Monday, 27 July 2015

Birra artigianale a Sorrento pt. 2: Birrificio Sorrento

Before we left for Sorrento, whilst scouting around on the internet looking for beer information, I made an exciting discovery – there is actually a microbrewery based in Sorrento – Birrificio Sorrento. I couldn't wait to try their beers, and even emailed them for a list of stockists so that I could make sure I did. The full list is included at the end of this post.

Birrificio Sorrento has been in operation since 2009, although it appears that they initially brewed using other breweries’facilities for several years. They have had their own small kit since 2013 from which they produce two core beers – Syrentum, a golden ale made with local lemons, and Minerva, a red ale with oranges. I love the use of local ingredients which is, as I understand it, a hallmark of birra artigianale – in the absence of an indigenous beer tradition, modern brewers look to their bountiful produce for inspiration, approaching their beers as part of a wider culinary landscape. This creativity is, to me, far preferable to simply aping Belgian or American brewing. Like many Italian craft beers, which are rarely housed in your basic glass bottle, Birrificio Sorrento’s are beautifully presented in bottles that look more likely to hold sparkling wine. This, again, seems part of a strategy to have beer taken seriously at the dinner table and, in my experience, local restaurants serve them in an ice bucket, the only time I have ever been served beer in this way.

Sorrento is justly proud of its enormous, gnarled lemons. Images of the fruit appear on most of the merchandise on sale in the tourist shops and, of course, they are used in limoncello, the delicious local liqueur. Peel from the lemons also makes its way into Syrentum, which is a magnificent beer. It pours golden orange with a dense, moussey white head, and an aroma bursting with fresh citrus. It tastes, unsurprisingly, of lemon, but not in an extreme or obtrusive way, and tastes fresh and natural, far removed from a synthetic radler. The citrus flavour works because it complements the fruit flavours already in the beer, which seem to be primarily from the yeast, with that faintly sulphuric note you find in Belgian tripels. These ester flavours add depth to the beer beyond the lemon. Syrentum is the easier of the brewery’s beers to find in Sorrento – I found that restaurants that do stock Birrificios Sorrento's wares invariably opt for this over Minerva. This could possibly be because the beer’s clean citrus body compliments the local seafood, but since I don’t eat fish this is pure conjecture.  I've thought about it a lot since returning home, and I sincerely hope I can drink it again someday.

Minerva, a red ale with oranges, doesn't move me so strongly, good though it is. A familiar yeast strain from Syrentum instantly reveals itself, and the two beer’s profiles are quite similar. Here, though, the freshness of the lemon is replaced by a marmalade-like spiciness. The zest treads delicately across the tongue, with a faint prickly sensation, but finishes sweet. I couldn't help but crave the cleaner, more refreshing taste of Syrentum, though I’ll acknowledge that if I was being truly fair, I wouldn't even compare the two.

These two beers form Birrificio Sorrento’s core range, though they do make others, presumably on an occasional or one-off basis. One of these is Parthenope, which I found in bottled form in Vizi e Sfizi, a shop in the centre of town. This beer is quite unlike the other two – it’s a stout made with nuts. In contrast to the beers I’d been served in ice buckets, this one chills in cold water in a bidet – no fridge in the hotel room, you see. It does the trick, anyway, as I don’t like dark beers to be too cold. Parthenope is very bitter and dry, in much the same way that nuts are. The effect recalls the oak tannins picked up in barrel-aged beer, or even red wine. It’s rich and full-bodied, drinkable and satisfying, but some softer chocolate notes might have balanced out the aggressive bitterness. It’s a good and interesting beer either way, and one you should try if you do happen to find it.

I was very impressed with Birrificio Sorrento – all three beers are very accomplished, and Syrentum is an absolute cracker. Sorrento is a lovely town, one well worth visiting regardless of any beer recommendations. But if you’re there, I’d urge you to seek out Birrificio Sorrento with your evening meal.

