London Beer Blog Goes To Italy

A selection of Italian craft beer

So while the rest of you Londoners were enjoying the London Drinker Festival, the Ale & Blues Festival at the Sebright Arms, meeting Mikkeller etc, I had to go to Italy for work. My attempts at connecting with the local Italian craft beer scene (i.e. drinking) failed at first – my schedule was packed, and Perugia (where I was) is not exactly craft beer heartland. They used to have a beer shop, apparently, but when I arrived at the address it was long since closed. The one beer bar I found by diligent Googling opened too late for me to nip off for a quick one before the conference dinner.

However, on the way back, I had two hours to spare in Rome. I’ve never been to Rome. There’s the Colosseum, the Forum Romanum, the Vatican, the Trevi Fountain… so what do I do? Head for the craft beer shop closest to the Central Station and hang out there for a while, of course.

The shop in question is Domus Birrae (House of Beer for the Latin-challenged among you) and it’s literally a stone’s throw from Roma Termini, at 88 Via Cavour. It’s a surprisingly roomy and airy place (beer shops, like comic book stores and record shops, commonly have a high ‘butt-brush’ factor and look cramped and uninviting) with a massive selection of Italian craft beer, a small but high-end selection of imports (Mikkeller, Evil Twin, Southern Tier, Hoppin’ Frog, Jester King, Thornbridge and others), lots of home brewing equipment, a small selection of other craft food/drink products (chocolate, grappa, liqueur), and some beer paraphernalia (glasses, T-shirts). Luca says hiSince this is Italy, you can of course buy bottles to drink at the premises, though it’s far from a bar – there’s no seating so you have to hang around at the counter or by the barrel/table next to the beer fridges. Still, it provides you with an opportunity to sample the wares, and it was perfect for my purposes – I was only drinking to kill time, honestly.

Service was provided by affable and enthusiastic Luca (see picture) who gently steered me away from Birra del Borgo and Tocalmatto (the only two Italian craft brewers I knew, as they are also available in London) towards more exotic fare. I tried two quite different beers in the store and I have so far opened one of the bottles I brought home with me. Here are the reviews from my Italian adventure:

O.G. 1111 from Birra del Carrobiolo (barleywine, ABV 13.0)
Carrobiolo is, if I have understood correctly, one of two monastery-based breweries in Italy. I don’t know what kind of monks they are, but their beer naming standards are ascetic bordering on severe: all you get is the original gravity of the beer, in big fiery letters (numbers?) on the label. O.G. 1111 is their most recent offering, a barleywine made from peated malt.

Look: Pours a dark brown/red sherry-like colour with almost no head.

Nose: Pleasantly sweet (molasses, dark brown sugar) with dried fruit notes followed by a light smokiness.

Mouth: Solid, chewy mouthfeel. The sugars open up first, with clearly-distinguishable caramel, toffee and molasses flavours. Then the peat smoke hits full force, very whisky-like with a bitter dryness reminiscent of tobacco – and all the while the sweetness lingers in the background. An explosion of flavours that should not work well together but somehow do. Complex, moreish and warming (yes, you notice the 13.0 ABV). I was stunned by the flavour combo and the balance between two extremes. Top marks!

Mark: 5/5. I normally don’t like barleywines too much but this was by far the best one I’ve had. Balancing the sweetness with big peat is a stroke of genius and makes for a beer that’s well-balanced and extreme at the same time, if that makes any sense. I bought another bottle for cellaring as this seems likely to improve even more with age.

Dui e Mes from Pausa Café (herbed/spiced saison, ABV 2.5)
Pausa Café is a Torino-based fair trade/social awareness co-op/café, working with coffee and cocoa growers in South and Central America as well as with ex-prisoners from Torino – and they also make beer! Since coffee and cocoa are particular specialities these ingredients also figure heavily in their beers, but I opted instead for a low-ABV saison spiced with saffron and black pepper – from ABV 13.0 to 2.5, swinging wildly between styles!

Look: Golden yellow/amber, slightly cloudy, frothy white head that quickly subsides.

Nose: Wow! You can really smell both the saffron and the black pepper, along with some vague yeasty sourness.

Mouth: The spices are more subdued in the mouth, imparting a ‘general spiciness’ rather than anything specific, though you still get a bit of the round fullness of the saffron and the spiky herbal notes from the pepper. The beer is slightly sour and surprisingly malty, giving it a fullness of body belied by its low ABV. The spicy/sour/malty combo makes for an extraordinarily refreshing drink with lots going on.

Mark: 4/5. Why aren’t more low-ABV beers like this? Light, refreshing yet full of character and flavour.

Grunge IPA from Birrificio Indipendente Elav (IPA, ABV 6.3)
Elav is a new entrant to the Italian craft beer scene, founded in 2010 near Bergamo. They seem to be mostly US-influenced (they had a couple of IPAs and a DIPA in their range, as well as an Imperial Stout) but with a Belgian touch here and there. Grunge IPA is their basic IPA, as far as I understood.

Look: Very dark for an IPA, more akin to a red ale or dark ale. Slightly cloudy. Virtually no head.

Nose: Fruit, citrus, yeast – not very intense nose.

Mouth: Tropical fruit dominate (mango and dried fruit), quickly followed by a strong Seville orange marmalade/grapefruit bitterness. Could have used a bit more body to stand up to all the hops, but overall a very pleasant drink. Worked well with pizza, as befits an Italian IPA.

Mark: 3/5. Good but not as outstanding as the two other ones, mainly because the competition in the IPA style is simply much more intense (in contrast, I can think of no direct competitor to a low-ABV saffron-and-black-pepper saison…). But it’s still a rock-solid example of the style and one I’d definitely drink again.

The Italian Haul

I got some other stuff in my haul from Domus Birrae but I haven’t had time to try them yet. Luca was particularly enthusiastic about Montegioco, a one-man microbrewery operation that do mostly small-batch stuff, a lot of it influenced by Belgian styles. I’ve got two different brews I’m looking forward to trying, as well as the Dark Metal Imperial Stout from Elav. Further Italian reports to follow!

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Posted on March 14, 2012, in Feature, Review, Shop and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’ve had a lot of wine in Italy and a little beer in 2006. Nice to read that there are some craft brewers in Italy. Next trip there, I will look some of these up.

    Cheers!

    David Ivey
    Black Bucket Brew Inbox Magazine Editor

    PS. Please check out our free e-book and mag.

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