Italy presents an intriguing dichotomy for today’s aficionados of quality alcoholic beverages. On the one hand, the country is so synonymous with and apparently devoted to wine (even I’m a little partial to a nice Chianti, with or without fava beans) – and to a lesser extent its highly-perfumed pomace brandy, grappa – that it would barely seem to have room to devote to the fruit of the barley.
On the other, Italy has been producing quality beers for some years now, and boasts a considerable number of microbreweries, especially (if maybe unsurprisingly) in the cooler north of the country but also with many in the warmer south nowadays. Such establishments may now number in the several hundred across the entire country. Not bad at all for a country supposedly devoted to Bacchus and one of the less well trumpeted destinations for beer travellers in Europe.
The late Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson (no, not that one for those who don’t know), put this phenomenon down to younger people looking for alternatives to the drinks their parents and grandparents consumed. And who am I to dispute that assumption? What is undeniable is that Italy now produces some very interesting, and increasingly good quality brews, often dressed with more than a little sartorial flair.
With little in the way of a recent native beer culture – with the possible exception of malty, amber to red-coloured strong lagers – Italian microbrewers have looked elsewhere for inspiration. The brewing points of reference for many (at least in my fairly limited experience) typically land on either Belgium and Britain. But with more than a little of the American spirit of experimentation thrown in for good measure.
As Italy is rarely on my business travel itinerary (unfortunately), I make it a duty to seek out the wares on offer at London’s Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) each August. Each year the selection improves as more Italian brewers look to take advantage of CAMRA’s showcase. And I’m glad they do. It helps make up for the extremity of most US beers on offer and the lack of inspiration n the Belgian and German bars. This year I came away from GBBF with a decent haul of five Italian bottles, two in 750ml bottles, the other three in 330mls.
So onto the first of this year’s Italian selection, Malombra (5.9%) from Birrificio Endorama in Grassobio, near Bergamo to the north east of Milan.
I’d forgotten what kind of beer to expect from Malombra (GBBF was three months ago, after all) but made my selection on the basis that I didn’t want anything too strong this evening. Uncorking the bottle left me in no doubt though: the impact of wild yeasts and the slightly spicy aroma emanating from the bottle indicated this to be a southern European cousin of that mysterious speciality from Wallonian Belgium, the saison. (Beers labelled as saisons are favourites of mine for their sheer variability of flavours and the inability of anal beer bores to easily formalise any “style” that they represent.)
This impression was only reinforced on pouring, with a massive, rocky pale head on top of the hazy golden fluid. Flavour-wise there was much continuity too, with the slight Brettanomyces yeast character clear (any saison lacking this element just doesn’t taste right, although it can also go out of control). That said, Malombra was perhaps a tad too soft and wheaty in the mouth, lacking the crispness typical of the best Belgian examples. It was also perhaps a little under-hopped by those standards.
Nonetheless, Malombra still scores well in my book, not least because it is a very good beer in its own right irrespective of labels (as I said, saison is hardly a precise descriptor) but mainly because it turned out to be just about the perfect companion to the rather hot Thai green chicken curry I’d inflicted on myself for supper. Molto bello!