Italian Beer Odyssey
13 Adventures In Italian beer, In The UK
'Io me vevo lu vino e tu te'imbriachi' - 'I'm the one drinking but you're the one getting drunk' (saying from the Campania region of Italy)
If you think that all Italian beer is either Peroni or Moretti then you couldn't be more wrong. If you haven't read about my trip to Rome last November then Part One and Part Two may open your eyes a little. You could however be forgiven for not realising that a country more famous for it's wine (the saying I've opened this article with is about wine but nonetheless is still applicable) has experienced an exciting beer revolution in the past ten years or so and is producing some of the most adventurous and delicious beers in the world, taking it's influences from the beer styles of Europe and tweaking, experimenting, changing and transforming them into new and interesting creations. Admittedly this phenomenon is not confined to Italy, the amount of breweries producing great beer and pushing the boundaries has exploded on a global scale but, as with Italian food, the quality of the finished product using some of the finest available ingredients is partly why I have become such an advocate of Italian beer in recent months.
I have been very fortunate that I have been able to obtain Italian beer from some local off-licences and other suppliers, often being in the right place at the right time to get certain beers. A little searching, particularly online, will reward you with some beers that will please and delight you, with breweries such as Brewfist having a small but significant presence, and f you do happen upon some unusual or different beer from Italy then I urge you to buy them. The selection that I have reviewed here will hopefully whet your appetite.
First of all I have a selection of beers from Birrificio Lambrate. Founded in 1996 as a brewpub in Milan, it is one of the original and best known of the new breed of Italian breweries. I have followed the glassware recommendations by the brewery for these particular reviews, and although they wouldn't have been my first choices they were rather good. Incidently, all the label artwork is by Roger Webber an artist from Milan, and I really love his cartoony style.
Birrificio Lambrate - Montestella 4.9%
Should you happen to look up this beer online to try to determine it's style then you could very quickly find yourself scratching your head wondering what on earth you have in front of you. The brewery itself call it a Helles-style beer, it is bottom fermenting after all, but you may also find references to Altbier, Pilsener, Kolsch and Belgian Golden ale, but they I found hints of all of them whilst drinking this. Pouring a cloudy yellow-orange like a hazy hefeweizen with a towering cumulo-nimbus of a head, it has a wonderful aroma of peachy mango cream and slightly soapy and spicy Belgian-yeast laden bread. It is quite creamy and smooth over the tongue, an I can only best describe it as akin to wading through a primordial stream flavoured with fresh mango, sticky peach juice and light vanilla cream on a bed of yeasty dough. This beer is so good you want to bathe in it. The finish is a melange of gooey peach yoghurt and drying powdery vanilla, it really is a stunning, complex and beautiful beer and is my favourite of all the Lambrate beers I tasted.
Birrificio Lambrate - Ligera 5.0%
This brewery call this beer an 'Ale in American Pale Ale style' and I can see where they were going with it, I just wish that they'd gone a little further. Pouring a dark copper colour with a dense off-white head, it has a grassy grapefruit aroma with some ligering damp wood notes in the background. A big wash of sharp grapefruit and sweet pineapple crashes over the tongue, however this disappears far too quickly leaving traces of watery vanilla, white pepper and lemon balm before that too vanishes in an instant. The finish has a late, dry grapefruit resurgence but it finds nothing to work with and shuffles off again after a brief look around, dragging it's heels in a dejected manner. It could have been that I had an older bottle of this beer, but I found that it couldn't back up it's strong opening gambit and ultimately failed to deliver. It's not a bad beer by any means but my palated craves something more punchy and sustained from this style.
