Italian Beer Pilgrimage Chapter III
Going to Assisi means going home.
Assisi is where Ezio was born and grew up. It is where both of our children were born. Our Italian family is here. Home in Assisi is the 800 year old apartment on the main square that was Ezio's family's home, and that he and I renovated together. Assisi is a small hilltop town with less than 2,000 residents, but thanks to St. Francis, over 5 million people visit Assisi each year. Now with Pope Francis, probably even more. Assisi is a lot of great things, but it is not what you might imagine to be a center of craft beer.
That said, there was an event this past month called BEEROCK. It began with a craft beer conference and small tasting in the main square, foot steps from our front door and culminated in three nights of rock n' roll and Umbrian craft beer. The final event was held in the tiny town, Le Viole, a five minute drive from Assisi. Le Viole is a small main street with a bar, a couple of food shops and houses. There is a small stone medieval archway over the road that announces that you are actually in a town, otherwise you might miss it. With so many visitors, Assisi exudes its own modernity. La Viole is like those small towns in Maine where it feels as if time has virtually stopped. For BEEROCK, le Viole was closed to cars, and long wooden tables and benches were set up on either side of the road. Local food was served.
In Italy every summer most small towns hold sagre, or outdoor dinners of their local food. For example the town of Cannara, famous for its onions, has a yearly sagra della cipolla.BEEROCK was essentially a beer sagra, even though its organizers kept calling it a rassegna or beer "exhibit" which it was.. also. My main criticism of the event is that it was neither carne ne pesce, as one says in Italian. For the local people it was a sagra, or a chance to eat and drink and be together. For the organizers and craft brewers, it was a chance to try to showcase their beers.
Surprising, for a sagra style event, the food was atrocious. It is hard to cook pasta for a lot of people, but if you are going to offer high quality beer to drink, the food should keep up with the drink. Having just been to the wonderful sagra di Tordandrea, the food at Le Viole was a real disappointment. I ditched the pasta and ended up eating bread and salad. The event wasn't formatted in the best way to encourage people to try lots of different kinds of beer. For sale there were either small or large beers. There were no tasting sized cups, no places to dump out bad or unwanted beer, and no water to drink between beer tastings. In order to drive home safely, and yet try a lot of different beers, I needed to cajole the girls serving the beer, to pour me small portions. Horrible beers needed to be disposed of very discreetly. That said it was still fun, and there was some very good beer there.
There were six Umbrian brewers represented: Birra Perugia, Caber, Flea, Looppolo, San Biagio and 100 Litri. I had good conversations with the two master brewers who were there, Paolo Moscati of Looppolo and Renzo Caberlon of Caber. The rest of the stands were run by young local women who were attractive and friendly, but not overly informed about the beer. Meeting Paolo and Renzo I learned about their beers, but I realized that if I want to really know about these breweries I will need to go visit them in person.
There were three tribute bands, a different one each night: The Rolling Stones, U2, and Pink Floyd. The bands were fun and enthusiastic, and despite the dramatic dark black clouds, thunder, lightening and occasional splash of rain, the event survived and I would even call it a success.
I appreciate initiatives like BEEROCK bcause despite the enormous growth of the craft beer industry in Italy, there are still many misperceptions and prejudices against a drink that has always held a distant second place to wine. It was interesting to see older men in Le Viole, who grew up with Peroni and Nastro Azzuro, tentatively try a dark stout. Blonde Eastern European style beer is still what people most are comfortable with here in Italy.
The younger Italians seem much more aware and interested in craft beer. I spoke with one guy in his 20's and he told me about his favorite local craft beer pub called Umami. He talked to me about his favorite Italian craft beers and he was also pretty informed about US craft brands. One of his friends identified himself as the designated driver, which pleased me. I mentioned how in Portland, Maine a fellow started a business, driving people in a van on brewery tours. These guys really liked this idea. I would be happy if one of them started such a business, because there are a lot of good breweries in Umbria to be visited.
I ended the evening talking to Paolo Moscati of Looppolo, and we made an appointment to get together with his business partner Alessandro Ciuchi to talk beer. Paolo and Alessandro are gypsy brewers in that they do not have their own brewery, but invent beers that are then produced in already existing breweries. This affords them the ability to get started with relatively little capital and to create high quality limited edition beers. Without the overhead worries they are freer to experiment. Alessandro, Paolo and I ended up having dinner together at Umami, and I met the owner Roberto Iska Scarponi. It was a real pleasure. All three are smart and passionate about what they do. Umami is a Japanese word meaning taste. In western culture the word has become an adjective for a savory taste experience outside of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Roberto has a good collection of beer and we tried three different beers with dinner. One was a decent oatmeal stout from a local brewery called Birra dell' Eremo which was a former place of collaboration for Looppolo beer. Now Alessandro and Paolo's beer is produced near Siena at a brewery called Birrifcio 26 Nero. I had a Roman beer called Baba Jaga named after a witch from Eastern European folklore. A combination of unusual spices, it was really good. The third was a blonde beer by Montelago a special edition beer created for a Celtic festival in Umbria. Not so good in my humble opinion.
Then we were off to Perugia. Several of the good craft beer places, Elfo and Osteria dei Priori, are already closed for the August holidays, so we went first to Birra a Porter, a new craft beer store run by Davide Rizzuto. It is a small place with a couple of tall tables with stools, or you can buy beer to take home. Davide is a very down to earth nice guy, trying to make a go at something he is passionate about. Looking at his prices for US beers, I realized one of the main perils of shipping beer overseas. We tried a blonde beer infused with mango that was too cold to taste properly, but once it warmed up was very drinkable. The mango was a very slight flavor that arrived pleasantly at the end. Then we tried another blonde beer that was too high in alcohol content for its own good. I think the higher a beer goes in ABV the better one needs to be as a brewer. Higher alcohol content gives a weightiness to a beer, and if the flavors are not carefully balanced to match, one tastes the alcohol too much in an unpleasant way. An example of high ABV beer that works is Dogfish Head's World Wide Stout, just don't plan to drive afterwards.
It was amazing to me to step outside of a very contemporary craft beer store into a main street in the historic center of Perugia, a town that means more to me for its Pinacoteca and beautiful medieval fountain than anything else.
We then zoomed in Paolo's Alfa Romeo sports car through the very narrow stone paved streets to another bar called Rising Beer. Close to midnight, I watched Alessandro and Paolo pitch their beer to the guys at Rising Beer. Looppolo now produces two beers: Gialla, an American Pale Ale made with both American Cascade hops and a special Nelson Sauvin hop from New Zealand that adds a lighter fruity note, and the other Verde, a classic American style IPA made that is so hopped with Cascade and Fuggle that it will take the hair off of your tongue. Both are fresh, contemporary craft beers with ABV of 5,6% that could hold their own next to the best in the American market.
Next stop? - Flea brewery in Gualdo Tadino.