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Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio’s Steamer at Tram Depot, Testaccio, Rome

Steamer beer at Tram Depot, Testaccio, Rome

We’ve been hanging out a lot in the hot August evenings at this (relatively) new place in Testaccio. It’s basically a converted kiosk on the pavement, like an old newsstand (edicola), but somehow it manages to be cool, charming and strangely mellow considering it’s right beside the busy crossroads of Via Marmorata and Via L Galvani/ Via M Gelsomini. There’s live DJ action with great tunes (hip hop, rare groove etc) on an evening, and the kiosk looks like a vintage tram coach to boot.

Its main appeal for Fran, Rachel and chums is the grattachecca. Grattare is the verb “to scrape, to scratch, to grate” and is a reference to the way a large block of ice is treated. At Tram Depot, a veteran grattachecca sensei in a bandana skilfully scrapes and grates the ice, fills a beaker, and pours over your choice of cordial. In this case, that means French Sirop de Monin. A few bits of fruit or fresh coconut complete the refreshing concoction.

It’s a relative of granita. Or, basically, a Roman Slush Puppy, given an extra classy twist with French cordials. Which use fewer artificial colours than Slush Puppy, but some of them still look a bit gaudy to be entirely natural. The Monin site says they’re “highly concentrated, natural flavourings” – no mention of natural colours. So I’m guessing there are some coal tar derivatives in some of them….

Piccolo Lab's Steamer, label, at Tram Depot, Testaccio

I can see the appeal of these alcohol-free ice drinks on a hot Roman summer’s day, but personally I’d rather have a beer. Tram Depot have one industrial lager on tap, but thankfully they also have a few bottled real beers. Among them is Steamer, a “hopped amber ale” created by brewer Lorenzo Bottoni that I’ve previously had at Necci. Though at Necci they had it on tap and it was comparatively flat. The bottles are markedly more carbonated.

The first time we had them, it had a massive comedy head. “Bad pour! Bad pour!” scolded my friend Stels, who was consuming a less troublesome grattacheccha. All three of us drinking the Steamer had the same Attack-of-the-Froth!

Steamer beer head

Stels told me about a technique for making the head subside. Rub a finger in the greasy crease alongside your nose and stick it in the foam. I’d never heard of this before, but she’s from New Jersey.

And yet, it works, after a fashion. Like putting soap in your bath foam, it makes the bubbles collapse. In the above pic, the orifice on the right with larger bubbles is where I stuck my finger.

The beer itself was still good. I wrote the other day after drinking Birrificio Math’s La 16 how I wasn’t entirely sold on Italian strong ales, but Steamer is pretty good stuff. It’s a lovely deep, misty amber colour, it’s pretty hoppy (it says 39.7 IBU, but it tastes like more) and it’s fairly darned strong (7.6%) but supped slowly on a summer’s evening is a great alternative to grattacheccha. Until someone invents beer grattachecca.

Info
Tram Depot, via Marmorata (angolo Via Manlio Gelsomini), Testaccio, Rome
Open 8.30am (ish) to 2.00am, seven days a week.

Laboratorio Piccolo Birrificio
piccololab.it / info@piccololab.it

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Casa Veccia’s Formenton and Dazio at Oasi della Birra, Testaccio, Rome

Formento

Haven’t been to Oasi della Birra in Testaccio for what seems like an age. It had become something of a regular haunt, but then something in the aperitivo buffet wasn’t quite right, then other life-things got busy, and well, months went by. But last night I found myself back there, enjoying the evening sun – after a faltering spring, the Roman summer has arrived – and wondering what had become of my chum Cameron. (Never did get those texts.)

On a previous visit, we’d tried a called Molo, a stout made with port from a confusingly named brewery that’s either called Casa Veccia or Ivan Borsato Casa Veccia or Casa Veccia Ivan Borsato Birraio. I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of Ivan Borsato before,  but I like your beers, Ivan, and I like their branding… even if the bottles neglect to actually include such salient information as what type of beer is contained therein.

So this time round, I asked one of the guys from the Oasi what Formenton was, clearly having forgotten what I wrote on my own blog in March. He said it was made with farro (I didn’t get into the issue of what specific farro). As I like my ancient wheat varieties, and it was a warm evening, that seemed like a good place to start. Like many wheat beers, it’s a beautiful bright golden yellow, especially when suffused with the Roman evening sun. I should probably mention the head, as Italian beer reviews always talk about the quality of the schiuma, but what can I say? It’s frothy. But not as frothy as the second beer (see below).

The taste is typically fruity. Cameron  and my wife Fran thankfully arrived before I got too sozzled drinking alone. They both talked about the banana notes (typical to weissbier), but I reckon it had a whole macedonia – that’s Italian for fruit salad – in there, with melon, grapefruit, orange zest, and apple flavours, and even a bit of ginger. At 5.5% it’s not exactly weak, but it’s refreshing and very drinkable, with negligible hoppiness.

