Italian Beer Pilgrimage

Most people when asked about Italian beer simply reply “Moretti”. This is a huge disservice to the burgeoning Italian craft beer scene. The Italians have in a short time come up with their own unique styles and taken food pairing to  new levels. This is to be expected considering the famed Italian obsession with fine food. In a fantastic article in All About Beer Magazine, The Beer Bible Author Jeff Alworth takes us on a mouth watering journey through the evolution of the Italian craft beer scene and it’s marriage to the Italian culinary arts.

The Italians are Coming

In the mid-1990s, Italy was about where the U.S. was 20 years earlier. The only beer presence were the large lager breweries that had been making pilsner-type beers for decades. There was no Italian brewing tradition at all. For the pioneers, being the first meant figuring out all the logistics—a daunting task—but it came with the opportunity to begin from scratch. Part of their challenge would be educating their future customers anyway, so they might as well brew the beers they liked. Bruno Carilli, who founded Toccalmatto in Parma, put it this way: “Our fortune is that we have no tradition. So we are quite free to experiment. Clearly it depends on the brain of each brewer only, the ideas, the creativity. It is obvious that we have only to produce salable beers to survive.” …

The Culinary Approach
Ah, yes, he said. “In Italy we grow up where you can spend hours and hours on Saturday and Sunday discussing sauce—the spaghetti sauce or anything we are eating for lunch. The whole family and the relatives and parents and so on and we can discuss food for a long time. This is better; last time was worse. It’s overcooked, or it’s too rare. Really, we talk about food a lot. We really care about food. So this probably automatically require us to brew beers that can fit with our sense of what is pleasant, what is balanced.”It took me awhile to nail down what connected the three tracks of Italian brewing, but I think it comes down to the food. Beer is never taken on its own terms, but thought of as one element in a gastronomic experience. It is so embedded that as I traveled around the country, I kept getting blank stares when I asked about it. Of course the beer has to harmonize with food. It’s too obvious to acknowledge. I had to unpack this whole dynamic before I saw the light of recognition dawn in Agostino Arioli’s eyes. He regularly travels to the U.S., and has seen how beer is treated here—divorced from the considerations of food. He had seen brewers fail to appreciate this connection.

Teo Musso drew the connection to wine, which has long occupied the favored role at the dinner table. “To me there is a very straight link between the beer and the wine.” It was one reason he began aging his beers in wine barrels. “What is important is that they stay between eight months to one year in a barriquewhere there was wine. Part of the soul of the wine moves to the beer; that makes the difference from the normal barley wine to this beer.”

The Beers to Know

The result of this culinary approach are beers that are extremely balanced. Unlike the American tradition, where intensity is prized, the Italians favor harmony. Hoppy beers are not too hoppy; sour ales never toosour. Arioli’s simple lagers, on the other hand, are not too simple—he tries to add “complexity and elegance.” Beers shouldn’t be so strong as to overwhelm food, but neither are they made too simply, to be drunk alone, by the liter in a pub. That’s the Italian way.

Giampaolo Sangiorgi (left), working the bar at the Lambrate pub in Milan. (Photo by Jeff Alworth)

If you have a chance to visit Northern Italy (the richest vein runs from Milan to Turin), look for these beers. They’ll paint a great picture of the potential of this young tradition.

– Italiano Tipopils. Arioli’s masterpiece (and Matt Brynildson’s inspiration for Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils) is a creamy, rich pils with a gentle honey note, a soft graininess, and generous spicy hopping.

– Baladin Nazionale. Musso has been working to bring barley and hops to Italy, and Nazionale is the result of 100% Italian-grown ingredients. It’s also a great, unebellished example of the Musso approach: lots of yeast character, rustic malts, and lemony hops.

– LoverBeer BeerBera. Valter Loverier took the influence of wine a step further—he inoculates the beer by adding Barbera d’Alba grapes, fermenting BeerBera only with the yeasts on their skins. It produces a wonderfully gentle tartness saturated with flavors of Satsuma and wild berries.

– Toccalmatto Re Hop. The name means “king hop,” and is one of several pales and IPAs Bruno Carilli makes. Some have hints of bergamot, others of lemon. Re Hop is citrusy but leans toward mint. It’s delicate and sessionable.

– Lambrate Gaina. Another founding brewery that has developed a proclivity for hops. My favorite beer, a pale ale, is so fruity I asked what they had added. Nothing: they achieved the flavor of strawberry and apricot through the alchemy of hops and yeast. Yet it is dry and incredibly refreshing.

– Montegioco Quarta Runa. Barrel-aged sours are increasingly common, and this one uses whole peaches. It is lightly acidic, aromatic as a peach orchard, and limned with a lightly bitter amaretto that comes from the pits.

– Ducato Luna Rossa. A more assertive barrel-aged sour, the “red moon” gets its color from Morello and Amarena cherries and is blended to produce a dry, vinous beer reminiscent of oude krieks in Belgium.

– Como Malthus Birolla. Beers made with chestnut flour are an indigenous development. For centuries Italians have ground chestnuts and used them in baking, so it makes sense breweries would follow the bakers’ lead. You mainly detect the chestnut in Birolla’s creamy density, but the brewery uses roasted chestnut flour, which offers a hint of smokiness.

There is a lot more to this article and I highly recommend you read it in it’s entirety at All About Beer.

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