Sunday, 5 August 2012

Five Italian Beers Of Note

Blog has been quiet. Have been snooping around central Italy, trying beers. Here is my record:

Birra Moretti
Let’s get this one out of the way.  This beer is everywhere in Italy. You cannot ignore it. From the obscured osteria behind a hilltop church, to the Florentine cathedral-front sandwich sellers, this beer is as common as the roadside Madonna.

Big brand lagers have a bad reputation. They are everywhere; they are boring. Be careful. These are two separate qualities. I have tasted several hard-to-find micro lagers that are tongue-fluffingly dull. Similarly, there are some beers that you can just count on. They’ll probably be different for each of us, but they are there. This could well be one of those beers.

The Italian lagers aren’t watery enough for the wedge of lime we love to stuff down the necks of their Mexican counterparts: Maybe the malt is too rich; maybe the hops are too prominent. Whatever the reason (it would take me a few more bottles to decide for myself) it’s clear that there is just too much taste for any of that faffing.

And you can buy it in supermarkets and corner shops: Everywhere. Excellent.

Mastri Birrai Umbri
Cotta 19 – Bionda
Cotta 28 – Rossa
Cotta 42 – Doppio Malto; Scura

These are special editions of three stalwarts of the Umbrian birre artigianale scene (Cotte 21, 37 and 74 respectively – none of which I have tried). The first is a Belgian-style blonde ale made with spelt, a favourite grain of the region. The second uses something called cicerchia – apparently “grass pea” in English – another local staple. The third is a dark ale made with lentils. These special batches, the man behind the counter informed me, were made with the finest grains, and fermented using a different strain of yeast from the brewery’s previous products. Hmm…

Well, all three of them were good beers. The first, it has to be said, made a good BBQ accompaniment, complimenting the thick smoke I had been inhaling before each consolatory sip. The alternative ingredients gave these beers a tang that set them apart from pure barley ales. I am very glad I tasted these – they each have interesting flavours - but I couldn’t tell what was special about them. They weren’t notably crisp or clean, nor were they earthy.

It is a shame there was not time to compare each of them to their not-so-special counterparts. I will never know what was supposed to make these taste special. They were unusual, but I sensed that this came from the spelt, cicerchia and lentils. Since this would be true of the cheaper varieties, I am curious as to how special these batches really are.

Nobile – Birra Dell’ Eremo
This was my star find of the trip. I seem to be reviewing a lot of golden ales on this blog. Maybe I like them. I like this one.

To pour, it was cloudy and golden with just a slight fizz. There was a light aroma. Not of anything in particular, but you could smell it. And it was good. It smelt real. It was fresh. It was gritty. It felt in the mouth like bundled hay often looks – out there on the field, not dry and spiky but soft and comforting.

At the shop – not far from the brewery, which is in Assisi – this was the only variety in stock. Henry Ciani, the brewer-in-chief at Birra Dell’ Eremo [Beer of the Hermitage], also brews a multi-grain white beer - barley, wheat, oats and spices - called Saggia, and an amber ale - with wheat - somewhat modestly titled Magnifica. The beer I found – Nobile – is the only one to stick within the boundaries of water, barley, hops and yeast. It is their flagship ale, and seems to be making quite an impression on the local beer scene.

It certainly deserves to take off, and I hope to see it around here in the near future.

One of my hosts - a generous, unapologetic wine-buff - had carefully prepared for my visit by loading the fridge with Moretti. He appeared to be either intrigued or amused by the fascination with beer, and humoured my various side-show explorations of the undershelves of various small-town enoteche. It was only when he tasted Eremo Nobile that he finally realised what all the fuss was about.

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