RSS feed

Waiter, there's a clam in my beer

Teo Musso of Birra Baladin in his Piedmont barley fields Teo Musso of Birra Baladin keeps a close eye on the production of his beers

An absence of old-world tradition has given Italy's craft brewers the freedom to create bizarre beers with ingredients as strange as myrrh, pomegranate, black rice and clams.

You would be forgiven for not thinking of Italy when you think of beer.

In fact, Italy has the lowest levels of per capita consumption of beer in all of Europe.

A group of "mad scientist" brewers are experimenting with unusual Italian ingredients to create exotic tasting beers that are beginning to gain hold in Italy, but also in the most traditional of UK drinking establishments.

Pairing beer and Italian food:

Roast leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary

Try wheat beer with mozzarella aubergine rolls

Serve gingery light ales with rabbit linguine

Choose malty dark ales with roast lamb

Put stouts with chocolate fondant pudding

"At the beginning we were seen as strange. Italy is famous for wines, but not beers," says Leonardo di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo based outside Rome.

"In Italy, we don't have a brewing culture so we are totally free to go and try to create something new," he says.

Britain buys 60% of the beer exported from Italy, but the bulk of sales is mass-produced lager.

But for the 2012 Wetherspoon's Real Ale Festival Birra del Borgo was invited to create something to represent Italy.

Tutto fa Brodo (translated as "Every little Helps") is brewed with dried pineapple, roses, bergamot and Cambodian pepper.

Experimentation and finding surprising new flavours is at the heart of Italian craft brews.

Leonardo di Vincenzo, a biochemist by training, creates 12 "bizarres" every year- recipes made for a short time that test the boundaries of beer.

"We tried to make this old recipe for oyster stout with actual oysters," says Leonardo of his classic stout, Perle ai Porci ("Pearls before swine").

The specially designed tasting glass from Birra Baladin Is experimental beer persuading Italians away from wine?

"We put an entire oyster inside and also a clam from our region, called the Tellina. The clam gives the beer a special character.

"The creaminess and softness of the stout is coming from the salt in the clam and the oyster."

Americans are thirsty for new, innovative flavours, with products such as Bacon Maple and Blue Raspberry Lemonade beers hitting the shelves in the last year. Could the UK also see oyster stout with real oysters?

Jon Howard of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) thinks it is an exciting time for all experimental brewers and the Italians are certainly gaining popularity.

"The Italian beers which are brought in for the Great British Beer Festival always sell very quickly, and are popular particularly among more discerning groups of beer drinkers."

For Birra del Borgo, it has been a long haul.

"At the Great British Beer Festival in 1999 we were bringing our beer and it was a little booth and no-one was looking there.

Unusu-ales:

Hops
  • Zucca by Birra Baladin is "A real 'pumpkin pie' liquid... reminiscent of sweet pumpkin grandmothers"
  • Equilibrista by Birra del Borgo is half Chianti grape juice and half beer that is fermented like champagne. "In a blind test you can not recognise whether it is wine or beer."
  • CitaBiunda's BiancaNeive contains champagne yeast to produce apricot and peach aromas
  • Mastrai Birrai Umbri create Cotta 74 which is "distinguished by the use of "Italian lentil" and is a dark malty beer with caramel and dark chocolate notes
  • Grado Plato's Chocarrubica is brewed with carob, oats and cocoa beans with "a creaminess almost like a cup of steaming hot chocolate"

"But last year the Italian section was the most crowded on the first day," says Leonardo di Vincenzo.

Drinkers in the UK seem to be ready to try another nation's interpretation of their old favourites.

Experimental twists of classic beer styles "is the exciting thing about the beer market as a whole at the moment", says Jon Howard.

In the north of Italy in Piedmont, Birra Baladin is home to Italy's most famous mad-scientist brewer, Teo Musso, whose personality and ideas inform every aspect of production.

Baladin Beers are named for his family members and the brewery is still based in his hometown of Piozzo outside Turin.

Baladin is experimenting not only with flavours, but with the whole process of brewing and of creating a truly local product, from growing the barley and hops on the family land to maintaining their own yeasts in an on-site laboratory.

