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.

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