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Sugar & Spice Everything Nice

TAPS Magazine | Spring 2009

This past February, I found myself standing in front of a booth at Pianeta Birra, the beer trade show in Rimini, Italy, sipping a light-bodied beer that tasted like fresh lemons. The beer in question was Birrificio Karma’s Lemon Ale and the brewer, Mario Cipriano, was explaining to me that this beer was a tribute to the Sorrento region, which is famous for its lemons… 

Cipriano’s beer was one of many unusual offerings that I had the opportunity to sample that week, having gone on a tour of over a dozen Italian craft breweries. As of February, there were 246 craft breweries in the country, and I knew of at least three more on the way. Each brewer has a distinctive philosophy. A number of brewpubs, for example Milan’s Birrificio Lambrate, include traditional English, Belgian and German styles in their beer portfolio. Others, instead, have chosen to use spices and various original flavourings to create beers that challenge the traditional perception of what a beer should taste like.

Cipriano, for example, combined lemon peels, orange peels and spices in order to achieve the fresh lemon flavour of Lemon Ale. He then used rye in the grain bill, as an accent. Cipriano explained to me that when he is creating a recipe, his departure point is usually an aromatic ingredient, in this case, lemons. He then builds the grain bill and chooses the other ingredients accordingly. The end result, in the Lemon Ale, is a light-bodied, refreshing beer with a rich lemon flavour that is neither sour nor sweet, with a warm peppery spice note in the background, and a dry finish.

Earlier on that week, I had visited Birrificio Citabiunda, in the province of Cuneo. As I made my way through the beer lineup, I began to suspect that brewer Marco Marengo was going through a citrus fruit phase. The first beer we sampled was Wit-inspired Bianca Neive, with a rich orange flavour that reminded me of Cointreau. Marenga’s Belgian Strong ale: Serpica, on the other hand, is flavoured with Lime and Ginger. Then there is the SensuAle, which defies description. Its flavour is a combination of sweet vinous notes and warm citrus. These flavours stem from the use of Champagne yeast as well as Cascade hops that are accented with the juice and peel of grapefruits. Although there was a slight bitterness in the finish, the flavours in this strong beer were rich and persistent.

SensuAle wasn’t the only beer I tried that week that uses grapefruits in combination with Cascade hops. In stark contrast to SensuAle, Birrificio Scarampola’s IPA (Italian Pale Ale) is bold and lively. Although IPA has an equally rich grapefruit flavour, it is fuller-bodied and has a bitter finish that combines hop bitterness and grapefruit peel. IPA was Scarampola brewer Maurizio Ghidetti Flibus’ first beer and he has spent a long time perfecting it. The other citrus beer Flibus makes is a Witbier in which he uses a local fruit: Chinotto di Savona, instead of the traditional Curacao peels. The resulting beer, called N.8, has a distinctive orange-like character with a slight acidity in the finish that dries out the mouth completely leaving only a faint, lingering orange flavour.

The Witbier (which Italian brewers refer to by its French name: Blanche) is a very popular style in Italy and a few of the brewers I met had concocted unique interpretations. Near the beginning of my travels, I came across Almond 22 brewery’s Blanche de Valerie. This wheat beer was complex, yet understated, blending the flavours of various grains, four different peppers, coriander and orange peel. Brewer Jurij Ferri paraphrased a Japanese philosophy to describe the idea behind his beers: Seven flowers make a new flower. Essentially, he likes to combine a variety of ingredients in order to achieve a news flavour; in the case of Blanche de Valerie, a light, elegant, complex beer with notes of lichee, orange blossom, pepper and grains.

Another beer Ferri and I sampled together was the Almond 22 Grand Cru. Although it did contain orange peels, it was the spice combination in Grand Cru that drew my attention. Ferri’s idea was to make a beer flavoured with curry spices. He used coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. At first, I wondered if the Grand Cru was perhaps too subtle for my palate, but after the rich caramel flavour and dry finish came a joyful burst of spices. Not so subtle, was Birrificio Troll’s Shangrila beer that I sampled a few days later. Shangrila is brewed with a mix of Himalayan spices. These spices are prominent in the flavour, and blend in nicely with the underlying flavour and intensity of this high-alcohol beer.

Another interesting flavouring ingredient I came across in Italian craft beer is flowers. In my weeklong visit, I came across three flower beers. The first was Baladin’s Lurisia 4, which is flavoured with rosebuds. It is a very delicate beer at 3.8% alcohol, with both the aroma and flavour of roses, accompanied by a slight spice in the finish. The second floral beer I came across was Birrificio Troll’s Dorina; a Pilsner brewed with the addition of lavender flowers. This beer was fuller-bodied but still refreshing with the lavender and hops blending to provide an aromatic, slightly peppery finish. The third beer was Birrificio Italiano’s Fleurette brewed with roses and violets. The flowers in this beer are complemented by the use of honey and elderberry juice, resulting in a lively aromatic flavour.

The various spices and flavouring ingredients that I came across in my week of travel are too many to mention. There was the Myrrh, in Birra Baladin ‘s Nora, the Tobacco, in Birra del Borgo’s Ke To Re Porter, salt in Bi-Du Brewpub’s SaltinMalto, there were also a large number of fruit beers, featuring anything from grapes to cherries to peaches and, of course, a wide variety of berries. And then, there were the many, many chestnut beers. Brewed either with roasted or smoked chestnuts, with chestnut flour or with chestnut honey, these beers are commonplace in Italy. As of the end of last year, there were over 30 chestnut beers being brewed in the country.

It seems that a number of Italian brewers have let their imaginations soar when creating new beer recipes. They use sugar and spice and everything nice to create whimsical and intriguing brews. To some, these may not seem like beers at all. To others they are a new frontier. Some theorize that Italian craft brewers are more experimental due to a lack of beer tradition in the country. Others feel that it is the Slow Food movement and the rich diverse Italian cuisine that inspires this varied beer culture. Whatever the motivation might be, one thing is certain, for a country with a craft brewing tradition that dates back only twelve years; Italy has succeeded in creating a thriving and diverse beer portfolio that is definitely worth exploring.

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