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Bold Beers in the Land of Barolo

Aged in barrels, sealed with a cork and paired with truffles, the eclectic and deliciously complex beers of Italy’s Piedmont draw from the region’s historic winemaking tradition.
Italian Beermaker Teo Musso
Teo Musso (here with his daughter, Wayan, at his brewpub) is a star of the new Italian beer scene.
Photo © Martin Morrell.

Piedmont, in northern Italy, is known for two things: wine and truffles. Traditionally, when people make pilgrimages to Piedmont, that’s why they come. They visit the vineyards and the wineries, they drink Barolo and Barbaresco, they eat pasta buried under snowdrifts of white truffle shavings and they laugh as they listen to that eerie whistling sound a bank account makes as it deflates, which is what happens when they pay for all those truffles. Given that, you have to admit it’s a strange idea, choosing to open a brewery in Piedmont.

Yet dozens of craft brewers have, in the past five years or so, made Piedmont (together with Lombardy to the east) the center of an extraordinarily eclectic, ambitious Italian craft-brewing scene. In 1996, there were only a handful of independent artisan breweries in Italy; in 2005, there were maybe 100. Today there are more than 500. Italian brewers are making some of the most exciting beers in the world right now, as well as some of the most inventive: amber ales brewed with chestnuts, Belgian-style dubbels aged in wine barrels, wheat beers that use green tea in addition to hops, blond ales infused with ultra-local wine-grape varieties. It’s a wild scene, and Piedmont is right at its forefront.

First Stop: Birreria Le Baladin

If there’s a single person behind this beer explosion, it has to be Teo Musso, who started selling his Baladin beers in the little Piedmontese town of Piozzo in 1996 (Piazza 5 luglio 1944; baladin.it). Since then, he has become the éminence grise of Piedmont brewers, at least if éminences grises can look like rock stars.

When I met Musso on the first day of my Piedmont beer quest a few months ago, he was wearing black jeans, a black leather jacket, a scarf and a couple of silver rings and bracelets. It’s the sort of look that, if you are innately cool, looks incredibly cool, and if you are not innately cool will make you look like a total idiot. Musso, for the record, is on the innately cool side of that equation.

Like any good Piedmontese kid, Musso grew up drinking wine. But as he says, “I was a rebellious teen, and because my dad made wine, I started drinking beer. I didn’t even like it that much at that point—the moment things really clicked was when I drank a Chimay Blue I’d taken out of my uncle’s fridge [Musso’s uncle was a pastry chef in Monte Carlo] when I was visiting one time. And from then, I had a malattia—sickness in the head—for beer.”

At first Baladin was just a bar, albeit one with 200 different bottled beers on the list. “Piozzo only had 800 people,” Musso recalls, “and 400 were retired. Take away the kids, and it was like one beer for each person who could actually drink.” People started coming from other towns, though, and then from Turin; the Baladin pub became a destination for beer fanatics. Then Musso started brewing his own beer. In Italy, in the late ’90s, the Belgian-style ales he was making were unheard-of; beer meant Moretti or Peroni, industrially produced lagers that were (and are) basically the Bud and Miller of Italy. Musso made amber ales, cherry-infused krieks, pumpkin ales—whatever inspired him.

Eventually, Musso says, “I began having this idea about getting my beer into the hands of people who drink wine.” He sent his beers to more than 500 restaurants in the hopes that wine buyers would taste them, he bothered winemakers to try them—anything he could think of to break through the basic Italian idea that beer was a simple, thirst-quenching beverage, good on a hot day or while watching a soccer game, but nothing you would ever think of having with a meal. “It was like moving mountains,” he says. “You’re trying to change a 1,000-year-old tradition.” Or really, trying to invent a new one, since Italy essentially has no beer tradition at all.

Second Stop: Loverbeer & Birrificio Montegioco

I stopped that night at Casa Baladin, a delightful five-room boutique hotel decorated with Musso’s own collection of oddball art and antique furniture. The next morning, I headed out to my next destination: LoverBeer, less than an hour away in Marentino (Strada Pellinciona 7; loverbeer.com).