Oh, and if you’re really serious about your wheat and white beers, and understand the difference, and can read Italian, there’s a spiel on the brewery’s site about how Formenton “was created from the union of two beers that marked the history of beer: weissbier [wheat beer] and blanchebier [white beer].” Now, I never really had a strong sense of the difference between these beers, as both exist under the wheat beer aegis. But according to the Borsato spiel, and a quick spin around online, the former are more German in origin, cleaner, simpler, with minimal hoppiness and, most of all, are defined by the proportion of wheat in place of some of the (malted) barley. The latter are more Belgian (and Dutch), and may have been made without hops – using herbs instead in something called a gruit. Modern gruit may involve herbs, but also citrus and hops. Both are top-fermented. And, frankly, in this era of innovative craft beers, the dividing line between them is blurred. Formenton, for example, made a point of it. That’s something that’s so good about Italian craft brewing; as the country doesn’t have laboriously rigid brewing heritage and tradition, it’s unafraid to mix things up. Yay. I imagine the two Matt Groening style cartoon chaps on the bottle saying an Italian “yay” at their success with Formenton.

Dazio with OTT head

The second Casa Veccia we tried, and is here featured in a terrible out of focus photo (crappy new phone), showing how I’d rushed to pour it and creating and ridiculous head, was the 6.2% ABV Dazio. The guy in Oasi said it was an ambrata (amber) ale but the Casa Veccia site specifies it’s an APA. As I was talking about yesterday, APA seem to be a very popular style in the Italian birra artigianale scene. And very nice they can be too. And again, unlike in other brewing traditions where beardy specialists might dogmatically insist there’s a distinction between an APA and an amber ale, in Italy it seems an APA can be ambrata.

Dazio was also delicious but very different. Arguably, it’s not as obvious a summer drink, with hints of toffee apple and such autumnal things , along with cinnamon and ginger, but it did the job very nicely thanks last night. Oh, and flavour-wise, Fran said “Turkish delight”, while the Casa Veccia site itself talks about this beer – “in an English style with American hops” – having Profumi terziari come pepe, cuoio, chiodi di garofano, liquirizia: “Tertiary aromas of black pepper, leather, cloves, liquorice.” I didn’t get all that myself, but fair enough. I like the idea of a leather-scented ale. The site also talks about its hoppiness and bitter flavour, but I felt it was pretty mild and mellow. The site also provides a nice bit of history about how the APA evolved from the IPA and the IPA evolved out necessity, with British soldiers in India craving beer, but the long voyage souring the milder ales of home. The solution was more hops, to better preserve the ale. Thanks Ivan and everyone in the Vetch House. Quite why the Dazio label features a cartoon astronaut I don’t know.

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32 Via Dei Birrai brewery’s Atra beer at Oasi della Birra

One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep a record of all the wonderful Italian artisan beers I’ve been trying. I’ve been remiss.

I won’t say I’m going to “review” these beers. I might have reviewed several hundred films and videogames in my time, but I’m really not sure I have the right vocab for appraising alcohol. So yes, it’s just a record, and hopefully a source of some useful info for other anglophone beer enthusiasts who might find themselves in need of a good brew while in Italy.

Anyway. We had this one last night, in the wonderfully named Oasi della Birra (“Oasis of Beer”) in Testaccio in Rome. It’s a pretty cool place, basically a shop that’s expanded sideways and crabs in dining tables among the wares (which can give it a feeling of eating in a warehouse, though at least that’s novel).  In all honestly, though, a better of oasis of Italian craft beers in Rome is still Open Baladin bar, for the simple reason it has dozens on tap, whereas the Oasi, disappointingly, only has German beers on tap. Go figure.

The Oasi does, however, have an extensive menu of bottle beers, and a fairly epic menu of wines. Why it’s not called the Oasi del Vino I don’t know. It also does a reasonable aperitivo buffet, where you can pile up a plate for a fraction of what a restaurant meal would cost you, that is €10 for a drink and a plateful. (The cost of eating out is something that continues to confuse me in Rome – restaurants, and even most trattorie, are not cheap. Broadly, the only cheap way to eat sitting down in an establishment is an aperitivo buffet. There don’t really seem to be many options half-way between, in terms of price, bar a few genuinely cheap trattorie, mostly outside touristy areas, or the occasional good tavola calda. This literally means “hot table”; wordreference.com translates it as either “cafeteria” or “hash house”, neither of which is quite right. The former makes me think of British caffs, the latter sounds like “crack house” or “opium den”. They’re places that are generally defined by seating and a glassed-in counter displaying various dishes you can select. Volpetti in Testaccio has a good one, but it’s overpriced. The yummiest I’ve tried food-wise is Pasta… e pasta on Via Ettore Rolli near Ponte Testaccio, but I don’t want to get into the habit of eating there there I have an ethical problem with the plastic plates, cutlery, cups etc. Every diner creates probably around 50g of waste with each meal. It might not sound like much, but imagine the pile after just one busy day, say, and think of all that plastic sitting in a landfill for millennia. It’s a waste of resources, full stop. I know food and catering is all about overheads but we just have to think more sustainably in the 21st century.)

