Friday, September 24, 2010

Monks and Helpful Barmen

I’ve spent the last few weeks swanning around the Italian Lakes, enjoying a honeymoon and taking a well-earned break. The food was awesome (more on that to come later), but Beer was sadly lacking. Despite being in the North, we simply didn’t have enough time to take in any brewery visits – however, I must stress that this was not really the point of the visit. I did, however, manage to try a couple of tasty morsels in amongst that gallons of wine and Weizen (It’s that or Nastro Azzuro) that I’ve consumed in the last three weeks.
I’m sure that if you’re reading this, you’ll have developed “The Eye” – an ability to walk into a beer aisle, or bar, and within seconds targeting an alien beer label or pump clip; the ultimate target – the one you haven’t had. Terminators have a similar function, but they use it to sort out the random public and Sarah/John Connor before blasting them into next week with high-powered weaponry.
As a result, I’ve managed to pick up new beer in Garden Centres, Garage forecourts, gift shops and even Theatres. In Venice, I found a bottle of Birra Dolomiti (4.9%) nestling away amongst waffle cones in a Gelato stand. Odd, but what the hell. Despite being advertised ‘Pils’, it was in fact more of an Amber Lager – sweet, with a grainy, caramel & boiled sweet body, with a floral hoppiness in the nose. It was little too sweet for me personally - but after a few days of lagers, drinking something with a little body and hop aroma was manna from heaven. And the Pistachio Gelato was excellent, too.

Terminator-Eye ('cos that’s what I’m calling it from now on) also came in handy in Florence, where a coffee shop (and a damn charming one at that) was selling bottles of 32 Via Dei Birrai’s Audace (8.4%). One was duly bought and taken home, where I enjoyed it with lunch the next day back on the terrace. Apricot-colored and with a billowing head, there was a familiar bretty/spicy nose one would expected from a top-fermented Blonde. The taste, however, was much fruitier and lighter than I expected – long, smooth, and packed with citrus peels and peaches, leading to a honeyed, sweet finish. A ridiculously easy-going beer, packed with flavour. Gimme more. In fact, I was so taken by this, I didn't take any pictures. Hence the web-shot. Apologies.

The nearest village to where we were staying was Bardolino, a pretty, typically lakeside village enshrouded in Vineyards. We’d explored the place a few times before hitting upon Asso Bar (stop sniggering at the back – it translates as ‘Ace Bar’), which set itself apart by offering an excellent array of Belgian beers. Given all the Osterias we’d been drinking in, this was a refreshing change of pace. Knowing our schedule I’d given up hope of trying any more decent Italian beer by this point, but this all changed when I got speaking to Christian, the owner of the bar. He knew what I was getting at the second I ordered a beer and asked where all the Italian Craft beers were.

We had a chat about beer quality, relationships with brewers in both Belgium and Italy, and stocking what they want to stock versus what they can actually sell (I’m sure the likes of Zak and Matt could probably attest to that, working in the industry and all). I bought some beers from a Benedictine Monastery based near Milan (for a decent insight to the monastery itself, see here) with his recommendation. Finally, he dug out a bottle of Baladin Open and insisted that I take it away – with his blessing. Beer really does bring out the best in people. The encounter gave me a warm glow for the rest of the day.

The Cascinazza Monastery currently produces an Amber (6.4%) and a Bruin beer, and both were really pleasant. The Amber was on the dark side, with plenty of dried apricot on the nose. Livelier than the Audace, it had a much spicier taste to it, despite again being fairly easy to drink for its strength. The tobacco-coloured Bruin (8%) packed in much more flavour; sultanas and raisin on the nose with a touch of vanilla, a full, rounded body with not much bitterness. We drank this with a selection of cured meats and it was perfect – enough body to stand up to the food. Despite both being quite lively carbonation-wise, I thoroughly enjoyed both beers.

The Baladin Open (7.5%) was something else though – man, what a beer. Golden-hued, with a thick, creamy head, the nose is pure tropical fruits and Lychee. Hints of Strawberry ripple through it, and the body is packed with the sort of juicy malts to balance everything out. Smooth & refreshing, this was without a doubt one of the best beers I’ve tried yet – a sort of quasi-IPA, I guess, with one of the best aroma profiles I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The fact that it was a gift from a stranger makes it all the sweeter.
Grazie, Christian!


Rob Derbyshire said...

I too spent my honeymoon in Italy visiting Lake Garda and Venice. Sadly I wasn't really up on Italian craft beer at the time but weren't in places you be likely to find them.

I mainly drank as many lagers and Greman wheat beer I'd never seen before. They are perfect styles of beer to enjoy in the blazing hot Italian sun in July.

Leigh said...

To be honest Rob, with the amount of German tourists knocking about, there was decent amount of Weizen and Pilsners around, yes. Don't get me wrong - these beers in the post were hard to find.

Simon O'Hare said...

I agree, Open is a really good beer. So fresh and moreish. And as you say, must've been even more special when given by a stranger on your honeymoon! Congrats

ZakAvery said...

Sometimes it's good to just go away and drink whatever is offered, rather than behaving like a beer bastard for the whole trip.

Baladin Open has a good story behind it - the concept was that it would be the world's first open-source beer, with the recipe published and competitions held to see who could make the best version of it. Sadly, this idea never got beyond concept stage.

Leigh said...

Zak - didnt' know that, but know you've said it , it rings a bell. What a shame it didn't fly. Nice concept...