Brew like a mook
And it smelled like roses
Our first introduction to this new spectrum of offerings, in fact, was through one such fine dining experience. One of the honestly creative and stunningly flavorful creations made by Le Baladin's Teo Musso, Nora tastes like the eccentric offspring of Dany Prignon and Sam Calagione: a sweet, ephemeral, nectar-like brew that hosts such ingredients as unmalted kamut, ginger, myrrh and orange peel. But what exactly is it? When you look around, you see that folks attempt to use Belgian beer verbiage to walk you through an understanding of what to expect, what with Nora and it's "classic strength of a saison." Maybe it's the cork-finished bottles, or maybe just the simple mystique of continental ales with innovative artisanal flair has been for so long seen as an earmark of Belgianosity that we Americans can't appreciate it through any other filter.
Take the Barley BB Dexi, for example. ("Barley", awesomely enough, is the name of the brewery.) An ale brewed with "sapa of Cannonau grapes" and orange peel, it's a 10% birra artigianale that the brewers from the Associazione Unionbirrai suggest you enjoy at 60° in a Chablis glass. In a beer drinkers game of Balderdash, one could have loads of fun trying to pin this one inside an understood stylistic camp. Is it a barleywine? Certainly doesn't taste like it: Sort of like a wild hybrid of beer, wine and a Negroni, rather. The exception seems to be the norm, when you take into account that this is a tiny niche market that's also home to beers like Birrificio di Como's Malthus Baluba, a dark ale brewed with pineapple, apricot, ginger and rue, and Birra Troll's Palanfrina, a Castagna ale brewed with chestnut flowers, dried chestnuts, chestnut honey and chestnut jam.
When these beers first started making an appearance here, the diverse and esoteric nature of their ingredient lists, Dali-esque bottle shapes, and completely cryptic labeling schemes could have lead one to think that we were at the whim of some mad importer's fever dream. Certainly they were only the weirdest of the bunch, picked purely for their novelty, right? But when Stan Hieronymus notes that there are "at least 40 chestnut beers" being brewed in Italy, one gets the impression that what's different is what's normal. And as Stan also points out, in a sentiment that includes at least one interchangeable word, "To understand Italian beer means at least beginning to understand Italian culture."
In the same way that "Va fangul" means a completely, quite importantly different thing to Italians than it does to Italian-Americans, one has to wonder what Italian brewing can mean to us here. Brew with an Italian soul rather than a Belgian one, is my instinctive reaction. When I once poured a glass of our annual holiday ale for a friend, one who happens to be quite knowledgeable and enthusiastic about beer, he asked me what it was. I responded that, for lack of a better term, it was in the vein of a Belgian-style Christmas beer, to which he told me he thought it was a little too dark. I had no ready reply, since I didn't know there had been a standard set for what color my beer was supposed to be. It was the color I'd wanted it to be, I knew that much. It's that huge leap in thinking that will make the transition of Italian beers to our concepts of evaluation so abrasive and intriguing. Too dark for what?
As a homebrewer who capitalizes the third letter of his last name, it's been with a certain vested interest that I've been following the whole unfolding saga. How do we brew, from where do we draw our inspiration, and to what standards do we hold ourselves accountable? It's obvious from the stories that are emerging post-Slow Food Salone del Gusto that food is the primary motivator. Not only in the way that the beer pairs with food, either, but brewing the beer itself with a cook's mindset, curiosity for ingredients and eagerness of experimentation. This seems to run parallel to the mindset of many American homebrewers, a bunch that paradoxically gets mocked routinely for it's love of making up rules to follow but at the same time floods the "fruit", "herb/spice/vegetable" and "specialty" beer categories at competition time with all manner of wild, fanciful concepts. Against a backdrop of rule makers and rule breakers, there's a third, quieter subset of rule ignorants, passionately approaching their craft with no other aim than to cast their artistic vision within the vessel of nourishment, capturing something genuine and pure and turning it into an elevated experience. Always with an eye on the food, and on simplicity, and on surroundings. Perhaps it's not a purely Italian endeavor, but it's certainly distinct from the way we've been taught to appreciate the Belgian beer experience from abroad.
And on that note, a quote from Marcella Hazan:
"On an afternoon slowed down by the southern sun, it was one of the best ways to while away the time, watching life dawdle by as you let the granita's crystals melt on the tongue, spoonful by spoonful, until the roof of your mouth felt like an ice cavern pervaded by the aroma of strong coffee."(Apologies to Stan for mangling his quality book title for my punny abuse.)