy
Tel (+39) 3473636680 | loverbeer.com | info@loverbeer.it

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Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc

Real beer, real bread, and how to define “craft” foods

Bottled beer conditioning at Mastri Birrai Umbri

(I know long-form blogging isn’t popular these days, but think of this more as an essay. Hell, it’s no longer than an article in the paper.)

Visiting Mastri Birrai Umbri (MBU) and talking with MBU’s master brewer Michele Sensidoni and science and food communicator Jeremy Cherfas, who did a podcast about the visit here, really got me thinking about the whole question of craft foods. Especially beer and bread, as they’re my obsessions and they’re siblings born together at the start of human civilisation. Specifically, it got me thinking more about how one defines such craft foods. If you’re a baker, brewer or beer enthusiast, this is something you probably think about too.

I’ve visited MBU before, last year, and one thing that struck me then, and on the second visit with Jeremy, was the sense that the brewery was a place of industry and science. Of course it is, in literal terms – with industry meaning diligently creating something, and brewing (like baking) being a process that involves a sophisticated balance of biological processes. But also, it seemed industrial in the more technological sense, of large-scale metal equipment, and a small scale human presence. The fact that MBU is currently Italy’s biggest craft brewery, producing 1 million litres of beer a year, would seem to confirm this. And yet it is still a craft brewery.

Putting it perspective
Of course “Craft brewery” and “microbrewery” are difficult terms. Different countries have various legal or tax-related definitions of them, different organisation or beer writers have varying semantic interpretations of them.

In the broadest sense, though, a craft brewery is small, independent and uses traditional techniques. The Brewers Association in the US indeed includes these parameters in its definition, but then it goes on to define the production limit as “6 million [US] barrels or less” that is around 700 million litres or 7 million hectolitres (hl). Which is a helluva lot bigger than MBU, and doesn’t sound that small. But compared to the mega-brewery conglomerates it is. This 2010 Reuters article says Anheuser-Busch InBev (producer of the US Budweiser, amongst other brands) produced 350 million hl in 2009, and SABMiller (which owns innumerable brands including the nominally Italian Peroni Nastro Azzuro), just less than 250 million hl.

Which does put into perspective.

That perspective goes even more squiffy, however, when you consider that in the UK a craft brewery, or microbrewery, is generally considered to be one producing less than 500,000 litres (5,000 hl).

This definition of sorts came about because of the Progressive Beer Duty, a system introduced in the UK in 2002 to help encourage small, local breweries, with lower taxation based on the scale of the operation. The system originated in Germany and although it has its critics, it has been credited as one of the key factors in the rapid expansion of the small brewery scene in the UK and elsewhere.

Progressive Beer Duty was adopted throughout the EU and was potentially a factor in the expansion of the Italian craft beer scene too. There are currently around 500 craft breweries in Italy. A threshold for their production is 10,000hl per year, though the country has no other, specific legal definition of craft brewery. Indeed, in Jeremy’s interview, Michele discusses how introducing a legal definition in Italy could have a negative impact, as there’s so much variation in the Italian craft brewery scene it could impose restrictions on creativity. (And have no tangible effect on quality.)

Honest beer
For Michele, craft brewing is more about the ingredients and how you use them, about innovation, and about how much you care about the quality of the product. He also believes that although large-scale breweries could produce quality craft beers, instead they compromise. They rush. So whereas a brewery like MBU might condition their brews for months, a large scale industrial brewer might rush the process in 12 days or so. This rush, he said, “is not the best for the beer, but it’s the best for your distribution chain, it’s the best for your sales manager, it’s the best for your volume production.”

Jeremy mooted a potential definition of MBU’s beer as not craft or artisanal or industrial, but “honest” – where there’s total clarity, indeed pride, about the ingredients. But this notion of large scale industrial beer being rushed also immediately made me think of bread. Or more specifically the principle problem with rushed, large-scale industrial wheat-based products. From the spongy, plastic wrapped products made with Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) that dominate the UK to Italy’s comparable crime against nutrition, tradition, and taste, pancarré.

A few years ago, when I was still living in the UK, I became a supporter of the Real Bread Campaign (RBC). This was founded in 2008 under the aegis of Sustain, “the alliance for better food and farming” and its rise in prominence has paralleled the renaissance in interest in real baking. In some ways, the Real Bread Campaign is a cousin to CAMRA, the UK-Irish Campaign for Real Ale that was founded in 1971 to counter the rising tide of bad industrial beer that was then starting to dominate bars. Likewise, the RBC was started, in part, to counter the white sliced crap and encourage people to demand the real deal.

I’m not a CAMRA member, but I enjoy visiting pubs they’ve endorse and respect their goals, specifically to protect the production of real ale, and educate about it. They have specific definitions of what qualifies as “real ale”, a term they coined. The full definition can be found here, but it starts by saying “Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”

The Real Bread Campaign has not dissimilar definitions. After all, both bread and beer depend on the naturally occurring, unrushed action of living yeast (and bacteria) for fermentation: the process that transforms grains into digestible and delicious products. Of course, the key difference between the siblings is that baking kills the yeast, so the ultimate bread product is not a living thing like real ale, where the process is ongoing (until your stomach kills the yeasts).

