14 April 2014

An Italian job

The lovely people of Associazione Degustatori Birra (Lazio branch) were kind enough to invite me out to Rome for a few days in mid-March, in exchange for some words on Irish craft beer at their St. Patrick's Day event. My last visit to the Eternal City was just a couple of years too early for the rise of Italian craft beer and it had been on my return-visit list for a while so I leapt at the chance.

An early start had me in downtown Rome by late morning on the 17th and I took advantage of the fine weather to do some exploring of historical sites I missed last time round. Returning to my hotel in the afternoon I called in to Domus Birra, the city's best-known bottle shop. A boggling array of Italian craft beers were on offer so I picked a reasonably priced one more or less at random, and because of the name.

So, Turan's Dry Hard 2 was my first beer of the trip, a 6% ABV IPA. It poured an unpleasantly murky brown amber colour and the dry hopping certainly makes its presence felt in the aroma: a powerful blast of white plum and lychee. The texture is smooth and the flavour begins with a rather harsh bitterness. It tastes as clean as it looks, some lightly spicy orange and grapefruit flavours buzzing about in the background, but nothing distinctive. The aroma keeps on giving, all the way through, but I'd like a bit more zip.

Zip aplenty I found a few hours later down at Il Maltese a fun little craft beer shack on Piazza Epiro which was hosting my talk. Brewfist's Bionic amber ale was on tap. Like the foregoing, and like most Brewfist beers, there's a waxy bitter punch at the start. However what follows is a tour de force of citrus hop flavours: spritzy, juicy and very moreish, shading towards heavier weedy funk at times as well.

From the bottled selection I got to try Cogs coffee porter by Laboratorio, much lauded by my hosts. Unfortunately it was a dud, infected with nasty acetone nail varnish flavours. Underneath this it was just about possible to detect a pleasant mild milky coffee flavour and hints of lavender and chocolate, but nothing earth-shaking. I was more impressed by Urbe from Eternal City, a local contract operation. This cloudy orange number is an approachable 5% ABV and has lots of lovely soft cuddly peach flavours. A beautifully refreshing sessioner.

We were joined briefly by the brewers behind a brand new start-up. I may be among the first anglophones to encounter the brand though was far too polite to point out the inadvertent hilarity of their chosen name: Superbum. Still, quality will carry them a long way and that they have. Blondie is a 5.2% ABV wit-like blonde. The wit spicing is missing but the orange peel is very present, enhanced by the generous addition of orangey Styrian Goldings. What it lacks in veracity to the witbier style it makes up for in refreshment power.

The other one to emerge from Superbum is called Invasion, a pale ale of 5.5% ABV. Not so pale, however, more a dark amber. The aroma is all fresh oily hops and there's no mistaking the heavy use of Sorachi Ace in the flavour: coconut and lemon pith in abundance. It's perhaps a little too intense to consider drinking a second, but nice for one.

Top of my hitlist for day two was the city's best-known beer specialist Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in Trastevere. The poky two-room pub was in the middle of a German-themed festival and I'll cover the good stuff from that in the next post so the only Italian beer I had there was Lambrate's Robb de Matt. This is a near-perfect recreation of a pale 'n' hoppy English bitter, if a little strong at 5.5% ABV. The aroma is a gentle citrus which translates into a lemon sherbet and peach flavour, with some light herbal notes and just enough bitter punchiness. The cask serve gives it a beautiful soft effervescence.

I trekked deeper into Trastevere next, to eat at Brasserie 4:20, home of the Revelation Cat brewing company. It didn't quite live up to the hype for me. The décor is very high-concept designery, with banks and banks of taps, some suspended overhead at the bar, and cask handpulls aplenty. But the menu is not much more than burgers and crisps. Filling in a slip with your choice of sauce and topping does not a classy dining experience make. From the spendy beer menu I selected Bombay Cat, a double black IPA. Lordy. This is powerful stuff: 9% ABV and jet black. One sip delivers a green blast of fresh crunchy spinach and cabbage, lots of acid and odd herbal bath salts overtones. Behind the hops there's masses of heavy thick chocolate too: all the features of double IPA and imperial stout writ large. I almost felt abused by it, but thrilled as well.

Just time for one pub on my third and final day in Rome, but I made the most of it. Open Baladin is the local outlet for Piedmont's Baladin brewery, a large and rambling pub-restaurant with a vast tap and bottle selection. Here the food is something to behold, specialising in Piedmontese meats. The steak tartare was spectacular. Open is the name of the house beer, a 7.5% ABV IPA. It's a clear middling orange colour with an clove aroma. The flavour mostly consists of artificial candy fruit, mixed with an unpleasant musty staleness on a heavy body. Not something I'd want as the flagship beer in my pub.

Hoping for something a bit like the previous day's feline black IPA experience, I chose del Borgo's Hoppy Cat Cascadian dark ale. 5.8% ABV and dark garnet in colour, topped by a creamy ivory head. It lures the drinker in with a mild mandarin aroma but there's a sucker punch of bitterness in the first sip, next to a different sort of bitterness from the roast grain. Overall a simple and pleasant brew and very different from Revelation Cat's soundalike.

Sticking with del Borgo, I realised that I've never tasted their original beer ReAle, and since it was here on cask I decided I'd put that right. Another English beer clone, this time a quality brown bitter, it's a clear burnished copper colour with all the proper nutty flavours, waxy bitterness and refreshing tannins. Only the massive 6.4% ABV strength detracts from its balanced sessionable qualities.

On the basis that you should never pass up a beer with your name and ethnicity on it, I went next for Nut Irish Jinn from Black Barrels in Turin. It was listed in the sour section of the menu but I wouldn't like to hazard a guess at the style: there's a lot going on in it, starting with a sweet lactic perfume aroma, a sort of floral balsamic effect. Dry hopping in the barrel has given it a light citrus zest and there's also a savoury ambergris resinousness peppered by sparks of incense, all this set on a clean refreshing sour base. Phew. It's a workout for the palate, and the notebook, but well worth it.

One last glass before running for the airport bus and I wanted to make it count. Say hello, then, to Baladin's Xyauyu barley wine. This 13.5% ABV version has been given time in rum casks and arrives dark brown and completely flat, smelling like all of its strength plus brown sugar and marker pens. The barrel has certainly left its mark as it tastes like nothing so much as aged dark rum: hot and woody. The beeriness is almost lost, with a caramel malt sweetness just peeping through. A tasty drop, but mostly it left me wondering what the unaged version tastes like.

We'll retrace our steps in the next post, looking at the non-Italian beers on offer in Rome.


  1. Looks like the beer scene in Rome has come a ways in recent years! I must get back there - its a long way from Sydney!

    1. Hey stranger. It has come a long way, though if non-Americans doing loads of American-style beers, sometimes quite poorly, gets your goat it might not be the ideal destination for you.

  2. Anonymous4:33 am

    How does a black IPA taste like spinach and cabbage? I've never heard or tasted those qualities in a beer. Granted, I AM an American.

    1. How? I dunno. But there is definitely a green vegetable flavour that some hop varieties impart. It can get quite acidic in high doses.

  3. Eternal city Brewing5:20 pm

    We are happy in your review and you enjoyed our beer ....
    Thank you ^ _ ^ I hope that in future you can try our other beers back in Italy.
    Eternal city Brewing
    Beer from Rome.