Italian Beer Pilgrimage Chapter I
In 1979 right after U.S. legislation changed to allow home brewing, there were around 44 U.S. breweries. Today there are more than 6,000 U.S. microbreweries.
In 1995 Italian legislature was finally changed to allow home brewing and a few opened. In 2005 there were about 40 Italian breweries. Today there are around 1200. With a growing international appreciation, and collaborations with top American brewers: Dogfish Head and Birra del Borgo, and Stone and Baladin for example, Italian craft beer has really come into its own.
What follows is my journey to visit as many Italian breweries as possible, taste what they are doing, and learn as much as I can about craft beer in my husband Ezio's belle paese, where I have lived with him for the past 20 years.
What I learn I would like to share with you.
Up and away - here we go!
First stop: Open Baladin, Teo Musso's brewpub that just happens to be located a couple of blocks from our home in Rome. It opened in 2009 and I used to walk my daughter by it every day on the way to school. New places come and go with remarkable speed in Rome. The name didn't mean anything to me at the time, so I never went.
I figure this is as good of place as any to dive into the world of Italian craft beer!
Teo Musso is the founder of Baladin brewery in Piozzo, a small town in Northern Italy towards Turin. He is probably the most famous Italian craft brewer. He has written a book "Baladin: La birra artigianale è tutta colpa di Teo" or "Baladin: Craft beer is all Teo's fault." The introduction was written by Carlo Petrini founder of the Slow Food movement. Baladin brewery opened in 1996 and is now distributed internationally. In addition to his main brewery and this brewpub Open Baladin in Rome, there are many other Baladin cafes now, mostly in Northern Italy. Musso has also collaborated with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and Leo Di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo to create the brewery on the top floor terrace of Eataly Manhattan. He has also in the past year created a series of "normal," read "blonde" beers in collaboration with Lurisia a place famous for its thermal baths and mineral water about a 1/2 hour drive from Piozzo.
Getting my wine drinker friends in the US to drink beer has been a bit of a hard sell. I now find it is the same with my wine enthusiast friends in Italy.
That said, I managed to get my chic and savvy friend Letizia to go to Open Baladin with me when I tell her that celebrity chef Gabriele Bonci created the menu. In fact the food is excellent - pub fare created with high Italian style. Letizia has fish and chips with a homemade mayo laced with lime and ginger. I have a grilled chicken wrap with guacamole and lots of fresh mint. Letizia wimps out and gets gassosa, a classic Italian soft drink that tastes like Sprite although my Italian/American teenage kids would say gassosa is far superior to Sprite. I try the Dogfish Head/Birra del Borgo collaboration beer My Antonia that they serve on tap.
My Antonia is yes, named after the 1918 Willa Cather novel about life in the American West. It is a continually-hopped Imperial pilsner with a 7.5% ABV. It has a rather hazy, warm gold color with a light lacy head. Its immediate light, sweet citrus flavor is followed by the intense flavor of hops that is characteristic of Dogfish brews.
Letizia sniffs it suspiciously, but does try it. Her face reacts to the strong hops, but she smiles and admits that it is pretty good.
I think it is great, and will go with a lot of different kinds of food. I start thinking about how it would taste along side of a caramelized lemon/garlic chicken dish that I make.
Open Baladin has 40 different Italian craft beers on tap, and hundreds of different kinds of bottled Italian craft beer. The wait staff is knowledgeable and nice. I met the chef and complimented him on the food. You can tell by the employees' general attitude that this is a great place to work. Behind the bar I spot an empty bottle of Pliny the Elder by Russian River, a top California brewery. It is a beer that I am curious to try. The waitress said a friend brought it by for them to taste. I have read that Russian River's master brewer Vinnie Cilurzo was originally supposed to be involved in the Eataly Manhattan brewery project, but it seems he is no longer involved.
I think Open Baladin is great. I will be definitely going back.
Throughout the week I drink the Japanese beer Sapporo when Letizia and I go for sushi, and Nastro Azzurro when my husband and I go with a group of students to our favorite Roman pizzeria in Trastevere nicknamed by Romans "The Morgue." It has marble slab table tops. The sushi and pizza are great, but both filtered and pasteurized beers taste watery and boring after the craft beer that I have been drinking for the past year.
More satisfying is my trip to our local CO OP supermarket, one of the largest chain supermarkets in Italy. CO OP is a huge organization, but they are enlightened. They were way ahead of the curve in terms of selling organic food and produce and I discover they also understand craft beer. Even in the tiny CO OP under my house in Rome there is a good selection of Birra del Borgo beer and many from Amarcord. Besides producing their own line of good quality craft beer, Amarcord is the distributor for Brooklyn Brewery in Italy. CO OP also sells products by an organization called Libera Terra that takes land and money confiscated from the Mafia in Sicily, and uses it to create organic agricultural co-operatives for unemployed Sicilian youth. My husband and I buy their products, and we have found that they are of good quality. They produce pasta, legumes, mozzarella, olive oil and wine....I now am thinking that maybe they too should open a brewery?
Next stop, Umbria.