Birrificio Lambrate - Ghisa 4.6%
This Smoked Stout pours a deep rich dark brown with a thin beige head. The aroma is a heady mix of smoked beechwood, gravy browning and coffee shop hot chocolate which is slightly at odds but works and blends rather nicely. Tumbling lightly over the tongue with a delightful wispy smokiness, there is a wonderfully creamy milk chocolate mixed in with some liquorice here flowing smoothly along like a thin gravy with an interesting notion of distant bonfire and leather. The finish has lots of dry powdery smoky cocoa with a little more leather to sustain it for some time. Essentially a rauchbier in the Bamberg style, the weave of milky chocolate and it's subtle variations make it rather interesting.
Birrificio Lambrate - Lambrate 6.8%
Inspired by German Bock beers, this pours a beautiful varnished cherrywood colour with a light and dense off-white head and has the aroma of freshly baked bread and an elusive fruitiness that makes the inside of my nose tingle. Flooding the mouth with a light and sweet gooey figgy treacle, the flavour is dark, dense and mysterious with flashes of cookie dough and vanilla ice-cream tumbling and churning in the mix, combining with some burnt sugary caramel to make a deliciously sweet and sticky mess. Toffee, caramel with a mere mention of butterscotch appear in the finish, making this a proper grown-up late night dessert beer.
Birrificio Lambrate - Sant' Ambroeus 7.1%
The last and strongest of my Lambrate beers is a Belgian Ale and shows off the strong Belgian influence in Italian brewing quite nicely.. Pouring a light copper with a deep dense beige head, there is lots of spicy orange and white pepper as the headliners in the aroma, with the support being provided by coriander, lemon and mango. It dances lightly over the tongue with a sparkling effervesence, zingy, zesty and spicy. It is much bigger on the nose than it is in the mouth however, with a light, sweet cream caramel taste, a sprinkling of white pepper and the pop of candy-sugar space dust. The dry caramel in the taste lingers in the mouth like the aftertaste of a Demerara sugar lump. There's little trace of the alcohol in this beer, it's very light and sweet like a fairies kiss, a hint of whispery sugar and then it's gone.
I first encountered the beers of Toccalmatto in Rome: Re Hop - an American style pale ale with it's fizzy sherbert, honey and lime; B Space Invader - a black IPA with lashings of coffe, pine, liquorice and citrus, and Grooving Hop - my favourite beer of the trip with it's huge blast of dry grapefruit coming from the Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Mittelfruh hop mix. After these experiences I was excited to learn via Facebook just after leaving the Tate modern (see previous post) that the Rake would have two of it's beers on tap that afternoon, the first time that they had been available in the UK. Three o'clock was the allotted time and typically as I was a little early I had a couple of beers while I waited conscious that I might be jading my palate for what was to come. I needn't have worried. The brewery website declares its love for hops and these both had them in spades. I didn't take quite such detailed notes here so you'll have to excuse my sketchy descriptions. First up was:
Toccalmatto - All In Brewing Big Lager 7.5%
Pouring a pale golden colour with a thin white head, this Imperial Pilsner has lots of clean grassy and lemon notes in the aroma that you might expect from the style. What is to come takes you a little by surprise, some light bready citrus moves rapidly, via a brief zesty Saison lemon phase, to a huge crescendo of grapefruit, mango and passion fruit. In my notes I've written 'Simcoe' in big letters by the finish as the citrus bitterness I got immediately bought that hop to mind. An astonishingly good beer.
Toccalmatto - Supernova Suicide 4.5%
You'll notice that this isn't a long review. It doesn't need to be, the beer does all of the talking here.
Apricot (mainly apricot) supported to a lesser extent peach, plum and cherry stonefruits feature superbly here, all bound up in a saison wrapper.
If I tell you that this is my second favourite beer of the year thus far (behind Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon in case you're wondering) then that's pretty much all you need to know. It truly is stunning.
