06 December 2017

Bonza Monza

Early on a dark and dismal Saturday morning in October, Dr John and I made our way through northern Milan to Porta Garibaldi station. The venue for the second day of the autumn EBCU meeting was Monza, a small city around 20 minutes north of the metropolis.

Our host for the day was the Carrobiolo bar, brewery and restaurant. Not the largest space to spend a nine-hour day in, but it did at least allow for a very thorough investigation of what they brew there. Pleasingly it's only house beers too: I always grant extra kudos to a brewpub that doesn't admit guest beers.

You know what came first, of course: Carrobiolo Pils. No mere placeholder for the Peroni-bibbers this, it's smooth and creamy; bitter and grassy; with a generous dollop of candy malt for good measure. A wiser man might have stuck drinking this all day. It's certainly built for it.

The next lager for me was Carrobiolo Keller, another clear, smooth and clean one. In fact it resembles the Pils quite closely, just missing the big hops, showing a very mild waft of meadow flowers instead, as well as a touch of astringency in the finish. It's very unexciting, and I guess that's why the brewery has used it as a base for some of the more out-there experimental recipes, of which more anon.

The brewery's gluten-free American Pale Ale is less hop-forward than either of the lagers, weirdly. It's very dry and quite dusty tasting, the clear amber colour making it look a lot more full-flavoured than it transpired to be. What hop character there is is a muted caraway seed thing. I had to wonder what sort of pale ales the brewer had been drinking that he thought they were supposed to be like this.

There's also something off about the double IPA, Amanipa Phalloide, too. It's one of those thick and funky US-style ones, going all out for dankness. In doing so, however, it misses any fresh qualities in the hop profile: it's dark and serious, unlit by tropical sunshine or invigorating forest pine. There isn't even a proper bitterness to the resins. I get the feeling that US styles are really not the brewery's area of expertise. Moving on...

Estiva summer ale brings us back to the light. This one is hazy and definitely doesn't taste as clean as the lagers, having a touch of yeast bite and a slightly gummy New England IPA vanilla flavour. Beyond that, however, there are plenty of bright fresh hops, with the zing of grapefruit pith and and heavier oiliness as well. This is the beer to go to if you're after a pale ale, even though it isn't badged as such.

A trilogy of novelties follows next, beginning with Monza Mule. Not for the first time, I found myself the only person in the room enjoying a beer that everyone else was passing around while grimacing. It's brewed with ginger and cucumber, and tastes massively of both: a green salad foretaste starts things and is followed by a rasping ginger burn. Interestingly, the cucumber doesn't go in until the end of the production process, pretty much as a dry-hop equivalent. It certainly ends up tasting fresh and real. Yes it's a very silly beer but it works, even if the light pale base doesn't really stand up to the additions.

The beer the place seems proudest of is ITA, and that's possibly because it's a real rarity. Based on the Keller, the addition this time is local tomatoes, as well as a seasoning of basil. And like the Mule, these additions come through loud and clear in the finished product: fresh and juicy tomato and slick oil-rich leafy basil. There's a dry and peppery quality to the whole thing which lends it the air of a classic saison. Overall it's very well integrated and doesn't seem like the novelty it undoubtedly is.

The next one is definitely not a novelty, and is the sort of beer I hoped to find lots of on this trip to Italy. Mo'scanzati Azzo is a grape ale, pinkish purple in colour, and just as complex as a fine Italian wine. Black pepper is the first flavour I noticed, resolving into spicy oak. A fresh supple leather character follows it, then finally the fruit: a luscious summery grape juiciness, as you'd find in a young Barbera. This mix of serious maturity and youthful frivolity is achieved at an amazing 5.6% ABV. Why would you ever drink wine again?

For dessert at lunch there was Stanislao barley wine: 10.2% ABV though remarkably pale and light-bodied. The flavour is superb, however: crammed with Madeira and prunes, livened by a gentle sparkle and showing just a hint of sherryish oxidation. If the previous beer was your Barbera, this is your oloroso for afters.

We're back on more orthodox ground next with Carrobiolo Tripel. It probably shows that I'm just trying to get to the end of the line-up before it's time to go. This smells Belgian from the get-go and the flavour demonstrates all the big alcohol and esters that are typical of the style, though perhaps more common in non-Belgian tripels than the usually-cleaner native versions. By way of balance this has a strong but fun bitterness, with intense jaffa pith and a floral jasmine spice. I have no arguments with it as a tripel, though it's definitely more than a by-the-numbers job, showing a real personality of its own.

The brewery's weizen, Weisse Al Farro, was less successful. It has the crisp noble-hop celery flavour that some German weissbiers have, but there's none of the banana, bubblegum or clove style markers, and the texture is crisp and angular rather than round and fluffy. Think of it as a lager and it's fine, if not very characterful.

A tour of the brewery next turned up a few final interesting fellows which weren't on tap. The Christmas beer was still being matured in the bottle and we got a sneak preview. They have decided to confound expectations with this winter release, opting for a Christmas Framboise. It's another that started life as Keller but aged a year with added raspberries. It's mostly quite dry and crisp, so that much hasn't changed, though there's a slightly sour complexity and a bite of tannin as well. A bright and fresh spritzy quality suggests that it still had a little more maturation to go, though as an unusual alternative to dark and heavy Christmas beers I can see it working well.

Coffee-Brett imperial stout was another one still a few weeks away from release. It was tasting pretty good though, with a massive fresh and oily coffee bean flavour, all but burying the stout. The Brett hadn't really asserted itself, and perhaps that will come later. Here it supplied a slight earthy funk but no more than that. A tang of bitterness finishes it off. This one is 11% so will doubtless keep well in the bottle. I think it'll be interesting after a year or two when the Brett has really gone to work on it.

And finally OG 1111, of which our host seemed to have a particular personal affinity. It's named after the original gravity and is a peated strong ale, coming out at 13% ABV. We got to taste the 2014 vintage which was flat, viscous and earthy, mixing funk and smoke with a beefy autolytic quality. There's a lot of going on, but I think slightly too much of it was what generally get called off-flavours. Any attractive complexity is offset by tastes that are just not quite right, in any beer. I'd chalk it up as a draw: it's fine, but probably better when not aged.

That concludes the day's Carrobiolo beers, but we don't get to escape just yet...

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