The Real Bread Campaign’s definitions are here but the crux is: “Real Bread is that made without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives.” It continues, “Technically, the only ingredients essential for making bread are flour and water. With these two things you can make flatbreads and sourdoughs. That said, without a little pinch of salt bread can be a tad bland, and you might prefer to let someone else culture the yeast, rather than do it yourself. So, for plain Real Bread that gives us at most: flour, water, yeast, salt. Anything else is, by definition, unnecessary.”

They do say “plain Real Bread” and allow that you can add other ingredients “as long as they are natural” (eg seeds, milk etc). I like this about the Real Bread Campaign, it’s clear and passionate, but not unrealistic. I have the sense that CAMRA, for example, wouldn’t have liked the beer I was drinking last night as it contained spices and jasmine blossom; even though it was top fermented, bottle conditioned and these added ingredients were natural.

Anyway, according to RBC definitions CBP products simply are not bread; they have too many dubious additives, they’re made in too much of a rush.

Keepin’ it real

So for me, rather than talking about real ale, or craft beer, or microbrewery beer, or honest beer, I’d rather just talk about real beer. It’s a term that’s come from these discourses about real ale and real bread. I feel  I can’t use the term “real ale” unless the beer in question stricly conforms to CAMRA’s definition: and that would exclude much of Italy’s wonderful birre artigianale (artisan beer). Indeed, there’s arguably a danger than CAMRA can be overly dogmatic in its perception of tradition, and traditional beer.

Respect for tradition is essential for craft food production, but there’s a danger of being reactionary, which isn’t.

One thing I love about the Italian birre artigianale scene is how dynamic it is, how open to ideas. So much of Italy food culture is mired in tradition, and as such can be hidebound. Just read John Dickie’s great book Delizia and the chapter about what qualifies as pesto, for example. It’s absurd. Likewise, viniculture here is effectively strictly regulated by tradition, with very little room for creativity.

As I said in my previous post, there’s been beer in Italy for millennia, but as it’s never been a dominant drink, it never got so mired in tradition. So now, all these craft breweries are able to take inspiration from all over the world, notably from the dynamic US craft beer scene, but also from Britain, Belgium, and beyond.

Plus, they can also dip into local tradition, to give their products distinctive, like MBU using local legumes in the brew for example. Or they can dip into classical history, for things like the Etrusca experiment co-ordinated between Italy’s great craft breweries Baladin and Birra del Borgo and the US big name craft brewer Dogfish Head, which involved working with a biomolecular archaeologist to create a beer made with ingredients consumed by the Etruscans two and a half millennia-plus ago.

Time – too important to rush
Quality beer is the result of respecting proper fermentation and conditioning times. Likewise, quality bread is the result of respecting proper fermentation times. Proper fermentation means waiting.

The Real Bread Campaign says, “Real Bread is a natural product and just as with fruit or cheese it takes time for it to ripen. Although research so far has been limited, there is growing evidence that leaving dough to rise for longer periods can have a range of benefits to the consumer.” Benefits to the point of being more digestible, or even being able to help reduce disorders such as coeliac. One such piece of evidence comes from scientists in Italy who concluded “a 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with celiac disease.”

This is the main problem with the Chorleywood Bread Process.* Throughout history, bread has been made by slowly fermenting wheat flour, then the CBP was developed in the 1960s, millennia-old fermentation times were thrown out and since then more and more people have reported digestive problems from eating CBP products.

Fermentation time is just too import to neglect or reject. Time is just too important to rush. Time is the defining ingredient for craft bread or craft beer, or as I’d prefer to call them, real bread and real beer.

A definition of real bread and real beer
So my definition of real beer, or real bread, would be a product that’s made with the proper respect for time. (Indeed, all good produce requires time – hence the Slow Food movement’s name.) Time, quality natural ingredients, a passion for the product.

It doesn’t matter if the brewery or bakery in question is all shiny stainless steel or a more rudimentary shed. What matters are time, quality natural ingredients and passion.

I’d even add that it requires a respect for and knowledge of tradition, but not a dogmatic adherence to it. Like Italy’s craft brewers, free from being mired in tradition. Not all their beers are necessarily great, but I at least admire their willingness to experiment, to enjoy their craft – and to relish taking the time to try make great real beer.

* I know the CBP was developed to enable British bakers to use lower-protein British flours, to reduce UK dependence on imported, higher protein (14-15%) flours, but that’s a whole other argument. Indeed, as far as I can tell, many Italian bakers still make stupendous traditional breads without recourse to Manitoba (ie Canadian strong flour), instead relying on traditional Italian flours with lower protein (11-12%).

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Filed under Ale, beer, Breads, Discussion