Named after Federico Fellini's comedy-drama Amarcord a group of young friends set up a brewery in the early 1990's. Moving to Apecchio, at the foot of Monte Nerone in Italy's Central Appennines in 2008 after searching for the perfect brewing water (so the website states) Birra Amarcord currently produce three ranges of beer. The Classic Line (Le Classiche), Special Reserve (Riserve Speciali) and AMA created with the help of Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. It is this last range of beers that I was able to obtain recently, they are fairly widely available at the moment, in order to review. Incidentally the labels were designed by graphic art legend Milton Glaser, with this pedigree let's hope the beers are up to it.
Birra Amarcord - AMA Bionda 6.0%
Described as a golden beer and brewed using Sicilian Orange Honey Blossom, this is lively and gushes so cleanly out of the bottle that I initially think of a saison. It pours a cloudy heather-honey colour with a light bright white head, and an aroma tangy mango and funky bread yeast is immediately apparent but then a overwhelming smell like TCP takes over. This phenolic aroma, if it were reflected in the taste would mean that there had been a problem filling the bottles and I fear the worst, however it settles down into a grassy pilsner-esque aroma and doesn't appear again much to my relief. Prickly and smooth in equal measure over the tongue, the taste of spicy orange peel, studded with clove and bathed in a juicy mango, lemon and satsuma punch, before being covered in a layer of sugary candy floss is truly astonishing.There's also a little of that creamy softness here you find in a Belgian blonde ale. The finish reminds me of nothing more than a dry vodka and orange made with Sunny Delight and a dash of white pepper. This is a tasty but slightly skewed beer,and I absolutely love it.
Birra Amarcord - AMA Bruna 7.5%
This Belgian style Abbey Dubbel has an addition of brown candy sugar for refermentation in the bottle. It pours a deep dark cherrywood red/brown with a thin effervescent beige head with coffee, chocolate, pear and sweet brown sugar all present on the nose. The taste has spicy pear drop half-coated in milk chocolate with basil wrapped in cookie dough with some bitter burnt demerara sugar sprinkled over the top. The finish has more sour pear drop and a little bitter chocolate too, it's a little jarring as a beer but rather good. I prefer the Bionda though.
Birra Amarcord - AMA Mora 9.0%
Brewed with local produced Pascuci coffee, pure cane and Malawi sugar this Imperial/Strong Porter pours a rich, deep dark brown with a nice tight beige head. The aroma of smoky hazelnut and milk chocolate is heady and enticing liked a freshly baked cake, but this is underscored and slightly frustrated by a faint whiff of dry ice. There's smooth hazelnut praline in the taste, followed up by some boozy milk chocolate, a deep grainy espresso hit spiced up with a crack of black pepper then tempered with a sprinkle of chestnut flour. The finish leaves a taste of creamy chocolate in the mouth, like the aftermath of a Milky Way bar and, as I happen to like them, I find this most agreeable.
Absolutely delicious, this is a beautiful beer reminiscent of a really good chocolate selection box which has been lightly dusted with chestnut flour. Very nice indeed.
Birra Menabrea is not a new brewery. In fact its proud tradition of brewing in the town of Biella, Italy dates back over 160 years to 1846. The beer I'm reviewing below was first brewed to celebrate it's 150th anniversary and is in the Maerzen style. There is also a Lager and Strong beer that was brewed for that celebration, adding to the 'Top Restaurant' range and a more recent Christmas beer that I'd rather like to try.
Birra Menabrea - 150 Anniversario Amber 5.0%
Pouring a fiery copper colour with a fluffy white pillow of a head, my first response when I stick my nose in the glass is "Oo, this smells German" as there's lots of dark fruity caramel in the aroma. Soft over the tongue with only a hint of carbonation, there's a touch of bramble, toffee and watery caramel in the taste that snaps like a twig in the mouth with a sweet dry bitterness. The fruitiness is like concentrated stewed plums, heavily reduced and with handfuls of muscavado sugar added. This flavour stays long into the finish, coating the tongue in a sweet dark syrup. I was honestly expecting a pale imitation of a Marzen when I read the description of this beer but, and I'll whisper this in case I'm overheard, this is actually better than some German examples I've had.
