Sunday, 31 March 2013

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 !

Friday, 29 March 2013

Compass Brewery - Torp 7%

I picked this bottle up on a whim in Favourite Beers in Cheltenham recently. We were staying with my sister-in-law in Oxfordshire and were on our way back from a trip to Gloucester and the Gloucester brewery with a selection of beers from whom I plan to review some time in the not-too-distant future. I really wanted something from Oxfordshire (my sister-in law lives in Bicester) and the label description really caught my attention:
"Exploring the flavour of seasonally brewed top-fermented beers from Northern France and Belgium, the result became Torp. Four malts, balanced with French and Polish hops. Funky Belgian yeast."
That was enough for me. Purchase made.
Compass Brewery was founded in 2009 by Mattias Sjoberg, a Swede from a town south of Stockholm, a keen home brewer with a degree in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University. When his employer, Scottish and Newcastle, closed their Reading brewery he decided that the time was right to bring to fruition an idea that he'd had for some time.
Incidentally, the name 'Torp' is Swedish for Croft.
It pours a lovely burnt orange colour with a spritzy white head, but this quickly fades before disappearing completely. I was expecting a saison from the notes on the brewery website , and there are some sour notes in the aroma, but also some toffee apple sauce, nutmeg and a touch of roasted pineapple. Prickly over the tongue from the carbonation, a sour green apple and lemon taste (here's the saison) hits hard and fast, followed by an immediate wash through by a delicious chewy caramel with fig and prune. This is followed up with sweet/sour pear drop, aniseed, white pepper and warming Calvados. The finish slides off into a sweet pastry case shallow-filled with creme patissiere and fresh strawberries, which I really wasn't expecting.
Whilst I've had beers that share similarities with Torp, I've not had one quite like it. I really like this beer but I can see that it won't be for everyone, the sour taste gets a little getting used to. If you see bottles of some of the other Compass beers though you might want to give them a go, I highly recommend them.
As an aside, the more astute of you may notice that my previous review was of a beer with the word 'Torpedo' on the label and this is of a beer called 'Torp'. I am as yet unaware of a beer called 'To', however if you know of such a beer and you want to send me a bottle then I'll happily review it.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Lichtenstein Pale Ale 5.2%

"There are certain things that are usable forceful and vital about commercial art. We're using those things - but we're not really advocating stupidity, international teenagerism, and terrorism"
- Roy Lichtenstein

"Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination ... Save up for a Luger, and drill the bastards."
- Brewdog website

Last Friday I had the day off work. Now, as many of you may know, I normally spend the odd days I have to myself visiting the various new pubs and breweries in the London area that have recently burst onto the scene as if seemingly to feed my own particular craving for really good beer. This spirit of exploration led to me starting this blog after a nudge from an old friend who saw the pictures and descriptions of pubs I was posting on Facebook, and consequently has enabled me to make many many new friends who share my beery passion. I'm sure you've read and heard similar stories before (possibly from me) so I'll start again.
Last Friday I had the day off work, and I wanted to do something a little different. I believe that an appreciation of good things in one aspect of your life will lead to an appreciation of good things in other areas, of which art although being personal, is one. Pop Art has been a particular interest of mine for as long as I can remember, and Roy Lichtenstein a particular hero. As a boy growing up in the 1970s, one of my best loved t-shirts depicted one of his most famous works - Whaam! so having the chance to view a collection of my favourite paintings and sculptures gathered together in at the Tate Modern was too good to resist.
If you get the chance to go and if you are at all interested in Pop Art then I would recommend that you visit, I really enjoyed it spending over an hour there however what I hadn't realised was that Brewdog had bewed a special collaboration beer with the Tate, and more particularly Tate Catering, to celebrate the exhibition. I initially thought that this must just be a re-badge of another Brewdog beer but on further investigation I found this not to be the case at all.
Brewed with rye, and with the addition of Simcoe, Amarillo and Centennial hops from the USA to celebrate Lichtenstein's heritage, this American Style Pale Ale displays another of the artists works - Torpedo...Los! - on the label, and if you are familiar with Brewdog and their antics then you'll agree that this is probably the perfect choice.
It pours a polite and deceptive grenache-grape-rose amber topped off with a pillowy off white head. The aroma has sharp grapefruit and some pine counter-balanced by some beautifully soft peach and a touch of guava with a little torn basil thrown in for good measure. I have to admit that I was expecting something much more aggressive on the nose but these lighter notes, almost like falling into some soft and juicy cushions, are rather relaxing and rather pleasant, sedate almost. Over the tongue it's as grasping and rasping as you would expect an American Pale Ale to be. An initial hit of pine and zesty grapefruit peel has a more mellow rye-bread edge, there's a huge spike of basil appearing out of nowhere and overpowering everything, then the juice hits. Peach, passion fruit and lime create an instant cooling and refreshing balm, cleansing the palate completely before back comes that rye bread, a little lathered up and soapy this time but with some sweet satsuma playing with it like a cat with ball of wool, knocking it first one way and then the next. The finish is dry, after all that's how tongue-destroying Pale Ale's are supposed to finish, but with some concentrated peach and lemon juice coming in right at the death, sticking two fingers up at the dryness and showing that you can't keep a good thing buried for long.
I have to say how pleasantly surprised and delighted I am with this beer. The way the sharp flavours appear, are squashed then reappear, only to be squashed again and again, are reflected in the juxtaposition between the revolutionary philosophy of Brewdog and the fascination and elevation of the seemingly mundane in Lichtenstein's work. Both fight for supremacy but it is ultimately the beauty and purity of the art that wins through. This is a very good beer, even by Brewdog standards (which have been a little hit and miss of late with their recent move) and although it was brewed as a one-off collaboration and celebration ale I hope it will feature as a regular. The Lichtenstein Retrospective lasts until the 27th of May 2013, but I suspect that the beer will be gone long before that.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Two beers from Tavistock

