“You can’t just read about beer. It’s like sex or rock ‘n roll- you have to experience it.”
Riccardo Franzosi was explaining to me why he was loading up on local cheese and bread to go with the beer he’d already packed to teach his class on terroir the next day at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. Riccardo is the brewer and owner of Birrificio Montegioco.
It all started a couple of days earlier when I stopped at The Dome (above), a beer destination on the road between Venice and the Piedmont region of Italy.
Neither the GPS nor Google nor an old-fashioned paper map could help me find this place. I had to stop and ask, and it’s the second best question I asked all week. The very best question I asked was of The Dome’s owner Michele Galati (who does not speak English- it was asked with gestures and lots of por favores and pregos) about what beer to have with the cheese and meat plate I had ordered. Expressionless, he said nothing and walked away. A few minutes later he returned. He opened and poured a 2009 Montegioco Dolii Raptor. Pretty daring: he did not ask if I liked sours, and he did not give me a chance to refuse or ask the price.
A deep inhale, a sip- and I was unexpectedly in the middle of one of those moments all beer hunters hope for. I had stumbled on a rare chalis. While sitting there trying to keep it together, I asked one of Michele’s six sons (Joe, the one who speaks English) to please thank his father for me because I had just tasted one of the best beers I’d ever had. I was, seriously, near tears. The kind you shed for beauty. Like listening to Les McCann’s “With These Hands” cranked on vinyl, or slipping into a warm moonlit ocean for an impromptu swim – sans maillot. The kind you spill when joy and awe have a surprise encounter in your brain and the celebration cannot be contained in your body. You know?
I knew I had to meet the brewer. Before I left The Dome, the generous Michele and his family and staff gave me many more delicious tastes and recommendations of Italian craft beer- and even some draft (off menu) Mamouche! (above) The Dome is a special place worth a trip from anywhere.
A couple of days later I was in Piozzo re-visitng Baladin’s first brewpub (above) when owner Teo Musso joined me at the bar. We knew each other from my last visit to Piedmont in 2007 when I was part of a team of beer judges for their annual Una Birra per l’Estate. When I explained the purpose of my current visit, he immediately whipped out his phone and gave me several text numbers of Italian brewers- including Riccardo’s. What luck!
He also encouraged me to go to EurHop in Rome later that week. I said oh, no- I couldn’t.
I introduced myself to Riccardo in a text asking to visit the brewery and he replied immediately to set it up.
As I struggled to find it, I noticed a pattern forming: forget the GPS, Google, and the paper map. Get close, stop for an espresso, and ask. When I showed up at the agreed hour, Riccardo briefly showed me around and said he had a little more work to do. He then asked the two men in the midst of labeling to – essentially – entertain me while he finished. He was very friendly about it. There isn’t a tasting room, after all, and I was visiting in the middle of a work day. Peter and Paolo promptly finished their tasks and began to open bottle after bottle (above and below) for us all to taste. They made us lunch and we ate together on the work table. They tried to tell me about the many former uses of the brewing building. We were feeling jolly at this point- so if you visit please know that cows and goats are not bred to make a new specialty Piedmontese meat. I will leave it at that.
Everything I tried was well made, thoughtful, and delicious. Riccardo’s warm and generous nature, passion for life, and sincere soul come through in his beers. He eventually emerged from the brewery, had a few tastes of beer and laughs with his guys, and looked me right in the eye. “There is something you need to try.”
We walked across the street to his home and outbuildings which hold his many local wine barrels among other things.
This chair is a symbol for waiting. This simple chair would only work in Italy. Can you imagine the American version- a recliner with a cup holder?
Patience is a required ingredient to make La Mummia. We sipped the living work in progress. While I was savoring and speechless, he pointed to a small stainless tank. “That’s for me.” He is trying something with the local white grapes. He poured me a taste. Pretty is the word I would use. A pretty girl who is destined to become a beautiful woman. I was ready to pull up a chair. Then suddenly, “You need to meet a crazy cheese guy!” Of course I do. Why not?
I did actually have somewhere else to be, but it is rather difficult not to get caught up in the enthusiastic force that is Riccardo. I was staying two hours away in the small village of Gorzegno with the generous family of Jérôme Rebetez. The day before we had been to the Alba White Truffle Fair and purchased a large one.
That block of intense aroma was meant to be the center of the evening meal. I could not miss it! But I jumped into the truck with Riccardo and off we went.
I know it is a picture of his back, but this introductory shot of Marco Bernini is important. First, he is facing a serious cheese-in-the-making vessel. One of many in his special cheese house. Next, I do not know an American man who can carry off tattoos, rugged good looks, and a sweater with a giant flower. Not one. Do you? Somehow it’s dead sexy.
Here is the front. Marco pulled several cheeses in various stages for us to try. My favorite had a mild uric aroma. He explained that he makes it with raisons dipped in local honey and inserted into the cheese. Then a mold strain is inserted from another direction. It brought back sharp sweet memories of driving the rural farm roads of Ohio (pre-Monsanto) to visit my grandparents in the summer. A very happy tasting, that was. And he gave me a recipe in Italian and two unmarked tubes of a coagulant to try to make the cheese myself. Somehow they made it through customs. I always wanted to have a stealth food boarder crossing story.
