Italian beer making a splash in Philadelphia

Giovanni Campari, brewmaster of Italys Del Ducato, raises a glass of Belgian Oud Beersel at Alla Spina. Beer-making, he says, is my way to express myself. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Giovanni Campari, brewmaster of Italys Del Ducato, raises a glass of Belgian Oud Beersel at Alla Spina. Beer-making, he says, is my way to express myself. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 10, 2012

The word birrificio may not yet quite roll off the tongue.

But if Philadelphians continue to plunge into the exotic new beers that have recently begun appearing here from Tuscany, Piedmont, and Emiglia-Romagna, brewed with everything from chestnuts to barbera grapes, chinotto peel and myrrh, the Italian word for brewery should become a familiar one, indeed.

The unfamiliarity is understandable. In a country better known for vino like Chianti and Barolo, the craft-beer industry is still in its infancy, dating only to 1996, when Teo Musso and Agostino Arioli opened their pioneering breweries in Piedmont, Birreria Le Baladin and Birrificio Italiano, respectively. Since then, however, there has been an explosion of growth from about 20 breweries in 2002 to more than 450 today, according to Matthias Neidhart of importer B. United International. It is in many ways a movement inspired by America’s own beer renaissance, but has taken on a distinctive Italian spin, rooted in bold, inventive styles and in a concerted effort to make beers that pair with food.

“We have no beer tradition, which can be hard for marketing,” says Giovanni Campari, 34, the brewmaster and co-owner of five-year-old Birrificio Del Ducato in Parma. “On the other hand, we have not gotten stuck in tradition, either. So we are free to experiment.”

And he’s not kidding. Campari’s Verdi Imperial Stout uses the subtle heat of Calabrian chile peppers to add a little sparkle to the chocolaty richness of the dark beer. Lightly roasted coffee beans (“we are, after all, a coffee culture!”) adds both tastiness and acidity to the brown ale of Caffe Baracco. His Nuova Mattina is a saison-style brewed with ginger, coriander, green peppercorns, lemon balm, and chamomile, an incredibly refreshing brew inspired in equal parts by the Bob Dylan song “New Morning” and his brew-poetic rendition of a fragrant spring field.

“Beer-making is my way to express myself,” says Campari, before heading off to a tasting at Alla Spina, the new Marc Vetri gastropub, with 20 taps and a long Italian beer list, that has quickly become a focal point for the new imports, as well as a destination for visiting brewers.

“As soon as we were able to get our hands on Italian craft beers at this level, we did,” says Steve Wildy, beverage manager of the Vetri group, who began several years ago pairing the first trickle of available beers with tasting menus at the flagship restaurant. He became even more enthusiastic about the possibilities for food pairings after a reconnaissance trip to Rome for Amis. “You can drink these throughout a meal. And you’re a little more likely with Italian beers to find an ‘Ah-hah!’ pairing than with [hops-centric] U.S. or German beers.”

Tria, a. Kitchen, the Farmers' Cabinet, Birra, Stella, and In Riva are among the many other local restaurants that have embraced Italians on their beer list, despite high prices — due to onerous Italian taxes, high production costs, and lack of cost-effective infrastructure — that can make some of these bottles prohibitive, ranging from $8 to $28.

“It’s still in the novelty phase,” says Michael McCaulley, wine director at Tria, which was one of the first Philadelphia bars to serve them. “We’ve had a Birra del Borgo barley wine for $28 that wears its 16 percent alcohol really well and has this cool sour note to it. But how many of those are you going to drink? It’s usually four beer geeks sitting around who want to split a bottle like that.”

More exposure, though, and a spate of recent visits from Italian brewers, has gone a long way to helping Philadelphians understand what goes into these unusual brews. Plus, says Wildy, “the brewers all look like indie rock stars.”

“I may look flamboyant,” concedes Iacopo Lenci, the vividly tattooed and thickly bearded brewmaster-owner of Birrificio Bruton in Tuscany, who could be seen striding up Broad Street recently under several pounds of heavy chains and clanging jewelry. “But I want my beers to be gentle, smooth, elegant.”

And his beers — seriously pricey, large-format bottles — are true to his aim. Brewed with some unusual ingredients (like native Tuscan spelt, which lends a creaminess to the witbier profile of the Bianca) or high alcohol levels (like the deep caramel and licorice-tasting “10” barley wine), they still exhibit remarkable delicacy and balance.

Lenci, 28, in many ways embodies the new generation of Italian craft brewing. The son of a winemaker, Agostino Lenci of Fattoria di Magliano (who, coincidentally, was in town for a wine dinner the same night at Sbraga), Lenci’s beercraft breaks from the Italian wine tradition, but also embraces its food-friendly aesthetic.

“I’m the black sheep of the family,” he says with a grin. “But I would never think about not making beers to pair with food. I’m born to do that. It’s in my Italian DNA.”

The prevailing result is that Italian brewers shy away from the tongue-stripping hops that have become fashionable with American “extreme beer” styles, which Wildy says is “tricky” to pair with food. It has spurred creativity instead of stifled it, as brewers turn to other spices to lend balance and flavors.

“One of the reasons I love these beers is because they’re in experimental mode,” says McCaulley. “The Italians are masters at seasoning beers.”

The use of resinous myrrh in Baladin’s signature brew, Nora, is a prime example that Wildy says lends a piney aroma that’s not as floral as hops. The Ligurian brewer Piccolo Birrificio adds juniper and chinotto peel to its Italian-style saison, Seson, replacing the bitterness of hops with an ingredient more commonly found in Italian bitter cordials such as Campari or Amaro. Even more intriguing, perhaps, are the numerous beers that blend wine- and beer-making (and spirit) techniques into the same bottle, as with the sour and funky BeerBera, a spontaneously fermented ale made with barbera grapes from Birrificio LoverBeer, which ages it in oak barrels, the tannins from which give it extra aging potential.

“This is really a new category,” says Neidhart, referring to a similar beer, Dolii Raptor from Montegioco. “It’s not beer, it’s not wine, it’s not a spirit, but it’s a new kind of alcoholic beverage that draws dimensions from all three categories.”

And though the brewing techniques are largely informed by the Belgian tradition (with some German influence, too), Neidhart says the Italians approach the character of their new passion with a distinctly national flair, rooted much like its cuisine in specific regional flavors and ingredients, from the chestnuts of the north to the herbs and grapes of Sardinia.

Of course, educating a nation of wine drinkers to appreciate such inventive beers is a tall challenge that will take time — which explains why so many Italian brewers have been making the rounds, selling as much as 30 percent of their production for export to savvier markets.

“We Europeans are not very open-minded like you are — especially in Italy, where most people have never tasted an imperial stout,” says Campari. “So we are proud to come and sell our beer here in the U.S., where we can meet people who really appreciate what we do.”

At the pace those beers are landing in local bars, it shouldn’t be long before thirsty Philadelphians have it down: Birrificio? Bravo!

Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.

Beer tasting notes

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