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.
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.
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 | firstname.lastname@example.org