Birrificio Sorrento stockists (as per an email sent to my by the brewery in June 2015) - Restaurants: Ristorante Pizzeria Aurora, Ristorante Il Buco, Ristorante The Garden, Ristorante Tasso, Ristorante Antica Trattoria, Ristorante Le Basilica, Pizzeria Acqu'e Sale, Ristorante Inn Buffalito. Shops: La Botegga della Birra, Vizi e Sfizi, Bottles Shop, The Garden, Inn Buffalito Concept Store

Monday, 20 July 2015

Birra artigianale a Sorrento pt.1

Last year, at my suggestion, we spent our summer holiday in Edinburgh. We had a great time, visiting the zoo, taking a late-night walking tour of the city’s haunted spots, checking out the art galleries and drinking lots of very good beer. But it was very cold and rainy – during the trip, I purchased not only an umbrella, but a wool hat, too. We had to move hotels on the last night because there was a mouse in our room. So whilst we had an excellent trip, glamorous it was not. When Sidony suggested a more Mediterranean climate for this year’s holiday, I wasn't about to argue.

We settled on Sorrento, a beautiful town on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Not much of a beer destination, but then this wasn't a beery holiday. But when I stopped to consider the cool, refreshing holiday beers I could enjoy, I shuddered at the idea that I might have to drink Peroni. It’s not an awful beer, but it’s not a very good one, either, and the holiday beer novelty would be diminished by the fact that it is inflicted on us in most Italian restaurants in the UK. With this in mind, I couldn't resist digging around for a couple of leads towards good beer in Sorrento.

It didn't take long to find a good drop, as it happened. On our first night, tired and hungry, we wandered into pretty much the first pizzeria we foud. On the beer menu there, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst Heineken and Peroni, was Super Baladin. The name rang a bell, though I couldn’t quite place it (I later realised that it was from this post from Jeffrey Bell, and that Baladin are actually one of Italy’s early pioneering craft breweries). Caramel-coloured, with a big, fluffy white head, smell of caramelising sugar. The taste is very sweet, with marzipan and toffee apples alongside stone fruits. At 8%, it’s surprisingly light drinking, and a savoury malt profile and very high carbonation make it super refreshing.

The next afternoon we visited Bar del Carmine, in the town’s bustling Piazza Tasso. It's a pleasant but fairly ordinary touristy bar, except they have a small birra artigianale section on their drinks menu, so you can sit and take in the sights of the Piazza – mostly people almost getting hit by cars – whilst enjoying some excellent Italian beers. There are more from Baladin here, so next I tried their NazionAle, the first ever beer brewed with 100% Italian ingredients. Whilst there is a good hop bitterness which balances some rather sweet malt, my overriding impression of the beer was of a Juicy Fruit-style Belgian yeast flavour. When I looked it up later, I was surprised to find that it contains bergamot and coriander – I’d like to think my palate hadn't let me down completely, as coriander is often used in Belgian wit beers (Camden Town’s interpretation uses bergamot, too).

Baladin Super Bitter is also on offer at Bar del Carmine, a version of Super Baladin spiked with American Amarillo hops. Amarillo’s peachy flavour gels perfectly with the caramelised fruit flavours in the original beer, and it gains a moreish bitterness which is not overdone. I like it even better than the original.

One intriguing recommendation from my internet research was La Botegga della Birra, a bottle shop and bar in Sorrento, which we visited the next day. It’s a funny little place, with the vibe of a sports bar or, worse, an Irish pub – check out the leprechaun on the beer menu. It is neither of these things, of course – draught La Chouffe and La Trappe dubbel occupy the bar rather than Guinness, and the likes of Peroni are thoroughly absent. We were offered a beer menu but, if you visit, you may as well ignore this. The proprietor was most apologetic, but explained that transporting imported beers to Sorrento isn’t easy, and he can’t reliably stock everything listed. His response when I asked for a good Italian beer couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, though, and he brought a selection to the table, none of which were on the menu anyway. For best results, I’d suggest going in with this question from the beginning.

I chose Nora, another from Birifficio Baladin. I’d heard of the beer before (it was featured on the Beer O’Clock Show, if memory serves), but hadn’t made the connection to Baladin. The initial swig is a big surprise – the word ‘spicy’ may be overused in beer tasting notes, but to me, this is a big mouthful of hot black pepper. There’s a tremendous depth of flavour to this beer – it seems to stimulate all areas of the palate at once. A savoury note recalls tomatoes and herbs - though I realise it currently sounds like I’m describing a pasta sauce rather than a beer, it does taste of beer, too. Peaches and sweet oranges complete the picture. As it happens, the spice is ginger, not pepper – should have guessed that. Nora also contains Kamut, a grain used in ancient Egyptian brewing, and myrrh – not going to beat myself up about failing to identify those ingredients.  It may sound unusual, but if you see it, I’d urge you to try it. I might not have if I’d read that description but, going into it with an open mind, I was taken aback.

