Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sometimes, when you’re onto something, destiny rolls you winners.

We had missed our train. Our interview with Fabio, owner of Italian craft beer’s hot spots Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa and Bir e Fud in Trastevere, had gone longer than we had expected. We walked to the cabstand at the foot of Sesto Ponte. As we approached the first cab, to my surprise, I heard my name called.

“Bryan! Hey, Bryan!” It was Alessandro, our cab driver from the night before. We jumped in his cab. 
Alessandro turned around to look at us. “I don’t believe it!” He said. “What are the odds? There are over 800,000 cabs in the city of Rome.”

The previous night.

We had reached our physical limits. Our bodies were sore, our eyes heavy, our minds numb. We were on our sixth day of our grueling trip, one that was filled with unlimited enthusiasm. We rolled through Italy from Milano to Rome. We had more than fulfilled our expectations to meet and interview many of the players in the Italian craft beer movement.

Tonight was no exception. We had been invited by Leonardo Di Vincenzo, the brewer of Del Borgo, to his famous beer bar in Rome, Open Baladin for a beer tasting of Extraomnes.

But now sitting in the cab, we found it difficult to keep our eyes open. Paul had lost the battle; he was down for the count. I made small talk with the driver to keep myself awake. But it was no easy task with a full belly of beer and exceptional food.

Gabriele Bonci, one of Italy’s top chefs and perhaps the world’s greatest pizza maker, was the featured chef. Rabbit cooked so tender and succulent it was hard to believe it was just rabbit. A chickpea soup with tripe in a broth light and so flavorful you hoped it never ended. He baked a bun for a chicken sandwich with fresh mushrooms integrated into the dough. We had bunet, a Piedmont chocolate terrine, for desert paired with the famous Xyauyu` from Baladin.

Chef Bonci was gracious and courteous with his time. Even with so much to do, he spoke with us. It was humbling, as much of the trip had been.

But in the cab, I fought on.

“How is it that you speak Italian,” the cabby asked.

“I grew up here. My mother’s from Rome. Via Giulia.”

“Ah, Romana de Roma!” A roman expression which means, a true roman from the heart of the Eternal City, not one from the suburbs.

Si, I grew up in Ostienze.”

“You’re friend,” the cabby said, “He’s very tired.”

“My friend,” I said, “Is very asleep.”

Paul’s head hung from his neck like a wet sock. I envied him so much. He had begun to snore. I could only imagine what he was dreaming.

As we cruised along, the friendly cab driver asked where we lived.

“Denver,” I said.

“Ah, and what brings you to Rome?”

“We are writing a book about the Italian craft beer movement.”

“I have a childhood friend,” he said, “who’s very much into the beer movement.”

“Oh yeah, what’s his name,” I asked.

“Gabriele Bonci,” he said, “Have you ever heard of him?”

“Heard of him, we just met him tonight.”

Alessandro and I spoke the entire 40 minute ride, blown away by the odds.

1 in 800,000—twice

It all just seemed so surreal as Alessandro spoke to his boyhood friend, Gabriele Bonci, on his cell phone.

“No, it’s not a joke,” He was insisting. “No, it’s the two Americans writing the Italian beer book. Yes, the ones I picked up the other day. I know! I will tell them. Ciao.”

Alessandro turned around again. “Bonci thought I was joking. Eight-hundred thousand cabs in this city, and I pick you up twice—what are the odds?”

I don’t know, Alessandro. But we’ll catch you in May. I might bet on it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Barrels, barrels and more barrels

Nearly every brewery we visited had some barrels. None had vast numbers of them, but considering their local consumers don't really care for sour or barrel-aged beer it was interesting the brewers were doing it anyway. Those barrels take up space, time and capital, so there must be something else at work. Perhaps some of their efforts are in response to markets outside of their's, but I think it speaks to the collective interest in trying new things and using what's available locally. Of course, there's no shortage of barrels in Italy.

Birra Del Borgo


Birrificio Del Ducato


Birrifico Italiano

While these programs are currently small they are sure to grow. Birrificio Italiano has just a few barrels now, but they have added space at their new brewery to do more experimentation with barrels.

At Toccalmatto we had the opportunity to sample a nice, dry, tart sour stout straight from the barrel. Bruno's program is also small, but we know he's looking toward the future and a new, larger brewery might have a considerably expanded program.

Del Ducato may have one of the more aggressive barrel programs of the breweries we visited, Panil aside. They are currently bottling a few and are sure to expand at their new facility.

Panil, of course, is entirely 100% barrel-aged beer. Everything they produce is sour and it is all exported. I think eventually the Italian beer drinker will catch up to this style and realize how refreshing they can be and how well they can pair with food, which is something an Italian more commonly looks for in a beer.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Under the Shadow of the Bell Tower, Part I

The two greatest challenges to the Italian Craft Beer movement are the Italian tax system and the regionalism known in Italian as Campanilismo or bell towerism.

Under the Shadow of the Bell Tower, Part I
by Bryan Jansing

Campanilismo is a term that expresses the intense Italian regionalism. Campanile in Italian means bell tower. Each town had its own church with its bell tower that sounded off not only the hour, but when farmers were to be out in the fields, when it was time to return for lunch, when it was time to end the day. The bell tower also marked when the town was in peril due to fire, or if there was an oncoming invader. The bell tower was in its time what our cell phones are today. You couldn’t imagine leaving your home without having your cell phone. Nor could you imagine in the serfdom times of Italy living without your bell tower.

The entire town and the larger close-knit communities in the area survived by way of their church bell towers. In turn, this came to represent you, your town, your community. Italians are in essence their bell towers. It’s a rare moment for an Italian to pronounce themselves ‘Italian’. In general, Italians introduce themselves as Romani, Vicentini, Milanesi if they’re from anywhere close to these major cities. Otherwise, they will refer to the province, Liguria, Lazio, Campania. Even deeper, an Italian might consider himself brethren not to other Italians so much, rather to the ancient Etruscans, Lombard or Romans before Italian.

This concept is a far cry from our American patriotism. True, we are proud of where we’re from, but even if you’re a Texan, you’re an American and will chant ‘USA, USA’ at any given event. Ever hear Italians chanting “Italia, Italia” at a regional game? Not likely. The only time you will hear an Italian chant Italia is perhaps at the World Cup. But even then, they’ll be rooting for a player from their home town.    

This also gives way to another Italian issue, one of mistrust and the lack of willingness to work together. Where here in the U.S. we have the American Brewer’s Association that is nationally strong, able to promote their members and lobby the government, the Italian brewer’s associations tend to be something more akin to clubs, rather than national associations. Therefore, they struggle to unite and to truly take on any of the larger breweries. But the mega-industrialized breweries of Moretti and Peroni aren’t really their Goliaths. It’s the Italian government that they must take on to survive and doing so regionally isn’t enough.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Panil - spontaneous fermentation

While taking a tour of the Panil brewery south of Parma, Italy we were shown these plastic barrels and garbage cans with beer fermenting in them. We couldn't believe it either. Open, spontaneous fermentation in garbage cans.

You can barely see it, but the beer was later transferred into the oak barrels at the top right of the picture for further aging and conditioning. The result is called Divina, which is subtle and delicious, garbage can or not.