Tastings School - Italy & Spain: A brave new world

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Italy & Spain: A brave new world

Italy and Spain might be best known for wine, or for cold lagers suitable for quenching a Mediterranean thirst, but there's a lot more going on. Adrian Tierney-Jones reports.

A glass of San Miguel and a bag of chips please. Or maybe a bottle of Peroni to go with the pizza… Oh and do you have any ketchup? Until recently that was the lot of the intrepid beer traveller, whether baking beneath the Iberian sun or recreating the conditions of the Italian Grand Tour by stumbling through Roman ruins. However, as any historian worth their salt will tell you, times change and with a little persistence there are beery pleasures and treasures to be found in Italy and Spain.

For instance, if you were in the area of Como 20 years ago and standing in a bar like the one I am currently very much at home in, chances are you wouldn’t be cradling a cool glass of one of the most magnificent pilsners in Europe. This is Tipopils: a bright fragrant note mingles with a darker hop pungency on the nose, while on the palate it is clean and refreshing and expansive in the finish. Meanwhile, pigs would have been floating past in their Sunday best, before you would have been served a glass of the creamy, fruity and fragrantly hoppy Bibock. These are glorious beers, produced by Birrifico Italiano, a brewery whose nerve centre is this Swiss-looking tavern in Lurago Marinone, south of Como.

Twenty years ago, the brewery’s creator and leading light Agostino Arioli also found Italian beers wanting, though it wouldn’t be until 1996 that he started Birrifico Italiano. “I was born in Milan, but I spent my youth in this area,” says this passionate pilgrim of pilsner. “I wanted to set up this brewery because it was my dream. I was a beer drinker; we used to go round the pubs in Como where there were two or three interesting places.

“I remember Courage Bitter as a very good beer, plus Bulldog and other English and German beers. We were always looking for new beers. I’ve also always had a passion to craft things on my own.

“When I started it was quite difficult, there were no suppliers for raw materials. My father knew a man working in the brewing industry and I was given certain supplies – at the time I was using bakers’ yeast, which wasn’t that good. People in the industry helped. We were looking for somewhere to put a brewery and we were told about this old building, which was the house of a cooperative where wine used to be made.” Arioli is fast becoming an international man of beer. Last year he was one of the speakers at a seminar on lager organised by the British Guild of Beer Writers at Thornbridge Hall, home of the eponymous brewery; over in the United States he has taken part in a collaborative brew with Tomme Arthur of Russian River. Meanwhile, fellow Italian Stephano Cossi, brewer at Thornbridge, has worked with him to produce a barley wine that will spend a year slumbering in wood.

Activities like these are the culmination of the past few years’ massive explosion of craft brewing talent in Italy, where beer usually used to mean yet another version of continental lager, albeit branded with a bit of style and sophistication. To be fair, Moretti’s La Rossa is a half-decent bock style beer, a glass of which I once had with my lunch in a supermarket in Piacenza (how civilised – I can’t quite see Adnams Broadside being served in a Tesco café).

However, the current Italian brewing buzz has seen dozens of craft brewers setting up their stalls all over the peninsula – from Milan to Venice to Rome and beyond, and even Sardinia where Toccadibò from Barley warms many a local beer-lovers’ heart. Many of these newcomers to the mash are influenced by the brewing heritage of Belgium and (especially in the north) Germany, but they are also motivated by what has been happening in the US.

Hops hold no fear, though last time I visited the Bi-Du brewpub near the Swiss border, its founder and brewer, Che Guevera lookalike Beppe Vento, wasn’t using American ones for political reasons. There are beers flavoured with tobacco, cherries or honey; beers that are barrel-aged and spontaneously fermented; there are even attempts at Franconian Rauchbier.

You only have to visit the shabby chic Lambrate Bar in Milan to see and taste the fruits of this revolution – trendy types, glowering with just a hint of punkish edginess, the kind of drinkers that British breweries would give their eye teeth to attract, bulldoze their way through an impressive range of artisanal beers with bumps and folds and lots of rough edges and corners.

They are brewed out round the back, off a courtyard that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fellini film. And they are absurdly delicious.

Star of the contemporary Italian job has to be Teo Musso of Le Baladin, a name that encompasses not only a brewery, but a bar, restaurant and even a swanky, sensuous hotel – all hidden away in a small village high up in Barolo wine country, south west of Milan. Musso is a man spoken of with reverence – depending on whom you speak with he’s either the Jim Morrison or a Renaissance man of beer. This is despite the fact some of his ideas seem just plain bonkers.

For instance, specially commissioned music is played to beers as they slumber in their fermentation – if Mozart is thought good enough for babies unaware of the canon of Western music, why not yeast cells; after all, argues Musso, they are also alive. On the other hand, to drink beers such as the myrrh flavoured Nora or the aged Xyauyu, which has been left all alone, oxidised and taken on a second life, is to experience beery nirvana. “I don’t get bored,” he says. “I’m like a volcano spewing out new ideas. I could never be a wine producer because I can only expect to be creative once a year, while in beer I can be creative all the time.” Spain, another country where wine has always had the edge on beer, also delivers a selection of beery surprises, though it has yet to undergo the Italian revolution. There are a handful of brewpubs in cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Seville (the latter features La Fabrica, where you can have your own beer tap at the table).