Back at Bar del Carmine one afternoon,  I opt for Sumera from Birrificio Karma, based in Alvignano, about 25 miles to the north of Naples. Spelt makes up a portion of the grain bill here, and the initial impression is a sweet, vinous quality. There’s a touch of dry, Belgian-like yeast, along with honey, candy sugar and oranges. It’s satisfyingly full-bodied, with a bitter bite of the sort you find in good lager. These qualities, alongside lively carbonation, make it extremely refreshing on a hot, sunny afternoon.

I'd also seen Il Chiostro beers in a few shops and was keen to try them. This microbrewery is based not far away in Nocera Inferiore, and their range appears to stick more to classic styles - wheat beer, Belgian blonde, but also some more niche styles like Scotch ale and Irish red - than the inventive approach of breweries like Baladin. One evening we stop for a drink at The Garden, a lovely restaurant with a seperate wine shop cum bar on the busy Corso Italia, and here I have the opportunity to sample a couple. First, I choose Once Upon a Time. There's no clue as to the style anywhere on the label, and the lady at the bar can only tell me that it is an ale. It pours black with patches of dark, translucent red around the edges of the glass, and with a big and persistent beige head. Surprisingly, it's quite tart, like a Flanders Red, but with roasted malt flavours like a porter. (Confusingly, Google the name of this beer and most information refers to a 13% Belgian-style quadrupel. This beer was 8.5% and, whilst I'm not sure exactly what style they were going for, quadrupel was certainly not it.)There's sour cherry and tobacco going on here, with a dry finish like red wine. The Belgian bruin which I try next is very similar, but those fruit flavours are less tart here - more like glacé cherries, providing a little sweetness to counteract the sour bite.

But only a true dullard would go on a holiday like this and insist on the finest craft beers at all times. One place I was determined to visit was the dodgily-named Foreigner's Club. I'd loved this place when I last visited Sorrento as a ten year old boy, pestering my parents to return again and again. Returning now, I can see why - the view of the Mount Vesuvius on one side and the coast jutting out on the other is beautiful. Birra Moretti will never taste better than it does up here - so good that I had to stay for another.

Then, of course, there is Sorrento’s own craft brewery, Birrificio Sorrento. More on their beers in a second instalment soon.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Burning Sky Vatted Porter

Porter disappeared from Britain in 1974. In fact, the version brewed by Guinness until that date had only been available in Northern Ireland, so drinkers on the mainland would have been deprived of the style even earlier. This explains why the Californian Anchor Porter may, having been brewed since 1972, be the oldest porter still in existence

In fairness, porter had been in decline for many years – since the late 1800s, in fact. Ron Pattinson's invaluable research suggests that, as porter’s popularity took a dive, so did the quality of the beer, as breweries looked after it less carefully. It’s gravity also gradually dropped - before the First World War, stout and porter had been barely distinguishable, but later, stout became the stronger beer. Whilst some drinkers might have turned to stout, popular tastes leant towards unaged X ales, which evolved into what we now call mild. From the 1920s onwards, porter was not a mainstream beer.
The style returned, briefly, in the late 1970s, and several breweries made porters in the 1980s.

Nowadays, porter's history is, along with that of IPA, one of beer's most treasured origin stories. But that period in which one of Britain’s richest beer traditions completely ceased to exist seems to have left a cultural scar on the current wave of small breweries. Most British micros now make a porter, and several excellent examples hail from the style’s spiritual home of East London. The renewed interest in the style also incorporates a corrective investment in porter’s past – many porters are based on vintage recipes. Even Guinness reportedly raided their archive of brewer’s logs to inspire their Dublin and West Indies porters, launched last year.

But modern brewing techniques are very different to those of porter’s heyday. Few of these historical recreations, interesting though they are, taste much like the original beers would have. The most significant difference is the age of the beer – traditional porters would have spent months in a huge aging vat, sometimes as long as a year. And, inevitably, wild yeasts, including brettanomyces, would have made their way into these vats.

