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PAIRINGS // Ciao, Vino

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A new wave of Italian craft beer belongs at the table

Story by Lucy Burningham // Photograph by Erin Berzel

In a country covered in gnarled grape vines, it’s no surprise that Italian beers have been treated like old jeans compared to the ultra chic Barolos and Moscatos, the designer dresses of the drink world. But during the past five years, a new wave of craft brewers have brought beer into the spotlight, banishing the traditional (and forgettable) pale lagers produced by Moretti and Peroni to the back of the closet.

The best of these Italian craft beers, which range from pilsners to barrel-aged stouts, taste nuanced, layered, aromatic, and balanced. By using local ingredients such as chestnut honey, cassis, myrrh, and carob, Italian brewers are making the kinds of thoughtful beers that demand full attention.

Translation: these beers beg to be paired with food.

David Anderson, executive chef at Genoa in Portland, Oregon learned about a few Italian breweries before visiting the country last fall. While he was there, he sought out beers from Birrificio Le Baladin and Birrificio Troll. Immediately Anderson recognized the Italian sensibility that has helped produce the country’s famous wines and cuisine.

“These beers are made by brewers who are experienced in tasting food and tasting wine,” Anderson says. “They have mature palates and are artistic by nature.”

Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, California, also visited Italy in 2010 and met a few of his Italian colleagues at Salone del Gusto, a biennial slow food festival in Torino. He was impressed not only by the flavors and complexities of their beers, but the imaginative packaging and higher pricing they’ve chosen.

“The Italian craft brewing movement has taken a high-end approach that is similar to the artisanal, small-scale wine making movement here in America,” he says.

He tasted a strong Belgian influence in the Italian beers he sampled, as well as an occasional nod to English and German brewing traditions.

Brynildson says he’ll never forget drinking a fresh Birrificio Italiano Tipo Pils, a German-influenced, dry-hopped pilsner, right at the brewery. “It was a magical experience,” he says. Just a few weeks earlier, the head brewer from Italiano had spent some time at the Firestone Walker brewery, observing brewing techniques.

By comparing notes and producing collaborative beers (a few years ago Sam Calagione, owner and brewer at Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, brewed the imperial pilsner My Antonia at Birra del Borgo, outside Rome, with owner and brewer Leonardo DiVincenzo), American and Italian brewers hope to create even more memorable drinking experiences for international consumers.

For chefs like David Anderson, the real magic happens when Italian craft beers are served with the perfect traditional Italian food. During one course at Genoa’s first-ever Italian beer dinner, Anderson served zuppa di cozze e ceci, a creamy tomato broth soup flecked with toothsome chickpeas and briny mussels, with Birreria Le Baladin Nora, a beer made with kamut, ginger, and myrrh—traditional Egyptian spices. The slight bitterness and subtle spices intensified the earthy, creaminess of the soup, but didn’t obliterate the delicate flavors in the mussels.

Since Italian brewers often add locally harvested, indigenous ingredients to their beers, the brews naturally pair well with foods from the same region. Think Piedmontese beers with white truffles, sweet peppers or beef—traditional ingredients from the area. Or, a beer from Lombardia might have a natural affinity for cheeses, risotto with saffron, or butter and cream sauces.

At Nostrana, another Portland restaurant specializing in traditional, regional Italian food, bar manager Doug Derrick recently added three Italian beers to the bottle list. He’s been encouraging wine-drinking patrons to invest in a bottle (which run about $16 for 22 ounces), especially if they’re ordering specific menu items.

For example, he says the Malthus Birolla from Birrificio di Como—an ale brewed with roasted chestnuts and honey from local thorntree and chestnut trees—belongs with the smoky rotisserie chicken. “Wine can’t touch it,” says Derrick. “Not even a strong Sangiovese can stand up to smoke, but the beer makes a beautiful pairing.”

By serving the beer tableside in Cabernet Sauvignon glasses, he hopes more of Nostrana’s guests will begin to think of these Italian beers as beverages comparable to fine wines.

Derrick says even the biggest skeptic will love the silky Birrificio Grado Plato Viale Fasano Chocarrubica, an oatmeal stout made with Sicilian carob and Venezuelan cacao beans, served with strong, slightly funky cheeses.

“Of course you could pair the Chocarrubica with chocolate,” he says, “but I prefer something with a little zing on the side.”

While many American chefs, brewers, and importers are recognizing the genius of Italy’s best craft beers, the wine-drinking Italian public has yet to develop a similar appreciation.

“Italian beers are more widely respected internationally and are definitely making bigger waves outside of Italy,” David Anderson explains. “These beers still haven’t broken into the restaurant scene there.”

More for us? Definitely. Until Italy embraces these national gems, Americans have the chance to savor dozens of these complex craft beers brewed with indigenous Italian ingredients. And with our country’s love of Italian cuisine, they’ll never be a shortage of traditional food for perfect pairings.

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