In contrast to Birra Menabrea, Birrificio Indipendente Elav was opened in the city of Bergamo in 2010 with the aim of producing beer for two local pubs. Such was the demand for its beer however that production increased fivefold within the first year leading it to supplying outlets all over Italy and into Europe. Their first dedicated series of beers is the so-called 'musical range' recalling different musical genres and pairing a style to each, with the goal of brewing one to suit every taste. There are collaborations with wine producers, dairies and patisseries, trying to produce high quality products relating to craft brewing.
Birrificio Indipendente Elav - Techno Cybotronic Double IPA 9.5%
Boom! The aroma of big-hitting citrus hops (Chinook, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin, Centennial) and sugary sticky bready malt smacks you round the face as soon as you open this bottle. Pouring a cloudy orange with a thin white head, you can immediately tell that this is going to be a beer you'll remember. Pine, caramel, molasses, mango, passion fruit, pineapple and grapefruit are all present in the nose, squabbling and competing for your attention. Initially smooth as silk over the tongue it comes growling back, biting at your taste buds from back to front, finishing up with a big nip on the tip. Gooey orange marmalade, the boozy stuff with a drop of whisky added, is the first taste sensation, a scattering of brown breadcrumbs and a hint of white pepper too before big juicy mango and passion fruit dominate, filling the mouth with a sticky oily sweetness. This is absolutely fantastic. There's a variety of mixed berries that make a brief appearance, predominantly strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, beautifully fresh and delicious, before in sweeps some caramel with a hint of wood sap and doughy bread. The finish has more viscous caramel brushed with a little basil oil and it's long lingering and boozy, just like the rest of this beer. Blimey it's good.
Brewfist is a name familiar to many drinkers of good beer in the UK. This brewery from Codogno burst onto the craft beer scene here last year with it's excellent 7.0% 'Spaceman' causing a murmuring of appreciation and to make more than a few eyes, mine included, to look south to see what was happening over in Italy. Mostly I wanted to know why the beers being produced there were so good weren't more widely available here. Another new brewery, founded in 2010, beers such as X-Ray (Imperial Porter) Fear (Milk Chocolate Stout) and 24K (Golden Ale) are easily obtained with a little searching.
Brewfist - 2 Late DIPA 9.5%
Calling itself a double IPA (Spaceman is only 7.0% after all) 2Late pours a warm orange colour with a thin white head. Spicy black pepper, pine, coriander seed with some grenadine pomegranate, orange, mango and peach are all big, bold and boisterous in the aroma. Exploding like a fizzy tropical fruit napalm at the back of the mouth, there's some strange strawberry cough medicine in amongst the more usual pineapple , grapefruit, orange and mango, like a guest who's turned up at a formal dinner party wearing a big yellow chicken costume. There's a brief moment of shock before everyone laughs, the conversation flows and it's business as usual as full integration occurs. Some nice toffee flavours keep the whole thing bubbling along nicely with only the faintest of hints of the high alcohol level becomming apparent here. The finish is sticky with pine and mango covered in thin slices of medjool dates in syrup. A delicious beer although it's a little too cultured and its brutal promise is a little curtailed which strangely disappoints me. It's still well worth buying though.
So that's my thirteen (or tredici if you will), and as you may have gathered it was most certainly not an unlucky number for me or indeed you if you are able to track these down. There's so much more to Italian beer than I have been able to convey here and so much more I want to try (I have a bottle of Toccalmatto - Noel Du Sanglier 2009 in the fridge as I write) that I will keep looking and keep putting up reviews as I find them. I hope that more will find their way to the UK and that the current trickle becomes a flood, good beer deserves to be available to everyone.
Tomorrow is the first of April, and my attention turns to London breweries both new and established. I'll be exploring beers from them throughout the month in what promises to be an interesting, exciting and inspring journey, but until then - Happy Easter and, of course, Cheers !