12 January 2008

Malto bene

My New Year jaunt this year brought me to Venice. Despite all the positive stuff in the beer blogosphere about Italian beer (from the likes of Maeib, Stonch and Knut Albert, for instance) I remained sceptical. My only previous visit to Italy, a short trip to Rome four years ago, was a beer disaster and I was fully expecting a similar famine this time round. While this trip was far from a wash-out, Venice really made me work for my craft beer. But more on that later: I'll get the less-than-artisan stuff out of the way first.

Doppio malto was a legend I saw on many a label, single malt is presumably just for whiskies. Still, the plainer beers I sampled were certainly playing on the malt side of the field. Moretti's Baffo d'Oro was pretty ubiquitous: a beer which is full of dry musty malt to the point of bitterness. Best served cold, to avoid the harshness. Or have something else. Moretti La Rossa, sampled at Bàcaro Jazz with its fascinating line in ceiling decoration (pictured), is rather better: a dense, sweet and smoky red ale with strong alcoholic malt notes. A rival Rossa is made by Castello, the brewery which took over the Moretti plant when Moretti was bought by Heineken. It's not quite as interesting as the Moretti red, however: lighter, much sweeter, a gorgeous bright red colour, but no great shakes in the flavour department.

Two foreign macros to finish this section, absorbed on the hoof at two of Venice's many stand-up watering holes. I don't know if Heineken make Amstel 1870 locally, or if it's imported from the Netherlands. I don't really care as I doubt I'll be drinking any more of this quite harsh malty golden lager. Bulldog is definitely imported, however. It's made in Yorkshire by Scottish & Newcastle, as proudly stated on the pump clip. I found it a fascinating mix of sweet maltiness, almost to the point of tramp-brew syrupyness (it's 6% ABV), and the hoppiness of an English bitter. Marketed to the hopheads among the gentlemen of the road, one presumes. Interestingly tasty.

I said Venice made me work for my craft beer, but it was more luck of the draw. I happened across a shop called Alla Botte, near Bàcaro Jazz as it happened, which specialised mainly in vast casks of wine but which had one shelf in the window where a modest range of artisan beers shared space with the oil, vinegars and other non-vinous adjuncts. From here I picked six 75cl bottles to try. At around €10 a bottle they weren't cheap, but prices were lower than the only other shop where I saw any decent beers. The only place I found them on a menu was in Vini da Gigio: quite reasonable at €15 a bottle, and a better selection than either shop.
I started with DucAle by Del Borgo: a heavy, bready, malty, red-brown ale. For all its gravity it's not especially strongly flavoured, having a tasty but understated perfumed fruitiness. Instead, this beer is all about texture: rich and smooth and velvety. Pure luxury. A bit more rough and rustic is Petrognola Nera, made from farro, that most Italian of wheats. It pours red-black and fizzy with a quickly-subsiding head. There's a full and roasty aroma, though the taste is unassuming: quite dry and light. To get the full symphony of aroma, flavour and texture, there's Brùton Momus. Again this is a very dark red ale, dense and barely carbonated. The nose gives hints of milk chocolate, though the flavour isn't sweet: it's sharp and lactic, tempered by a certain degree of malt as well. Quite a lot to this one and it left me wondering what the other Brùtons are like.

The remaining three beers come from the Piedmontese Baladin brewery. Super is a dark weissbier, reminding me strongly of Schneider Weisse, full of bananas and yeast. They make a pale yellow saison called Wayan which has a fluffy texture but a sharp fizz as well. The flavour is mild, but very complex and busy, offering orange peel, coriander, almonds, juniper, bananas and more besides. I'd say that getting so much going on without making the beer overwhelming, difficult or cloying was the challenge here. Mission accomplished.

I saved the oddest of the bunch for last. From the pyramid on the label I take it that Nora birra egizia is going for an ancient Egyptian style. The bright orange colouring and light prickly carbonation immediately suggest a tripel. There's certainly a spicy characteristic to the taste as well, but this is no tripel. In with the fruit there's an aftershave-and-incense muskiness, which looks very wrong now that I've written it down but is in fact sublimely delicious and extremely drinkable. This is exactly the sort of bold, daring and downright weird beer that I love discovering.