Isabel Eizmendi, international business manager at brewing giants Mahou-San Miguel, tells me that she cannot think of any microbreweries in Spain (though several have emerged in the last couple of years). However, intriguingly, she goes on to say that some places have been known to adopt the regalia of brewpubs, but that they are really high-volume bars that use the duo-tank, a 2,000 litre unpasteurised beer cistern whose contents are delivered by big breweries. This makes one think of the tank pubs in the Czech Republic, though the sleight of hand is also reminiscent of the once common practice among British pubs that seemingly served beer from wooden casks behind the bar; they were actually empty and beer was drawn up from the cellar.

Then there are a handful of long-standing independent breweries such as La Zaragozana, who also contract-brew a full-bodied, full-blown golden Munchen lager for Moritz (this company has its roots in the 19th century, though it stopped brewing 30 years ago). Vans branded with the beer’s name are a common sight in Barcelona, though this is a city usually associated with Estrella Damm. On the northern outskirts, you will find the Damm brewery, whose mainstay is the aforementioned Estrella, a refreshing if unremarkable lager that vies for bar space in the city with the ubiquitous San Miguel (whose parent company is in the Philippines).

The company also produces Bock Damm, all coffee and chocolate flavours and aromas, though a little thin on the body – despite the name it has more in common with a Munich Dunkel than a bock. More enjoyable and interesting is Voll Damm – an amber-coloured strong (7.2%) variation on the pale bock style.

Other Spanish macro-brews can taste pretty good. At a bar in the Asturian city of Gijon, I once spent a Friday afternoon in contemplation of draught Mahou Negra — a creamy dark beer that perversely made the sunny day even sunnier. Even though there is not a strong tradition of dark beers in Spain, several breweries produce them. Another one comes from Grenada’s Alhambra Brewery, a toasty Negra with hints of liquorice on the palate. However, forget all ideas of Spanish stouts though: in Spain dark beers are seen as an alternative to the golden lagers that dominate the mass market. They are closer to Munich Dunkels, with roast malt featuring in the mix.

However, if you fancy a stout in this part of the world, that doesn’t have an Hibernian connection (whether you’re walking down the Ramblas or hanging out in Ronda, chances are that you can get a Guinness or even a Boddington’s if you are that way inclined), then make for Barca brewpub, Cervesera Artesana. This is a comfortable bar, hidden down a side street, not far from Diagonal metro station. There are Belgian beers on tap, but there is also the choice of some house beers; through a glass panel you glimpse that common stainless steel sight of a brewpub, the same whether you are in Seattle or Singapore.

On the evening I visited the Iberian Stout was the best of the four on show. This beer is a gorgeous, roasty, full-bodied creature that was eminently refreshing and complex. Brewer Olaf Marti recommended it be served with grilled calamari, which sounded very sensible.

The other beers – one flavoured with mint, another with honey and another straightforward pale ale – were unsophisticated and a little thin, but I was glad they were being produced.

Beer will never replace wine in Spain or Italy (no matter how hard Teo Musso tries), these are wine countries in the same way as those further north look to barley for its nourishment. However, beer remains an international currency and there is a growing curiosity and sense of adventure about beer, especially in Italy. San Miguel or Peroni are still the beers that many will handle when heading for the beach, but the likes of Le Baladin and Birrifico Italiano are changing perceptions. Meanwhile in Spain, you don’t always have to drink light, there are dark moments to savour and big is not necessarily always bad.

Recommended beers ITALY Bi-Du, Rodero (www.bi-du.it) Artigianale, 6.2% Creamy, herbal, spicy and hoppy; this is an ESB style beer that sings with Beppo Vento’s love of hops.

Birrifico Italiano, Lurago Marinone (www.birrificio.it) Extra Hop, 4.8% Fragrant hoppy pilsner with a pungent hoppiness alongside the bitter and herbal notes. Only available in November and February and served with a hop cone on the top of its foam. “I usually say to people that you should take the hop off, let it sink or push it into the beer,” says Arioli.

Le Baladin, Piozzo (www.birreria.com) Nora, 6.8% Named, as Musso dryly puts it, after the mother of his first child. Has ginger root and myrrh in the mix and is dry, spicy and very refreshing, with the myrrh catching at the back of the throat.

Birra Del Borgo, Borgorose (www.birradelborgo.it) Keto Reporter, 5.5% This is a dark mysterious looking beer that has had tobacco leaves used at one stage in the brewing process. Non-smokers needn’t worry as this infusion helps with the spicy, peppery notes of what is described as a porter.

Panil, Torrechiaro Barrique Sour, 8% Rodenbach comes to Parma for this sour, barrel-aged beer that some would regard as challenging and others worship.

SPAIN Cervezas Alhambra, Alhambra (www.cervezasalhambra.com) Alhambra Reserva 1925, 6.4% Caramel and toasted grain on the nose; the palate is grainy and slightly fiery with the alcoholic strength; bittersweet finish.

Alhambra Negra, 5.4% Dark Dunkel with crimson tints; caramel and hints of liquorice on the nose, while the palate has a lightly toasted character with more liquorice in the background.

Cervesera Artesana, Barcelona (www.lacervesera.net) Iberian Stout, 4.2% Dry roast barley, coffee beans and an herbal hop undercurrent on the nose. The palate has a charred, tarry bitterness, which is balanced by its chocolate and coffee bean softness.

Damm, Barcelona (www.damm.es) Voll Damm, 7.2% Bittersweet, smooth, well balanced and shorn of the harsh alcoholic edge that similar beers across Europe seem to be cursed with – Malta’s Farsons Brewery produce a 9% throat rasper XS for the Italian market.