Anyway. Back to the beer.

So last night I tried to get a Sally Brown, a lovely brown (yep) beer that I’ve had at Open Baladin. It’s from Birrificio del Ducato, and on their site here it’s described as Birra di alta fermentazione, a cavallo tra le oatmeal Stout e le Porter inglesi – “A top- fermentation beer that straddles the styles of oatmeal stout and English porters.” The Oasi, however, had run out. This seems to be a typical factor of drinking from the Oasi beer menu. They don’t generally have what’s on the tatty photocopy, but are always happy to give advice about an alternative. It’s a process I really enjoy actually, as it usually involves trying something new.

This time, that something new was, well, I couldn’t work out what it was called last night, so had to check online today and in my Guida alle birre d’Italian 2013. The 75ml bottle is very elegant, with a minimal design. But as I’d never encountered this beer or this brewery before, I wasn’t sure immediately what was what from the label. Now I know though. The brewery (birrificio) is called 32 Via Dei Birrai – it’s like address, though with the number first, British-style, not last, Italian-style. “32 Brewer Street”. Nice. Their real address is Via Cal Lusent, 41, Treviso. Treviso is in the Veneto, inland from Venice. The beer itself is called “Atra”.

The blurb on the homepage of their site says:  32 Via dei Birrai è il primo micro birrificio artigianale italiano a ottenere la certificazione di qualità ISO 9001:2008 DNV e la certificazione CI, a testimonianza di un prodotto 100% Made in Italy. / Passione, per 32, significa infatti selezione di materie prime e accorti procedimenti che rendono onore al nome stesso di essere e fare birra. Which means: “32 Via dei Birrai is the first Italian micro bewery to obtain the certificate of quality ISO 9001:2008 DNV and the CI certificate, testimony to a product that’s 100% made in Italy. Indeed, passion, for 32, first and foremost means the choice of materials and a grasp of how to make beer that honours our name.”  (I know I could just put my [not Google translate’s] English translation, but I like the two side-by-side, it helps me learn Italian. Plus, my translation is probably a bit shonky, so if you speak Italian and English, you can likely do it better.)

Anyway, 32’s beers. Atra is from a range of nine beers, most of which are made with high fermentation and bottle conditioned. Atra itself is, well, molto buono, as the waiter who recommended it said. But then he also said it’s non troppo forte, “not too strong”, when in fact it’s 7.3%ABV. I love how that’s not strong in Italy. In the UK, anything above about 5% is considered strong. To give some context to the Italian attitude to beer strength, Tennent’s Super is popular here, and that’s 9%. Apparently, it’s even considered kinda classy, as it was among the first import beers to make inroads here. The mind flippin’ boggles, as in Britain Tennent’s Super is basically a beer for alcoholic tramps on park benches. I’ll say now, so as not to confuse things, it’s popular among undiscerning Italian beer-drinkers, in much the same way as Fosters, say, is popular among British drinkers despite them having so many wonderful quality beers to choose from; hell, even if you like lager, you can choose a better lager… (I’m trying not to get started.)

Okay, Atra itself. It’s dark (“the colour of friars’ habits”), with a taste that’s charcoaly (ie from well-toasted malt) and surprisingly sweet. It’s very pleasant indeed. We had no idea whether it’s the done thing to drink such beers while eating, but it went very well with a plate of salads and cheese and salumi and bread. Indeed, now I’m reading the brewery’s own description, it seems like it’s fine to drink it with food. But as with wine culture, Italian micro-breweries are very specific in their descriptions of their beers and what to drink them with. So here it says, Abbinamento suggerito: contorni di lenticchie e fagioli, minestre con legumi, stinco con cotenna caramellata, torta al cioccolato, crème caramel, panna cotta. “Suggested accompaniment: lentils and bean sidedishes, vegetable soup, shin with browned bacon rind, chocolate tart, crème caramel, panna cotta [‘cooked cream’ desert].”

If you want a more in-depth appraisal, the Guida 2013 says it has scents of coffee, cocoa, liquorice and toasted cereal and a taste of barley coffee, cocoa and caramel. I’m not sure I got the liquorice, but I can’t argue with the rest. Delicious. And also remisicent of my friend Michele’s Cotta 74 from Mastri Birrai Umbri brewery, which I talked about here.

Hopefully next time we go to the Oasi, they’ll have more from 32 Via dei Birrai, as I’m keen to try the others. And I do like the design of the bottles. Especially now I know 32 is the abbreviation for the name of the brewery.

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