Mr Toad's Wild Italian Brewery Ride
Note: post cleaned up slightly. (iPhones are hard.)
I have been in Italy 26 hours and have visited two breweries in two towns and am now at location three, ready for a morning chat with Teo Musso at Baladin. I did Lambrate no justice last night, and I worry that that's going to be par for the course. Let's see if we can't do a little remedial work.
Italian craft brewing started in the relatively recent year of 1996, when five different enterprising spirits started breweries--including Lambrate (and Baladin, too). It was a modest joint venture of three friends which later grew to five, starting with a 1.5 hecto system (that's a barrel and change--glorified home-brewing). They put the brewery in a bustling part of Milano called Lambrate, and next to the brewery was a gorgeous little pub.
Over the years, the system went in increments to 5, 10, and its current size of 20 hectos. They moved the brewery out of the pub and into a neighboring space. Following this pattern, every time they grew, they found another chunk of space in one of the buildings. Now it's a honeycomb with the malt room here, the brewery there, the office upstairs, the lab down the way. (The rooms are joined by courtyards, which makes the whole thing actually *look* charming as hell--though probably the brewers curse.)
They make American inflected ales and lagers that are fruitier and stronger than their northern neighbors (except the helles, which is very much in the Fort George 1811 mode--in other words, not a helles). America has a substantial influence here, not just in hop varieties, but intensity. (America, which came to craft brewing long after we'd lost the memory of characterful diversity, is analogous. There's no "Italian" style of beer and no customer expectation, so they can just follow their bliss.)
The final piece is that from the start, the folks behind Lambrate wanted their beer to be drunk with food. Their little pub couldn't really meet that goal, so last year they opened a restaurant where the beer and food can be showcased. The beers came first, so the chefs have to build the menu around them.
There were some real standout beers. My favorite was Gaina (guy EEN ah, I think), a pale ale that used American hops to create the fruitiest, non-fruit beer I ever had. Strawberries and apricots, but they fade into more recognizable hoppy bitterness at the swallow. They do an imperial porter/stout made with smoke malt that is versatile with the menus (meat and porcini mushrooms dance with it gracefully). The helles, too, is a fantastic session.
From Milano, I drove toward Marentino to the southwest (near Torino), skirting the spine of the Alps. (The green rolling plains look, at a distance, like West Bengal and the white Alps, which shoot up vertically, like the blade of a serrated knife, look positively Himalayan. Stunning.) Morentino is less a town than a slightly more congested part of the countryside, and LoverBeer is tucked into a house along a row looking out over grape yards.
But inside that house, Loverier (from which the brewery takes its un-Italian name) is making wild ales, including one with a very Italian provenance. It's called BeerBera, another play on words, and refers to Barbera grapes (which actually grow down the road 50 (?) kilometers, not across from it. The novelty is so obvious it seems like this should be more common: he inoculates his wort solely with fresh, yeast-covered grapes. And not just a few; they make up 30% of the sugars.
Loverier makes only soured beer. He invested in two substantial wooden fermenter/aging vessels (17 hectos) made by a cooper nearby who usually sells them to wineries. He has cultivated a native population of yeasts in there (all four--brett, pedio, lacto, and regular sachharomyces), and a lot of his beer spends some time on that wood picking up some character. But he also sometimes pitches regular yeast first or, in one case, uses wild yeasts from Wyeast. (Obviously, I immediately pointed out it was from Oregon.)
His range includes an amber, a non-spontaneous version with Barbera grapes, an Oud bruin, and one of my favorites, a fantastic sour made with local wild plums (golf-ball-sized). They have such a short window of ripeness that you actually have to pick them off the ground. It captures the ripe aromas and flavors so well I think I would recognize the fruit if I ever found a fresh one rolling away from a tree.
All his beers are characterized by a light tartness--even though none spend less than several months ripening (a three-year vintage is in the works; 16 months or thereabouts is typical). The BeerBera is amazingly wine-like, though the varietal is specific and unfamiliar to me. Halfway between satsuma and strawberry. Absolutely unlike any beer I've tasted.
I was hugely impressed with what Valter was doing. His beers definitely achieves a character that puts his beers among the most accomplished in the world. (He's been experimenting with wild yeasts a decade, but the brewery was only founded in 2009.)
The business model is a work in progress. Sixty percent of the beers come the the US (though not to Oregon that I've seen)--but on his ten hecto set-up and with the huge aging time, he can't be making even 500 hl a year (I stupidly forgot to ask) His wife, the money part of the business, confessed that they see back less than five bucks on a $20 bottle. But obviously, as long as they're committed to this kind of beer, they have to sell it for a premium. (Wish I had some scintillating advice for them.)
After I left Valter, headed further south to gorgeous little Piozzo, and after that I'm off to Bussetto to see Birricio del Ducato. The sprint continues....