Tastings School - Birra! Birra! Birra!

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Birra! Birra! Birra!

Adrian Tierney-Jones takes a beer lover's tour of Milan, a great base to explore Italy's burgeoning beer scene.

If you want to make believe that you’ve never left the United Kingdom then Milan’s fake Brit-pub the Cambridge is the sort of place that you’ll feel right at home. Standing on the Piazzale Susa, to the east of the centre, this is a mocked-up version of what those who have never ventured beyond London’s West End imagine what the city’s pubs are like: wooden panelling covers the walls along with various brewery mirrors, the filled rolls have names like Arsenal, Wimbledon, Notting Hill and, er, Liverpool, while the array of keg beer fonts at the bar suggest a steam-punk, counter-factual version of history – this is what British bars might have looked like if cask beer had not experienced its 1970s revival.

Beers flowing from these taps include Guinness, Tetley’s Smooth, Tennant’s Super and Carlsberg’s sweet and strong pale bock Elephant. If this is the sort of thing you crave then there are several places of a similar ilk in Milan. However, Italy is experiencing a tremendously creative surge of activity in its craft-brewing sector and, although the Cambridge might be a good bet for a bit of a laugh, for serious beer-hunters this is not the place to be.

Travel a kilometre or so north to the Lambrate district (where the Mods’ vehicle of choice the Lambretta was manufactured) and you’re very much in the here and now at Birrificio Lambrate. Found down a side street this is a hip and happening bar, buzzing with conversation and loud but not deafening rock music. There’s a happy hour between 6-8pm though this doesn’t mean cheap beer, but a free buffet instead, which explains the students and edgy youths milling about the bar space.

The place is a mix between a Low Countries brown bar and an English hipsters’ pub. Here one of the stars of Italian craftbrewing is openly celebrated, and the fact that the mixed clientele are all drinking beer is a British brewing ad-man’s dream. Young men and women survey the taps, ask for information, and display beer style knowledge – no gimmicks needed here.

The bar is fronted by a brass font holding nine taps, all dispensing beer brewed in a former wood-crafting place, to be seen across a Fellini-esque courtyard at the back of the pub.

Peroni might be the most visible Italian brewery, but the country, especially in the north, is seething with dozens of craft breweries and brew pubs. Some of them like Lambrate, Italiano near Lake Como and the incomparable Teo Musso at Le Baladin are making worldshaking beers.

Birrificio Lambrate was set up in 1996 and the brewery followed soon afterwards.

Fabio Brocca is the brewer in this family set-up, a passionate advocate of his beers, which are also sold in several outlets in Milan and surrounding areas. As proud of his tattoos as of his beers, he confesses a love for bitter beers and lots of hops, something which is apparent in the 4.9% Montestella, a bittersweet, resiny hoppy pale ale with a dry and bitter finish – I am reminded of the robustly hoppy bière de garde Hommelpap from Brasserie Ferme-Beck.

There are eight regular Lambrate beers, with seasonal variations on a theme, including a spicy Christmas number.

“The Lambrate style is now our own style,” says Fabio, though Belgium and Bavaria also seem to influence him.

Other beers to contemplate include the chewy, bananary, slightly oily weissbier Domm (5%), the heady, sensuously fruity, hoppy cask beer Legera (4.6%), the sweetish, honeyed Abbey ale Bricola (8%) and the brewery’s unique take on a Rauchbier, Ghisa (5%). Named after the city’s traffic policemen, who wander around wearing white helmets modelled on a British copper’s headgear, this is a smoked beer that is served with the aid of nitrogen. It is very smoky and smooth on the palate with all sorts of complex fruit flavours coming through – the style of dispensation might raise eyebrows in some parts of the world but it seems to work here.

Lambrate was the first brewpub in Milan, and has since been joined by three others: Il Giardino della Birra, which also appeals to a young crowd, Q Beer and Zythum, where you can eat Brazilian or Japanese food alongside the beers.

Lambrate is the trail-blazer though, but to try out other Italian craft beers in the city take a trip to Hop, a small, cosy bar/restaurant opposite the historic Rotonda della Besana and still to the east of the city centre.

