I recently had the extreme good fortune of being able to take a trip to the region of Italy known as Tuscany, and, as is often the case when I find myself
awake in a foreign country, I took the opportunity to seek out some local booze.
As you may imagine, travelling in Italy there is a natural tendency toward the region’s world-class wines—and, indeed, few noon-hours passed during my vacation wherein I hadn’t already indulged in a glass of Vino Nobile from nearby Montepulciano, or a Brunello from nearby Montelcino, or a Chianti from nearby—anyway, you get the point: It would have been impossible for me not to get into some local wines and I did so freely and to excess and it was fucking great (and more on that at a later date).
However, as the name of this blog might make plain, I’m something of a fan of beer so, despite finding myself in the town of Pienza—population 2000—I made it my mission to seek out some local beer.
And I was extremely pleasantly surprised by what I did find—eventually. For as much as we lovers of alcoholic beverages like to tout the drinking habits of more “liberated” places like Europe where beer is frequently available at every corner store, the awareness of ultra-available alcohol for me tends to fuel a frustrating need to drink something decent. That is, with Heineken, Moretti, Budweiser, and myriad international lagers available anywhere you go, the urge to find a local beer with something a little more interesting going on becomes all the more urgent.
So it was that I ended up striking out at a handful of little bars and cantinas; repeatedly pointed toward the bland Moretti or Peroni as “the beer of Italy,” reaching new levels of craft beer evangelism by arguing in broken English/Italian the fact that Heineken now owns Moretti, and even being told flatly that local beer in Italy “does not exist.” However, craft beer does in fact exist in Italy. In fact, according to this article, “there are now more than 445 [breweries] challenging wine’s traditional dominance”, up from just seven 15 years ago.
So I persevered, determined to find some craft beer in this tiny, ancient town and, by some miracle, during an afternoon stroll, my wife, my mother, her partner, and I happened on a little bar called “Piccolo Mini Café” and I noted for the first time “Birra Artiginale” on the menu. I asked our server about the three beers listed here and when he explained that all three were offerings from a nearby brewer (“eez locala beer”), I nearly kissed him on the mouth.
The three beers were all from fledgling Montepulciano brewer Birifficio Olmaia, whom it seems (based on my conversations in Italy and some Googling) have been around for a few years, but seem to have actually been producing beer on a large scale for just a year or so (If anyone knows differently, or can translate this YouTube video I found from 2010 that features them, please let me know!). Anyway, they’re brewing a pilsner (“La 5”), an amber (“La 9”), and a stout (“BK”). The pilsner, it seems, is the only one yet available in single-serving-size 341ml bottles, though I was happy to try them in their wine-sized 750ml bottles too.
The pilsner, the first beer that I tried that day, was, to borrow from the Italian, fucking fantastico. From the bottle it poured a semi-translucent golden straw colour with a very decent fluffy head. The aroma was all the crisp florals you’d expect from a pilsner but with a little bitterness and the taste echoed the aroma with a floral and sweet flavour and a perfect little bit of hoppy bite that, after a few days of nothing but macro-lagers, threatened to make inappropriate things happen in my pants in the crowded piazza. Happening upon one of the larger-sized bottles of the pilsner two days later at yet another café, I confirmed that it wasn’t simply my jonesing for local beer that made this taste so good and in fact the beer really was that good and could hold up and remain easy to drink through a few additional pints. The beer is apparently unfiltered, unpasteurized and fermented in the bottle and is a reasonable 5.5% ABV.
“BK”, the stout (scurra), was equally impressive. From a 750ml bottle it poured a murky black with only some vague suggestions of dark chestnut and an excellent ring of taupe head. Again, I’d like to think it’s not just because my access to “stout” had thus far been limited to Guiness in the bottle (yecch), but this was a remarkably good stout.
It had notes of toasted malts and some subtle coffee and chocolate but was kept light with a little hop presence. It too was unfiltered and unpasterized and even with 6% ABV, was surprisingly smooth. There was a little bitter after taste, but nothing unpleasant, even after having the entire contents of the wine-sized bottle.
Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to try the amber by the time we moved on from the town of Pienza and the Piccolo Mini Café, so I’ll simply offer the tasting notes from the company’s website, translated by Google:
“Amber with orange highlights. Foam fine, compact, very persistent. English nose, with a nice hint of bitter orange peel and caramel. Taste is very complex, dominated by the same feelings of bitter orange that are perceived by the nose. A beer well balanced between the sweet scents of caramel and bitter ones of the finale.”
Sounds almost poetic, doesn’t it?
Anyway, my love affair with this brewery continued unexpectedly a few days later when, visiting the winery Salcheto, recommended to us as one of the best in the region, I happened to note some barrels in their cellar labeled “Birra.” Thinking perhaps the winemakers were experimenting with a little brewing I inquired and was pleased to discover that my new favourite Italian brewer was actually doing a collaborative brew with their local winery. Yes, after only a short time in operation and in a region that seemed virtually devoid of a craft-brewing scene, the brewers from L’Olmaia were doing an experimental brew—aging their stout in the American oak barrels that wine-maker Salcheto uses to age their sangiovese-grape blend of Vino Nobile. And—beer boner!—it was for sale in 750ml bottles right upstairs at the winery. Molto bene!
While I knew I had to bring some home for a special occasion, in the interest of journalistic integrity I also bought a bottle just to crack on the balcony of our hotel the very next day. The aging in used sangiovese barrels gave the beer (which they call “La BK del Salco”) an extremely potent aroma. In fact, most of the aroma notes of the stout were gone and were replaced with the not unpleasant smell of oaky, dark fruits. Also gone was any suggestion of brown colours and the BK poured an inky black with a fat taupe head, good lacing and remarkably good carbonation. Curiously, the wine, which is notable for big, bold fruits and oaky undertones, tends to give this stout a sour taste—which is not a bad thing. The roasted flavours of the malts in the stout pair interestingly with a sort of sweet and sour taste that tends to bring out the taste of the alcohol (6%) and there is a nice, bitter, coffee finish.
This too was a very good beer, but when I do open the second bottle I purchased, after some careful aging somewhere dark and secret, I’ll be sure to have someone around to share it with. The sour and somewhat bitter taste imbued by the wine-barrel aging make this a beeer I’d be unlikely to drink more than two of in one sitting.
Generally though, given success of their pilsner and stout and the philosophy they’re showing toward experimentation and collaboration, this brewery shows a lot of promise for the future and seems to be a good indication of the massive potential for Italy’s craft brewing industry. When you consider the quick progress they’ve made and the fact that I’ve yet to try their amber, L’Olmaia has given me more than enough excuse to return to Italy next year, as if I needed any.
*As an aside, the close of my trip included a few days in Rome, where it should be said there is a growing interest in Birra Artiginale. The city is home to a handful of good beer bars and I was able to pick up some interesting local beers at the supermarket, too. For a little more info on the growth of craft beer in Italy, take a look at this Guardian article from last year.