Going for an Italian

Four years ago I was just a red-toothed wine vlogger at the dawn of my foray into the wild world of beer when I attended the very first European Beer Bloggers Conference here in London.

It was an event that changed the path I was on and gave me the opportunity to meet and connect with so many wonderful folks who I call friends today (also produced this rather fun video of the 2-day event). As you might expect I tasted some mind expanding beers from the UK, US, Sweden and even an introduction to Italy’s Birra Artigianale through the excellent Toccalmatto and Birrificio.

Now since then we’ve seen a massive increase in the number UK brewers, a huge influx of US imports (even a good few from Sweden) but somehow Italian craft beer remains as elusive and exotic as it was back then.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 09.14.00Part of the problem surprisingly had nothing to do with a lack of good beer explained beer sommelier Jacopo Mazzeo last October at a lunch hosted by specialist importer Beers from Italy at Tozi restaurant in Victoria.

IMG_6564The Azuurri birra revolution can actually be traced as far back as the mid 90’s with Teo Musso’s passion for Belgian beers leading him to start Birra Balladin which many see as setting things in motion. From there beer guru and sensory analyst Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove inspired a wine-dominated culture including a teenage Jacopo, that there was more to beer than the big 2 or 3 brands. The two men also collaborated to create TeKuseen by many as the ultimate beer tasters glass. This much-heralded receptacle was what all the beers would be served in during our lunch.

At most recent count, there were more than 830 breweries stretching the length and breadth of the boot, yet those age-old barriers of high taxes and punitive duty are preventing them from finding a foothold (sorry couldn’t resist) in more shops, bars and restaurants here in the UK.

The focus of the lunch was on food and beer matching and starred Abruzzo’s Microbirrificio Opperbacco whose wide range of styles gave my palate a real run for its money. Run by Luigi Recchiuti who turned his back on a degree in agricultural science, to brew beers from converted stable on his father’s farmland amidst the olives, grapes and grains of Casarino di Notaresco (love the olives from there!).

IMG_6567IMG_6566After an introduction from our generous benefactors and some very informative background information from Jacopo, we started things off with 4 punto 7 (4.7% abv. 4 point 7 get it?) a fruity golden ale that exuded a dry floral perfume from the glass. Quite tart and dry to begin but mid palate it shone with pithy citrus, honeycomb and dry flowers. It was paired with a double-barreled aperitivo of delicious and unusual roast fennel, carrot, bean and spelt salad as well as deep fried calamari with lemon. The four point seven worked reasonably well with the salad though I felt it wasn’t the ideal match. It fared somewhat better with the calamari as the dryness cut through the oily crunchy batter.

IMG_6570IMG_6571The second course of crab ravioli with tomato and basil partnered a golden Saison that paid homage to the hippy 60’s. Tripping Flowers (6.3%) despite its name gave little way on the nose. I noted some dry hay and honey but it seemed a touch closed. My first sip was bracingly dry and herbal though finished fresh and clean. Going back, I noted sunflower seed, dried rose petal, wild turnip and some almond. I may have been a bit harsh but didn’t feel the match worked. Independently they were both tasty, but together?

IMG_6576IMG_6574Next was the cleverly named Eipiei (6.3%) which sang of orange zest, pine, caramel sponge and gingerbread. I enjoyed the wild Mediterranean herbs, bold resin etched flavours of roasted red pepper and the biting bitterness, and it had a beautiful balance to boot! As a retired sommelier, I was doubtful that an IPA could stand up to that most classic of Italian dishes, aubergine parmigiana. But the match was inspired. The bitterness coping with the acidic richness of the tomato sauce, the red pepper dancing along with the meaty aubergine and the savoury aspects of the beer going toe to toe with that most umami of foods; parmesan cheese. Going out on a bit of a limb it was probably my favourite, most memorable beer and food match in 2015.

It was around this point that starting to feel a little warm and fuzzy (those last two beers being up over 6%) and this being an Italian lunch we were only halfway into it. I must admit as a direct result, my note taking became mush more abstract.

IMG_6580Secondo was yet another two-pronged gastronomic gambit consisting of pork cheeks, cavolo nero and mash potato and a buffalo ricotta ravioli with fresh black truffle (spoiled!). Taking them on was L’una Rossa (6.4%), a red rye Saison with orange peel and coriander. Now on paper things looked good, certainly with the pork cheeks. The beer possessed tart red fruit, caramelised sugars and good full body. But what works in theory, doesn’t always in practice. L’una seemed to lack the depth to marry well with the pork and the earthiness to harmonise with the ravioli. Not a bad match but just not what I was hoping for. Sadly it worked even less well with the ricotta ravioli with the tangy flavours tussling quietly on my tongue. Oh well…

IMG_6583The main courses out of the way we were now on the home stretch with fromaggio up next and the creative naming from Opperbacco continued with an abbey style triple called Triplipa (7.8% Tripel IPA anyone?). Testun al Barolo is semi-hard pasteurised cheese made from alpine cow’s milk. Testun means hard headed and the Barolo refers that most famous Piedmont wine region and the dried Nebbiolo grapes that the cheese is crusted in. Triplipa on its own showed nice stone fruit aromas and was uber dry, yeasty yet refreshing on the palate. However, the highly complex Testun was too much for it. I felt a creamier soft cheese (minus the tannic grape crust) would have been a better option.

IMG_6591 IMG_6587Finalmente, it was dolce time and we were served a Tozi speciality of coffee and amaretto bonet; a dense delicious wintry treat, which is essentially a Piedmontese creme caramel. This was paired with Dieci e Lode, a dark strong (10% enough for you) Belgian-style Trappist ale. Looking like glorious mahogany tar as it was poured and forming a tight bundle of thick foam this beer offered much to the eye as it promised on the palate. Humming in the glass was the intoxicating scent of ripe fig, moist liquorice and winter spice. Then rich cocoa, espresso hints of black peppercorn and rum-soaked Christmas pudding fruits. It is beer truly worthy of its name (Full marks and honour). I loved the bonet and thought the match was good, but would have been very content with the Dieci all on its own.

And rest…

Three hours had passed since we sat down, but it had flown by. It was a great crowd (that included award-winning beer pals Des de Moor and Sophie Atherton) with lively debate and conversation whisking back and forth across the big table.

IMG_6575It may not have been a total success with a few of the pairings not quite working, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational afternoon. It is only in experimentation that we are able to make incredible discoveries and there was one at the very least with the Eipiei and aubergine parmigiana.

Saluti to Tozi for providing brilliant service and lovely food, the superb beers of Opperbacco, Jacopo for playing host and educator and of course, Beers from Italy for the invite and picking up the tab.

Here’s hoping that in time, Birra Artigianale is a language that we all speak a little better.

*Image of Jacopo Mazzeo courtesy of Arsenio M. Navarra