DRINK – Not Such Small Beers

25 Jul 2001

The fashion for microbreweries started in the United States, but if you regard it as just a new and by no means healthy fad of consumerism, then you’ll have to think again. A beer culture rooted in the strictest and most conservative respect for tradition and the use of genuine raw materials has finally spread to Italy – albeit about thirty years late – from the country of McDonald’s and Blockbuster, the homeland of globalization and standardization.

In the point of fact, the very first stirrings of the movement were noticeable in Great Britain in the early Seventies, when a spontaneous group of consumers opposed to the filtered and pasteurized keg beer brewed by large-scale national companies launched CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, to promote ale produced in barrels by small breweries. In 1973, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, with its economic theories blending Galbraith and Gandhi, capitalism and Buddhism, science and psychology, became a bestseller overnight in both the United Kingdom and the United States, converting ever larger numbers of people to the cause. An emblematic case is that of the young American soldier Jack McAuliffe, who saw the light on the road to Glasgow and decided to return to Sonoma, California, and set up a small brewery. He called it New Albion (now Mendocino County) after the ancient name of the country that was the source of his inspiration. Having been abroad as soldiers, students or tourists, other young Americans followed his example in often successful attempts to brew beers in the British, Belgian, German, Czech or other styles back home. The microbrewery movement thus began officially in 1976. Over the following quarter of a century, 40 small breweries have grown into more than 1,200 in the United States alone. They can be divided essentially into two categories: microbreweries proper, which produce almost exclusively for other parties, and brewpubs, which are, as the name suggests, pubs that sell their own beer. In both cases, the only ingredients allowed are those stipulated in the Reinheitsgebot, an edict issued by William IV in 1516: namely, water, barley, malt and hops. Annual production must be below 500,000 liters, and the beer, needless to say, must be neither pasteurized nor filtered, if possible. There is also a third category of home brewers, who brew beer at home for their own consumption. This practice is also legal in Italy under terms of Law 504 of 26/10/95 and is spreading fast despite its somewhat laborious nature. Once again, there are at least two subcategories. While some are ready to use the hopped malt supplied through a fair number of specialized shops, others prefer to start from scratch, selecting and mixing the raw materials themselves. These ‘purists’, both homebrewers and professionals, are in turn distinguished in terms of the way they process the malt: by infusion (to obtain British-type ale), step-infusion (for Belgian types), or decoction (ideal for German brews). The cost of a homebrew kit, which usually includes a 1,800-gram tin of hopped extract, is between 200,000 and 300,000 lire, while a professional set-up can cost as much as 500 million lire. You can find out practically all you need to know on the Internet. Most of the sites are American, but there are also a few good Italian addresses. Above all, those interested should know the works of the guru who has always been the point of reference for microbrewers all over the world, namely Charlie Papazian, founder (in 1978) and president of the American Homebrewers Association. His magazines – Zymurgy (for ‘home operators’) and The New Brewer (for small-scale professionals) – and books – The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing and The Home Brewer’s Companion – are required reading for anyone who wants to learn all the techniques and keep up to date. There are, however, no Italian editions, at least officially.

For about 15 years now, Italy appears to have been finally getting used to the idea that beer is not a simple, unsophisticated, bland beverage, a sort of poor man’s wine. The unchallenged mainstay of pubs, which has also been rediscovered by gourmets and connoisseurs as the ideal accompaniment for sophisticated dishes, is now readily available in a vast range of types from practically every corner of the globe. It is therefore understandable that many Italians, both the young and the not so young, should have plunged into the world of microbreweries. The model most commonly adopted is that of the brewpub, where the pub attached to the brewery often provides not only food and drink but also live music and cultural events. Many have sprung up in the last few years all over Italy, especially in the North. One of the best known is Le Baladin in Piozzo (province of Cuneo). Teo Musso, the owner, offers six types of beer drawing primarily on the Belgian tradition. These include Isaac, a light, fruity pale ale named after Teo’s son, Brune, a stout with a creamy head that is full-bodied and yet light, and Noel, a highly alcoholic stout (9 degrees) that is only available in the Christmas period, as the name suggests. The pub is also renowned for its Wednesday evening concerts, which often feature excellent musicians from across the Atlantic. Beba at Villar Perosa in the province of Turin owes its fame to five types of beer, which can also be bought on-line through www.birrabeba.it. Tipplers with strong palates will relish the amber-colored Sangre de Toro and Motor Oil, a stout brewed with double malt. Part of the brewery equipment can be seen inside the adjoining pub, the Train Robbers’ Syndicate, which also offers typical local grub.

The Birrificio Italiano at Lurago Marinone in the province of Como offers ten unfiltered brews. Noteworthy is Vùdù (stout brewed through the decoction process), Negra! (double-malt dark beer brewed only in the winter), Ambershock (an amber-colored double-malt brew that is not always available), and 01 Grand Cru (a twice-fermented stout that has just been introduced). The beers follow an original scale of tastes and flavors that depends on the complexity of the brew rather than on alcohol content. Those who combine a love of beer with a taste for multiethnic cuisine will delight in the Zhythum in Milan, a successful cross between a brewpub and a nightclub that often host events connected with the worlds of fashion, cinema, and music. It offers four beers, both filtered and unfiltered, all produced with German malts and brewed “live” thanks to a two-vat process. The Centrale della Birra in Cremona also offers four choices, from the lighter Violin (amber-colored) and Cremona (unfiltered bitter) to the more demanding Boheme (stout) and Strenna (amber-colored double malt). The pub also holds concerts of live music and exhibitions of contemporary art. Finally, one of the best (and biggest) brewpubs in central and southern Italy is the Stazione Birra in Rome. Founded in 1998, it has four set choices (bitter, double malt bitter, double-malt red and double malt black), a beer brewed from wheat in three versions, which are never all available at the same time, and a series of specialties on sale during festive periods. The most famous of these is Marzen, an amber-colored triple-malt ‘German’ beer brewed in the month of March. The pub offers a fairly wide range of food and the entertainment (music and cabaret) is of national standard.

Angelo Surrusca, a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore and is a regular contributor to its publications

photo: Teo Musso of the Le Baladin microbrewery in Piozzo

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