LoverBeer—the name is less alarming once you realize the owner is named Valter Loverier—specializes in Belgian sour beers, often made with winemaking methods. Loverier, an amiable guy in his mid-forties who is friends with Musso and considers him an inspiration, says, “My whole idea was to join the beer recipes of the Flemish region to the winemaking culture of Piedmont.” He’s done that by producing, among others, fascinating beers like his BeerBera and D’uvaBeer.

For BeerBera, Loverier combines local Barbera grapes with malted barley mash and starts fermentation with the indigenous yeasts on the grape skins, the flavors of the grapes infusing the beer over time. Tasting BeerBera, it’s hard to tell where beer ends and wine begins: Amber in hue, it smells more like a red wine than a beer but tastes both bready and fruity, its tartness tying its wine and beer identities together. It’s delicious and unusual, and one winemaker friend told Loverier that he wished he could make a wine like it—though he also admitted that was partly because beer is lower in alcohol, and Italian drunk-driving laws are strict.

That interest in borrowing from wine to push the boundaries of beer was also on display when I visited Birrificio Montegioco, an hour or so east of LoverBeer (Frazione Fabbrica 1, Montegioco; birrificiomontegioco.com). There, Riccardo Franzosi makes his floral, fruity Tibir with the local grape Timorasso and indigenous wine yeasts; he also ages some of his beers in Barbera barrels from local wineries. Franzosi says, “Our strength, as Italian brewers, is to stay linked to the terroir. I stay small and use as many local ingredients as I can.” Those include grapes, but also peaches, cherries and the herbs he grows in a garden next to his small brewery. The ingredients go into beers like Rex Grue, a tobacco-y amber ale that gets part of its bitterness from Franzosi’s homegrown sage.

Final Stop: Birrificio Citabiunda

Brewing great beer in the kingdom of wine isn’t always easy. Most winemakers I spoke to essentially shrugged when I asked them about the boom in Piedmontese breweries. A characteristic answer was, “It’s possible there are people making beer in Piedmont, of course. I wouldn’t know.” (On the other hand, Angelo Gaja, who is more or less the emperor of Barbaresco, said, “It’s very important to have these brewers here—they’re artisans, and they take inspiration from wine traditions. You can talk to them, and you understand their passion.”)

Then there’s the government. Because Italy has never had an artisanal-brewing tradition, regulations regarding what one can or can’t do are often arbitrary, to say the least. Consider the case of CitaBiunda (Via Moniprandi 1/a, fraz. Bricco di Neive, Neive; birrificiocitabiunda.it), a terrific brewpub and restaurant located in the little town of Neive, in the heart of the Barbaresco wine zone.

Marco Marengo, CitaBiunda’s co-owner and brewmaster, worked for Teo Musso at Baladin for several years. In his early thirties, he makes remarkably good beers inspired by both England and Belgium, like the Belgian blond ale he calls Mary, spiced with chamomile and anise, and SensuAle, an amber Belgian ale brewed with pink-grapefruit peel and juice and a hint of bitter Cascade hops. As he says, “We don’t have an Italian beer style, so we take a bit from all the other traditions.”

But when Marengo and his partner first went to the mayor of Neive to get a permit to open their brewpub, the reaction wasn’t what they expected. The mayor laughed, then said, “Listen: You can open, you just can’t call it a brewery. You must call it a winery.” They thought he was joking.

“We’re in a town where the idea of serving beer is absurd,” Marengo says. “The wine business runs things here.” Nor was the mayor, it seems, willing to get in trouble by allowing someone to open a brewery in Barbaresco’s epicenter.

But that was in 2007. These days, a couple hundred people may be at CitaBiunda on a busy night, drinking beer, talking and eating chef Luca Cerato’s beer-poached shrimp or beer-marinated pork tenderloin. It’s a cross-section of local life: families, students from Alba, a pair of 20-something beer geeks both trying to impress the same girl (and both failing), a local winemaker’s son, a Japanese couple taking a break from visiting wineries. In fact, even the mayor of Neive has been known to stop by CitaBiunda from time to time—perhaps repeating to himself under his breath, “It’s really a winery, it’s really a winery.”

Published April 2013
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