Sir Francis Drake, Tavistock's most famous son, once said "There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory".

May 2012 was the beginning for Mark Smith and his wife Janna Sanders, who along with Janna's brother Nathan started Tavy Ales. Both Mark and Janna had worked for Associated Press (and occasionally still do, as an engineer and producer/manager respectively covering the world's trouble spots, but it was when a sniper's bullet grazed his scalp after he had set up his equipment in Tripoli's Green Square that he decided a change of career might be in order. Nathan had been an enthusiastic home brewer for many years, so on returning to their Devon home Mark and Jenna were inspired to team up with him, and after some training at Brew Lab in Sunderland, to make it into a business. Mark had been a fan of real ale and craft beer for some time so it seemed a very natural thing to do.
Incidentally as an interesting aside, Mark and Jenna first met while covering the Pope's visit to Guatemala and by coincidence are,at the current time of writing both in Rome covering the Papal Conclave that will lead to the election of a new Pope.
The list of pubs taking their cask beer has slowly increased with country hotels and reastaurants taking the bottle-conditioned versions, and although I've yet to see them in a pub near me in sunny Essex, Mark was generous enough to send me some bottles of the Best Bitter and the Porter to try. There is also a 4.8% abv IPA which has recently been added to the range, but unfortunately for me this proved so popular it had sold out, but I'm certainly anxious to try it.
Their labels are evocative of those 1930s Art Deco railway posters which I have a particular soft spot for, all show images of the River Tavy from which the brewery takes its name. These were designed by a company called who are based in Peter Tavy, the same village as Mark and Jenna.
The Best Bitter is brewed using Fuggles and Goldings hops over eight hours with the malted barley, as with all their beers, coming from Tucker's Maltings, a traditional floor maltings from nearby Newton Abbot. It is fermented for three days before being conditioned in a secondary vessel for about a week.
Pouring a faintly red-hued copper with thin white head, the initial aroma of creamy milk chocolate is followed by some inviting cookie dough and fig notes. Quite prickly over the tongue and maybe a little on the thin side, this 4.3% abv bitter sets out it stall with little bursts of plum, fig and fizzy cola bottle sweets popping gently in the mouth. The underlying maltiness conjures images of early Autumn woodland walks following a brief cloud-burst, with a sprinkly of wholemeal breadcrumbs completing the picture. More sweet shop goodness awaits you in the finish, but this time it's red berry wine gums leaving a slightly oily fruitiness behind.
There's lots of subtle but cheekily delightful little bursts of flavour running through the fresh maltiness of this beer. It's a very accessible Best Bitter with no one taste overwhelming the other, all just waiting their turn to shine then fade. I could see myself sinking a few pints of this very easily at a country pub after a bracing afternoon walk on Dartmoor which is, I'm guessing exactly what it was brewed for.
The 5.2% abv Porter is a different beast of a beer altogether. Pouring an 'oh-so-nearly-black' dark brown with a thin but sustained head, the aroma has bucketloads of espresso and fruity bitter chocolate. A brief but clearly defined prickle of dark chocolate mousse with perhaps a shaving of grapefruit peel, is washed away with a bustling and mouth filling full-strength espresso mixed with a few drops of concentrated cherry juice. The intense dark chocolate coffee flavour builds to its bitter crescendo before abruptly finishing in a malty Horlicks dust storm. The ghost of that prickly chocolate mousse comes back out to play at the death leaving a very satisfying and full coating in the mouth with a few faint whisps of wood smoke playing lightly over the tongue.
This is my favourite of the two beers, rich and full-flavoured from the very first sip. This really is a very good beer. As with the Best Bitter all the flavours are clean and well defined, there's no muddiness or bad notes here at all. This is definately a beer for a little later in the evening in that same country pub I mentioned earlier, perhaps as the accompaniment to a good home-made pie or a slice of cheese cake. With beers like these I can't see any real reason that you'd want to leave.