Experiments with playing different styles of music to the yeast are as yet inconclusive, but are progressing.

But Teo Musso is most excited about his cellar - Cantina Baladin, located in his parents' old chicken shed - where he experiments with macro-oxidation of beers in old wine, rum and whiskey barrels.

"In the cellar we have 160 barrels arriving from some of the most important wineries in Italy." These barrels are used to age two types of barley wine, a very strong sweet beer that is gaining popularity.

Fermentazione in Musica sign at the Birra Baladin brewery Teo Musso experiments with playing music to his yeasts at his Piozzo-based brewery

"These two beers have very simple recipes and what gives them the flavour is that they stay in the barrels for one year," says Teo.

"We think that part of the precious wine soul lives in them."

Some of their more mainstream brews include Nora, flavoured with orange peel and myrrh; Isaac, a cloudy, citrusy wheat beer; and Super, an amber Trappist style beer that shows off Teo's long study of Belgian beers.

These mainstream offerings can off-set the expense of experimentation.

"Certainly the barley wines cannot give us a big business to survive and so we need to find other way to make a sustainable brewery. If we look on the profit we cannot continue with Cantina Baladin, " he says.

Baladin are working with agri-food laboratories to identify hops that can be grown in the cool regions of Piedmont, minimising the distance that any ingredient has to travel, and creating an Italian beer made with only Italian ingredients.

"In Italy this is the moment of the craft beer. When I started in 1996 there were very few people that knew craft beers existed. Italians in that moment knew only the industrial beers," says Teo Musso.

Beer aged in Laphroaig whisky cask Aging beer in whisky casks adds a smoky, peaty flavour

There are now over 500 micro-breweries and 42% of beer consumed in Italy is "specialty beer", or twists on mainstream varieties.

And what experiments are next?

"We would like to leave our Xyauyu barley wine in oak barrel for many years (like forget them) to explore the evolution of the flavour," says Teo.

But he admits it's "not a commercial deal".

Recreating ancient beer

Italy's brewers are not only looking forward for new ways of brewing, but also looking back.

The Etrusca ale is a collaborative project between Birra del Borgo, Birra Baladin and the American brewery Dogfish Head, with input from molecular archaeologist Prof Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania.

"This is not a beer to taste straight away. We have to work up to it," says Paolo Bertani of Birra del Borgo.

He pours a glass of Etrusca, a beer made as it would have been 2,500 years ago, aged in clay amphorae, flavoured with pomegranate, gentian root and honey.

It is mineral, almost medicinal, in flavour with sour fruit and hazelnut notes and no fizz. Is this merely an academic exercise?

Terracotta amphorae Terracotta amphorae gives the beer a mineral flavour

"No," says Leonardo di Vincenzo. "We are making this kind of beer for people. The beer should be drunk... maybe paired with blue cheese."

The collaboration between brewers is a defining aspect of the Italian brewing scene, says Paolo Bertani.

He is also sporting a temporary tattoo on his forearm from high-concept Scottish beermakers BrewDog (makers of Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Punk IPA). No collaboration is out of the question.

Teo Musso and Leonardo di Vincenzo have worked together on three restaurant projects, including the successful Eataly in New York, with celebrity chef-patron Mario Batali.

"At this moment America is the most important market for our experimental beers," says Teo Musso.

The openness of the Italians to new processes and tastes is slowly earning them a critical mass of fanatical followers there.

A beer-loving nation like the UK cannot be far behind.

More on This Story

More from Food

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

  • Seared salmon saladSeared salmon

    Indulge in a healthy salad with spicy smoked chorizo


  • Vegetable risottoVegetable risotto

    Prepare a summertime dish with fresh mint and runner beans


  • Cake representing BBC Food on Facebook Like us

    Join us on Facebook for top cooking tips, tricks & treats


  • Peppered mackerel

    Enjoy this fish recipe with fresh apple and celery

Programmes

BBC iPlayer
  • John Torrode and Gregg WallaceMasterChef Watch

    Amateur cooks compete to win the MasterChef title

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.