Like Lambrate, this also has a grungy, punk, bohemian aesthetic and at lunchtime it’s the sort of place where businessmen and students mix, drink beer and eat panini, gnocchi or pasta. It’s not surprising to discover that one of the coowners is Fabio’s wife, Sara Bedogni (another one for the tattoos). Beer posters dot the wall, while plain wooden tables and chairs are spread about. Minimalist is the word.

At the bar, there are eight beer taps and a chalkboard lists the beers for the day.

Five of Lambrate’s beers are available, but they are joined by the dry, smoky and bitter brown ale Jehol and luscious creamy porter Confine, both of which come from Bidu – this is a small brewpub high up in the hills above Milan, close to the Swiss border, and is run by Beppe Vento, a genial Che Guevara lookalike.

The eighth beer on the bar is the delicate and subtle witbier Isaac, which comes from Le Baladin, whose brewer/owner Teo Musso is the most exciting brewer in Italy. The brewery and its accompanying bar can be found to the southwest of Milan in the Barola wine region and cannot be recommended highly enough.

Musso, described as the Jim Morrison of craft brewing, is a restless, possibly eccentric, genius who plays specially commissioned music to his fermenting beers, while constantly dreaming up new beer recipes. To join him at the table at Le Baladin and listen to him talk beer is a positively evangelical experience.

Milan is also home to La Ratera, an ambitious beer restaurant in the northwestern suburbs. Even though it looks like a French brasserie it’s the fruits of the barley rather than the grape that are celebrated here. The eating space is upstairs, while downstairs there is plenty of room to listen to the background jazz or drink beers such as the magnificent northern Italian take on a pilsner from Birrifico Italiano. Tipopils is a flowery, hoppy and refreshing pilsner that is probably one of the best of the style I have ever tasted – the brewery and bar is up near Lake Como and an essential place to visit.

Other beers on display at La Ratera include the same brewery’s Bibock, Isaac and Belgian visitor La Chouffe. Upstairs though, where the food is served, there is a massive cabinet with an eye-watering display of both Italian craft beers and beers from across the world. Italiano’s magnificent bock Amber Shock is one of the favourites of owner Marco Rinalch and was presented with a cauliflower cream foam with mustard cress. The beer’s sweetness brought out the musty, cellarlike earthy complexity of the brassica; there was also a restrained sweetness in the dish that linked up with the beer’s malt sweetness. Harmony.

This is a restaurant where chef Salvatore Garofalo thinks about what he puts on the plate as well as in the glass. A selection of dishes matched Belgian Trappist superstar Achel with a moretta cheese salad, Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier with a risotto and fried mackerel fillets, Dupont’s earthy Bons Voeux with red mullet and finally an almond parfait with Traquair’s bonny bruiser of an ale, 900.

Milan is a stylish and passionate city to visit. The espressos are the best in the world, while there remains an anarchic edginess to it despite the plush shopping arcades – and with the glorious flowering of Italian craft breweries with its wave of fascinating beers Milan has become an essential beer journey.

Contact details
BIRRIFICIO LAMBRATE
Via Adelchi 5, Milan Tel: +39 (0)2 7063 8678
www.birrificiolambrate.com
THE CAMBRIDGE
Piazzale Susa 2, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 738 3265 Il
GIARDINO DELLA BIRRA
Via Ortica 10, Milan Tel: +39 (0)2 7000 4030
www.ilgiardinodellabirra.com
HOP
Viale Regina Margherita 11, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 5412 2690
MULLIGAN’S IRISH PUB
Despite its name it is recommended
for stocking Italian craft beer as well
as Guinness
Via Govone Giuseppe 28, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 345 1694
LA RATERA
Via Ratti, 22, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 4820 2932
www.laratera.it
Q BEER
Via Mecenate 76, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 5802 9230
www.q-beer.it
ZYTHUM
Via Rutilia 16, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 569 1616
www.zythum.it
A TUTTA BIRRA
Via Lazzaro Palazzi 15, Milan
Tel: +39 (0)2 201 165
www.atuttabirra.com
A visit to Milan is not complete without
having a look at the exceptional A Tutta
Birra, described as the best beer shop in
Italy – here bottles of many of the stars of
Italian craft brewing are on sale, alongside
European and US imports, plus glasses
and breweriana