At the end of the visit, Riccardo said, “We’re going to Rome in a couple of days for EurHop. You should go.”
And so I did. That’s the next post.
I made it to Gorzegno in time for the best meal I had in over two weeks in Italy. Farm-fresh eggs, homemade pasta- with the white truffle hand-shaved over each course around the table, a luxurious bottle of wine, and lovely company that indulged my terrible French. Merci beaucoup Mick et Ann!
If you are planning a trip to Italy for craft beer, here is some practical information and more places to go:
Birreria Le Baladin (Brewpub)
Piazza 5 Luglio 1944, 15
+39 0173 795431
Teo Musso’s first beery endeavor. It’s a bit hard to get to- a fun and beautiful drive. The hours are strange (to me). But go- do not miss it.
Birrificio CitaBiunda (Brewpub)
Via Moniprandi 1/a fraz. Bricco di Neive
A server at Baladin told me about this place. She said the brewer was once the head brewer at Baladin. There are two related businesses in one building: upstairs is special pizza (I didn’t try it) and a couple of house beers. Downstairs is a larger menu and bigger beer list. You can’t order the pizza downstairs, nor all of the beers upstairs- which seems a tad odd to me since I really wanted all the beers and to eat pizza. But anyway- super nice and knowledgeable bartender. The adorable chef visited the downstairs often- seems like there is a lot of communication between kitchen and both bars. At this point I was craving a US-style, Brewfist-y beer and these were definitely more on the sweet side with plenty of spice, but well made and certainly worth a stop.
Birrificio Extraomnes (Brewery)
Via L. Guzzetti, 135
+39 0331 6004 26
Sometimes I’m a bit slow. Skigi was on the team of judges I met in 2007 at Baladin, but when people talked about a great brewer at Extraomnes, I didn’t make the connection. This time, everywhere I went people said great things about his beers, and I certainly sampled plenty of Zest just to make sure. I did not make it to his brewery- it’s first on my list for next time. But I did catch up with him at EurHop! (Next post.) Michele of The Dome was kind enough to share a collaboration made just for the bar between Extraomnes and Cantillon. Mmmm….
Birrificio Montegioco (Brewery)
Frazione Fabbrica, 1
See post for details.
Via Molinari, 5
+39 0377 379814
I had my first Brewfist at Aldo’s in Venice. (see previous post) My initial thought was: I CAN find a US-style IPA outside of the US! I had Spaceman, then Burocracy. Again I tried Brewfist at The Dome- for the first time on tap. My American palate is skewed, but I have to say- Americans abroad will not be disappointed by these hoppy yet well balanced, well made beers. They are all examples of controlled excess, which to me defines a perfect American-style IPA. The porter was also super. I did not visit the brewery. Next time!
Casa Baladin (A “farm restaurant with rooms” across the piazza from the brewpub. Actually a luxury beer hotel. Yes.)
Piazza 5 Luglio 1944, 34
+39 0173 795239
Another Musso project. There is a real Turkish bath. ‘nuf said?
Eataly Torin (Bottle shop and restaurant, among other things)
Via Nizza, 230/14, 10100 Rivalta di Torino
39 011 19 50 68 01
More Musso. I stopped here on my last night in Italy. The selection of Italian beers is stellar. It’s a bit more rustic than the slick white-tiled NY version, and there isn’t a rooftop brewhouse with a gorgeous view of the Flatiron building, but it’s quite fantastic. My Swiss companion was blown away (never having been to the NY one). It’s tucked in a gritty neighborhood, but not knowing Torin- that may just be the city in general. It’s quite different from Milan or Rome, but still has that special Italian grace. Imagine if Detroit were the motor city to Ferrari instead of Ford.
La Birroteca (Bottle shop with bar)
Via Calissano, 3
I stopped in here for a few more Italian beers. It’s really a bottle shop with some taps and good food.
Valter Loverier, Brewer
Strada Pellinciona, 7 – Marentino (To)
+39 347 3636680
I did not visit, but have known Valter from years ago as a homebrewer. Every brewer I met in Italy mentioned the high quality of his beers. I caught up with him in Rome- see next post. You can get his brews in some states. I find them at the Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont, MA.
The Dome (Beer bar with restaurant)
Via Case Sparse Europa, 15
See post for details.
Via Valle Grande, 15
On a sunny day in 2007, Tomme Arthur and I stopped at Troll to visit Daniele Meinero’s brewery and pub. The pub was closed, so we checked out the tiny brewery and sat outside in the sunny mountain breeze with Daniele drinking samples and tasting his dairy farm neighbor’s cheese. When I contacted Daniele this time, he instantly remembered the day. We couldn’t work out a visit- but every brewer I met still had glowing things to say about his beers. You can find them in New York! Eataly (near 5th Ave and Madison Sq. Park) is a solid resource for them. The more delicate ones do not travel well in giant containers, so you’ll have to visit the pub in Vernante to try them.