04 December 2017

Buongiorno Milano!

It seemed I was only just back from Stockholm when it was time to go to Milan and the autumn 2017 meeting of the European Beer Consumers Union. I was accompanied by Dr. John and we landed into a foggy Milan which was to stay foggy for almost all of the four days we were there. We were both keen to get stuck into exploring where the Italian beer scene is at these days, and said as much to the waiter at our first pub, Sloan Square, beside Cadorna station. Seems we picked the wrong place.

Sloan Square doesn't serve Italian beer. It does have a very impressive line-up of international offerings, however, specialising in UK beer as, in retrospect, the pub's name implies. A glass front on the bar counter displays the array of KeyKegs and they've chosen to hook most of them up to handpumps, cask-style. It's a fun gimmick and perhaps surprising that more places don't do this, just for the theatricality. I doubt it makes much difference to the beer that comes out.

But back to John's quest for an Italian beer. The nearest our server could offer is Last Minute, a porter from Moor of Bristol but brewed in collaboration with Milan's own Birrificio Lambrate. Pretty good it was too. Ostensibly a porter, it's 7.1% ABV, with a suitable rich body balanced with quite a gently dry smokiness. There's a lot of the Christmas cake about it, which shouldn't be surprising as it contains orange, lemon, ginger and raisins, as well as liquorice and allspice. This could easily have been a mess of clashing flavours but everything holds together extremely well.

I had to stop drinking his beer when he came back from the bathroom, and concentrate on my own instead. I'd had a good run of luck with Brew By Numbers beers lately so opted for 11|09, a session IPA. Motueka and Citra are the hops in this pale cloudy yellow job. The former brings its signature medicinal eucalyptus flavours and I was expecting that to be harshened further by the Citra, but there's actually a soft fruity counterbalance instead, juicy melon and tangy apricot. Bitter resins finish it on a flourish. The texture on which all this is set is beautifully smooth while the ABV is just 4%. A very session session IPA, then.

I was impressed enough to follow it with an other from the same brewery, and look: here was 01|01: well, you've got to start somewhere. It's a saison, and a surprisingly clear and pale one. There's Citra here too, and this time it's true to form, adding a lime-and-urinals tang to the aroma. The flavour is more gentle, thankfully: peach and melon with a slight lacing of coconut. It's clean and refreshing, and not overdone at a respectably modest 5.5% ABV. Maybe it lacks the more obvious farmhouse qualities but it's still a rock-solid beer.

With the sun presumably over the yardarm above the fog somewhere, John went with an imperial stout: To-Øl's Goliat. The head is loose-bubbled and a dark tan colour, rather caskish in appearance. There's lots of creamy malt running all through the flavour, making it seem almost wort-like. A brown sugar sweetness accentuates the impression of something not quite finished. In parallel to this there's a huge herbal bitterness, dominated by cardamom, followed by a sweet coffee finish and some drier background tannins. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's enjoyable once that happens. The chewy mouthfeel is probably its best feature, making it a beer that forces the drinker to sip and savour.

We got properly introduced to the Italian beer that evening at LambicZoon. Here's another one where the pub's specialism is right there in the name, though this place has a much broader range beyond its fine selection of sour Belgian classics.

I opened my account with Black Cherry Drop by Birrificio Stradaregina, in western Lombardy. It's a 9.5% ABV imperial stout with cherries but doesn't make very good use of either element. At the base it's quite a plain beer: smooth and chocolatey but having no more character than that. The fruit puts a Black Forest gateau spin on it though there's also a hot solvent quality too that spoiled my enjoyment rather. Not an auspicious start.

I ploughed on with the brewery anyway, picking Sourflowers 02 Robinia next. 01 used elderflower, this pale sour 6%-er uses black locust flower. I still got a lot of elderflower from it, perhaps because I have no reference point for black locust. There's a hint of watermelon candy but mostly it is sour: an intense acidity. It just manages to avoid harshness, however, with enough balance to make it well-constructed and invigorating. And exactly  the sort of thing I came to Italy in search of.

Beside it there is an English beer, Imperial Leisure by Brighton Bier. It's billed as a brown ale though is a little pale for that, an ugly and unattractive shade of amber. The flavour is good, though: tannic and peachy, laced with incense spicing. I'd probably be calling it a bitter more than a brown ale: it shares more characteristics with the better sort of brown bitter than with any actual brown ale, not that style counts for much.

Dinner was downstairs. I switched breweries to Hammer, from near Bergamo, and their Koral IPA. This is a medium-gold colour, throwing a slight haze, and topped by a thick stack of foam. It's grapefruit all the way, making for an instant classic: from the intensely citric aroma, through the sharp and pithy flavour, to the waxed-rind finish. There's just enough malt weight to balance it while still leaving the hops in control, resulting in an IPA that is at once powerfully bitter yet approachable and delicious.

John's pick was Belka, a saison by  local brewer Muttnik. I was already well-disposed towards this when I saw it was only 4.6% ABV. It's very pale, even for a saison, but there's plenty going on: all the white pepper, honeydew and peach in both the aroma and flavour. There is a strong earthy, gritty, yeast component to it which does drain a little of the fun away. Luckily that still leaves enough fruit and spice in place to save it. Overall a really good job of a low ABV saison.

My finisher here was Flos Alba Bergamotto from Birrificio Italiano. It's badged as a Berliner weisse though aged in white wine barrels and pumped up to a stonking 5.8% ABV. The end result is something much more like a real lambic, complete with the gunpowder aroma and damp bite of nitre  in the flavour. The juicy citrus fruit softens it and adds to the drinkability. I was really impressed with this one, far exceeding my expectations of what I was going to get.

The EBCU meeting started the next day, and these tend to be long and very dry. There was respite at lunch, where the restaurant was serving Isenbeck Premium, seemingly an Argentinian macrolager but I would guess brewed locally. When cold it's an absolutely fine glass of generic fizz but develops a mustiness in the aroma and a plastic off-flavour if it's allowed to warm up at all. Consider this a public service announcement to drink it quickly should you ever be stuck with it.

Finally, when the talking was over for the day, we got to visit a brewery, and that's in tomorrow's post.

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