Sometimes the least likely combination of ingredients can produce the most interesting results.
This is often the case with rock music — think Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, for example — or rocket fuel — a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. Kept separate, these are all fairly benign materials; combined, however, they can yield beautiful, supersonic effects. (For instance, the former collaboration resulted in five Grammys, and the latter gave rise to firecrackers).
And such was the case with a beer tasting I attended last week. When Jed, my new-brews adviser at The Wine Source, invited me to an exclusive gathering to try Italian craft beers I was nonplussed, to say the least. Certainly, I was honored to be included and wanted to go, but I was skeptical, even a little apprehensive, about what I might encounter. I mean, who would put those words — “Italian” and “craft beer” — together in a sentence and think, “bellisimo”? It makes as much sense as, say, a tasting of “vintage Irish wines.”
There’s no disputing the fact that Italian culture is centered on a passion for great food and drink, produced from local ingredients. It forms the basis for what they call “la dolce vita,” or the sweet life. However, when I think of Italy, what comes to mind are a glass of earthy, dry red wine and a plate of noodles smothered in a zesty pasta sauce. When I think of craft beers, on the other hand, I imagine a bottle of earthy, hoppy IPA and a rack of ribs slathered in barbecue sauce. In fact, the only Italian beers I’ve ever had were the uber exports Peroni or Moretti, and they tend to be as uninspiring as their American mass-market counterparts.
But, you know, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over this past year of tasting and tattling about beers and beer-food combos, it’s that I have to put aside my prejudices and keep an open mind. For instance, I never would have thought that pairing hard cider with Halloween candy would be so eerily delicious, or that Bavarian beers would prove to be such gracious hosts for a Chinese New Year celebration. So, I decided to act a bit non-nonplussed and test how “crafty” the Italians were. And, Mama mia! did that prove to be the right stuff.
And eye-opening, too. Upon arriving arriving at The Wine Source, I was ushered into a back room, where a few people had gathered around some high-top tables and were noshing and sipping Peroni (as “a palate cleanser,” or so I was told). To demonstrate how well Italian craft beers might blend with their native cuisine, our hosts served us a mini antipasto, which included several cheeses — Piave vecchio, Pecorino Romano, and a creamy Gorgonzola dolce — two kinds of meat — Molinari dry salame and bresaola (dried, thinly sliced tenderloin) — some Cerignola olives, and small rounds of bread. It proved an ideal selection, as I found out later, and all but the olives (which were delicious but bitterly overpowering) went well with at least one of the beers.
Not surprising, no one I spoke to had yet tried any of the seven Italian beers on the menu. Apparently, the craft-brew craze is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy. According to beer expert Charlie Papazian, quoted in the evening’s handout, a small but growing number of Italian craft brewers “are romancing the notion that Italian culture and cuisine is an absolutely perfect complement to specialty craft brewed beers.” It’s such a recent trend, in fact, that more than half the beers chosen were produced by breweries less than five years old. As a result, few Americans have been exposed to their libations — and we, hanging out in Hampden, were ready to receive.
Here they are, then, the seven beers of Italy, ordered by brewery. Cin cin!
Nuova Mattina, Birrificio Del Ducato. According to our hosts, this is the youngest brewery in the bunch (launched in 2007), and that fact was evident in the boldness (and somewhat unfocused nature) of its two byproducts. The first, the aptly named Nuova Mattina (which means “new morning”), has all the characteristics of a saison — the herbal flavor, peppery-spicy notes, and the rambunctious carbonation — but it’s hoppier than I would expect, almost like an IPA, with plenty of orange and citrusy aromas and a richer, darker color, like an amber lager. Strangest of all is the unmistakable whiff (and taste) of one of the main ingredients — chamomile. Definitely not your typical brewhouse recipe item. But it (along with the whole crazy concoction) somehow works, especially when paired with a bite of the Gorgonzola. It mellowed the tanginess in the cheese and enhanced its silky, creamy texture. Nuova, indeed.
Krampus, Birrificio Del Ducato. Krampus lived up to its legend as the original “Bad Santa.” Like its sibling, Nuova Mattina, this mischievous beer is somewhat of a contradiction: technically a Christmas ale, it nonetheless felt maltier and sweeter, like an Easter beer (along the lines of a dopplebock) — it’s even brewed with star anise (think licorice jelly beans) — and it’s lighter, in terms of color and texture, like a lager. I thought I noticed a slightly sour, earthy, almost root-beer-like aftertaste, too (though I was in the minority here). I am certain of how well it paired with a slice of pecorino and salame on bread, scaring off the bitter flavors in favor of the sweet ones. And what’s not to like about that?