Burning Sky’s vatted porter is the first I've encountered that recreates this aging process. A batch of porter is deliberately spiked with brett before spending five months in an oak vat. It’s a great idea and, in terms of process, not so vastly difference to the other special beers made at Burning Sky – the barrel aged, semi-sour saisons, or the Flanders Red.

Towards the end of last year I tried the porter which is presumably the basis of this version, and it was excellent. Much of its richness and bitter, roasted flavour is retained here. There’s coffee and bitter chocolate, as we might expect, along with some toast, and carbonation is low. The sour note you'd expect from the brettanomyces is not so pronounced as I expected – the label suggests that this beer can either be drunk young, or kept for some time, and I’d be interested to see how a little more time in the bottle might change it. As it stands, the brett certainly alters the flavour profile of the beer, and it is still a recognisably great porter, so perhaps that’s for the best. The time in the oak brings, for me, an acidity that recalls red wine, a depth of flavour that even leans towards a slight saltiness, and some tart cherry notes which gel nicely with the coffee and chocolate.

My bottle came from the fabulous Trafalgar Wines. The beer is harder to find online than I expected but, if you’re quick, you can snap up a handsome 750ml bottle here

Monday, 6 July 2015

London Smoke porter & chipotle BBQ sauce

With BBQ season firmly upon us, smoked beer is never far from my mind. And since my BBQ beans cooked with Beavertown Smog Rocket porter went a while ago, I decided to tweak the recipe to make a rich, tangy BBQ sauce that I could store in my fridge in anticipation of my first BBQ of the year. I only made a few changes – a little less passata, a little more beer. Some added mushroom ketchup (which I use as a vegetarian alternative to Worcestershire sauce – if you don’t mind the anchovy content, you could use that instead) and tamarind sauce for extra depth and tang. And some chipotle chilli, for added smoke and a fiery kick.

Having used Smog Rocket already, I didn't want to go with the same beer this time around. Smoked porter is undoubtedly the way to go – the smoke is appropriate, and the roasted malts match the sweet treacle in the sauce. So this time I've opted for Five Points’ London Smoke. It’s a big beer in many ways – rich, boozy, full of coffee, chocolate and currant flavours, amongst others. The smoke is not hugely pronounced, but gives a meaty background that will work. It’s quite bitter, so an extra touch of sugar is needed.

The sauce tastes great. If you eat meat, I imagine this could make for a really special burger. And as you tuck into your juicy half-pounder, you might pity me with my dry, lifeless soya patty – but you needn't bother, because I've come to love the ‘hockey puck’ veggie burger. Especially with one of these on top.


  • 1 chopped onion
  • 1 tsp smoked garlic powder, or 2 cloves fresh smoked garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1 tsp chipotle paste or half a dried chipotle chili, deseeded and finely chopped
  • Generous pinch of smoked paprika
  • Pinch of oregano
  • 200ml Five Points London Smoke, or other smoked porter
  • 150ml passata
  • 1 tsp black treacle/molasses
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp soft dark brown sugar, plus an extra pinch
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsbp mushroom ketchup or Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp tamarind sauce


  • Fry the onion on a medium heat for about 5 minutes, until soft and golden.
  • Stir in the smoked garlic, chipotle, oregano and smoked paprika and fry for another minute or so.
  • Add the passata and stir in all of the other ingredients and season. Retain a small amount of the beer (around 10-15ml) and keep to one side.
  • Reduce the heat as far as possible whilst keeping the sauce at a simmer. Stir frequently to make sure it isn’t burning, and simmer for around an hour, or until thick, checking the seasoning several times. It’s unlikely to ever become quite as thick and gloopy as a bottled BBQ sauce, but use this consistency as a guide.
  • Once you reach your desired consistency, remove the pan from the heat and set to one side to cool.
  • Once cooled, transfer the sauce into a blender or food processor with the remaining beer. Once smooth, return to the blended sauce to the pan.
  • Whilst the sauce reheats, wash and sterilise a jar. To do this, thoroughly wash the jar with washing up liquid and hot water, but don’t dry it. Then place it in the oven upside down on a baking tray and turn on the heat. After a few minutes, turn it the other way up. Keep checking it, and when the moisture has dried, remove it from the oven. Fill it with the warm sauce and fit the lid tightly. Once the jar has cooled, put it in the fridge until ready to serve.