Tibir, Birrificio Montegioco. Technically a saison, Tibir actually defies classification as a “beer”: it poured out of the bottle golden and hazy, like a Belgian witbier, yet foamed like Champagne, had a citrusy, apple- or pear-like aroma, like a lambic, yet tasted slightly sour, not unlike a dill pickle. I heard someone call it the “Sauvignon blanc of beer,” which was an apt description, given that a local, little-used wine grape, Timorrasso, is added during the brewing process. That alone should have been an instant turn-off for me. And yet, within the first sip or two (and especially after matching with the sharp Piave vecchio) it proved one of the most unique and tastiest beers I’ve ever had.
Dolii Raptor, Birrificio Montegioco. Although its name sounds like a creature from a Michael Creighton novel, and it looked dark and foreboding, frothing in my glass, the Dolii Raptor proved as sweet and docile as, well, Dolly Parton. The literature says this ale, brewed in the Piedmont region, is matured in Barbera wine barrels for about six months, which contributes to its light brown, hazy appearance (there were definitely things floating in my glass!) along with a mellow, smoky aroma. I noticed a slightly sour, almost apple-like flavor but it was pleasing, like fresh cider, and created the perfect counterpoint to the rindy, briny Gorgonzola cheese and enhanced the sweetness in the dried meats. Should I say “raptor-ous”? (I should.)
Malthus Baluba, Il Birrificio di Como. This is another experimental, crossover brew that, though seemingly popular rated a resounding “weird” from my fellow imbibers. Why? Well, for one thing, it’s bottom-fermented, so it’s technically a lager. But it’s also brewed with an assortment of fruit and herbs, including apricot, pineapple, ginger, and rue, which accounts for its muddy-brown, hazy complexion and pushes it into the lambic or spiced stout category. It was surprisingly drinkable, however, with a mild malty, molasses-like sweetness, some nutty flavors, and a hint of chocolate in the aftertaste. But when someone mentioned it tasted “like liquid raisin bread” (and it did) I decided this Italiano didn’t quite suit its cuisine or my mood.
Sella Del Diavolo, Birrificio Barley. Produced on the island of Sardinia by one of the youngest of the new breweries, this beer is made from the least amount of ingredients, or so said our hosts. Perhaps its natural singularity contributes to its amazing versatility. Labeled as a strong brown ale, it poured out looking like an excitable witbier, and was as aromatic, too, with hints of citrus, spices, and even some honey. It was dry, slightly sweet, with a mildly bitter aftertaste. I actually didn’t think it was all that flavorful, until I tried it with the cheeses — o solo mio! It was like a philosopher’s stone, drawing out a saltiness I hadn’t noticed in the pecorino and transforming a dollop of Gorgonzola into a mouthful of creamy milkshake. It was a devilish combination.
Cassisona, Birrificio Italiano. I have to admit this was my least favorite of the bunch, but that’s mainly because I don’t like cassis, which is the main additive during fermentation. Cassisona was quite elegant in the glass, with a bronze glow and lots of racy bubbles, and its fruity, flowery hops aroma was appealing enough. Quite a few of the tasters said they like it. But the sour, black currant and raisin flavors were overbearing and so winy to me that neither cheese nor meat provided any consolation.
So, there you have it, the magnificent seven. One thing that my wife, Amy, asked, after reading a draft of this (and, as always, thinking like a cook) was, “In the end, which beers would you serve with a typical Italian meal, like a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce?” Good question. It’s hard to say, without having had a taste comparison, but I would suggest the sweet ones over the bitter. The malty caramel and molasses flavors in a glass of Krampus or Malthus Baluba, for example, will latch onto the sugars in the tomatoes, while the hoppiness and bubbles cut through and wash away the residual fat in the oils and meat, prepping the palate for the next bite. Delicioso!
I also want to mention the conviviality and combibularity that was produced by the uncommon mix of people gathered in the tasting room — men and women, of differing ages and backgrounds, hailing from all over the city, coming together with a common interest: trying and buying well-crafted beers. We didn’t all agree on what flavors we were tasting, or which brews were our favorites — and few of us could even pronounce the names — but we were all in accord that it was a great event and would gladly do it again.
As always, let me know what you think. Did this review make you want to try these Italian craft beers? Are there others that I missed? What country produced your most surprising beer experience? Let us know by leaving a comment.
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