Saturday 30 November 2013

Teo Musso

This is part of the Boak & Bailey inspired Go Longer idea and was written in 2008

Jesus turned water into wine, but Teo Musso at Le Baladin has gone one step further — by changing beer into wine. At his bar in Piozzo, a small village high up in the Piemontese hills above the Barolo wine country, he proffers a glass of Xyauyu, a dark, almost black powerfully alcoholic ale (13.5%) that has spent 18 months sitting outside in a container in the courtyard at the brewery. Exposure to air has led to the beer going through a period of oxidisation, which in most cases is sudden death to beer, but here the process has alchemically altered the beer in the most sensational way — it has gone through the valley of shadows and death and come out totally transformed.

Viscous and limpid in the glass, it is warming and sherry-like on the palate, complex and blessed with a restrained but comfortable sweetness: an elegant and esoteric beer that has taken on the character of wine. It is strong, 13.5% in strength, and the drink-by date on the bottle says to be consumed by the end of the world. Clearly, Musso is a man with his eyes firmly fixed on beery nirvana.

Even though wine is king in the country of Italy, craft beer is taking pot shots at the throne, challenging the old hegemony, especially in the style bars and brewpubs springing up in the north. Here in the beer homelands of northern Europe we always think of Peroni and Moretti whenever the subject of Italian beer crops up, inoffensive premium lagers with big advertising budgets and nothing much to get worked up about. However, it is now estimated that there are approximately 150 breweries and brewpubs in Italy, a number that will probably keep growing. Le Baladin, which has been going since 1996, is often seen as the star of the show with Musso as its leading light.

He certainly has the aura of a man who believes his own publicity (‘he is the Jim Morrison of beer,’ I am told by one Italian beer writer). He is tall and rangy, draped in a long scarf, leather-jacketed, stick thin, heavily stubbled and blessed with the sort of distressed, windswept hair that must take forever to do in the morning. Even though he’s in his early 40s, there’s a boyishness about him, an enthusiasm, a sense of adventure or exploration, plus a easy charisma — he greets people in his bar with the sureness of one of those infuriating people who seem to have limitless self-confidence. When we meet he is still thoroughly amused over the battle he had the previous day with a Carlsberg Quality Control Manager at a beer seminar they were both talking at. Ask him about beer and the last thing you will hear will be marketing double-speak.

The home of Le Baladin’s beery heaven is the bar of the same name where the brewery first started. Nowadays, the beer is created (produced doesn’t seem an appropriate word for what he does) in a stand-alone site across the village square and down a side street. In May 2008, it will be all change again as the current brewery will be solely for experimental beers, with the regulars being created elsewhere in the village. For the moment then the brewery remains an adventure in stainless steel, comfortably sited within a nest of tiled walls and floor. 85% of his beers are bottled because he believes that is the best way his beer can be presented, especially when it appears on the beer list of smart restaurants.

Many hail him as a genius, though others of a more conventional stripe might think some of Musso’s ideas as thoroughly bonkers. For a start, most of the fermenting vessels have headphones attached to them. This is due to Musso’s belief that as yeast is alive it can respond to music, in the way newly born babies like a spot of Mozart. There is even a tango guitarist who has composed movements for the different phases of fermentation. Along with the regulation barley and hops, various spices, chocolate, coffee beans and even myrrh go into the brewing pot, while top-fermenting yeasts are joined by strains that usually work with whisky or wine. 

Then there is Musso’s latest creation, the Casa Baladin, which is a beer restaurant and hotel across the square from the bar, a unique stronghold of beer cuisine and seven luxuriant rooms all individually decorated to a theme. The Flowers Room is dominated by an incredible three-metre deep brass bath that was brought from North Africa; the Jewels Room is hip and minimalist, while the 70s one is lurid and psychedelic. You get the picture (one of the other beer journalists I was with used the words ‘knocking shop’). There’s also a Turkish bath, while the high-ceilinged lounge continues with this mixture of modern and fantasy: old weathered beams hang over the proceedings, a metal chimney rising out through the roof has the feel of something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, some of the seating comes from an old Paris cinema. ‘I want to transmit experiences to people,’ he says.

This is the sort of room that would be an ideal winter’s night experience with a glass of the brewery’s chestnut-coloured Noel Baladin to hand, a sensuous Christmas ale that has become so popular it is now brewed all year. However, in keeping with Musso’s brewing contrariness, the recipe is changed annually. The 2007 vintage that I try has coffee beans in the mix, while 2006 saw chocolate being added. ‘Next year I don’t know what I will do,’ he laughs. Noel is nutty and alcoholic on the nose, with a hint of vanilla and ground coffee beans in the background. The palate relaxes with a rich and rummy smoothness that is woken up with an appetising espresso-like bitterness. Musso hands around a plate of truffles to accompany this glorious beer; they have Noel within them. Never mind about chocolate liquors, beer is the new confection accessory in town. ‘I like to challenge the way beer can be used with chocolate.’

Challenging our perceptions of what beer is and can be is what Musso is about. His Belgian-style witbier Isaac has a tart, sourish edge to the palate; Elixir is an Abbey-style ale that is fermented with Scottish distillers’ yeast, while Nora contains ginger root and myrrh and is hopped as lightly as Italian brewing laws will allow — it’s weird in the it’s-a-beer-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it mode and absolutely delicious. The Italian spirit of adventure and inspiration that drove the likes of Marco Polo and Da Vinci are very much alive in Teo Musso. ‘Every week I think in my head a new beer and every two months I try and brew one,’ he says. ‘A new taste is like a new way of communicating with people. My beers try to communicate new flavours and aromas to people. I never get bored with brewing. I am like a volcano spewing out new ideas. I could never be a wine producer because there I could only expect to be creative once a year, while in beer you can be creative all the time.’

Tasting notes
Nora, 6.8% — dry, spicy and refreshing
Brune, 4.7% — chewy, smoky and creamy with toffee notes
Super Baladin, 8% — strong Belgian-style ale with a candy-sugar sweetness on the palate; chewy, bittersweet and silky with lots of malty flavours
Blonde, 4.9% — honeyed, tart and herbal
Isaac, 5% — delicate and subtle with hints of spice and a quenching sourish edge
Nina, 6.8% — ESB style, which is quenching and chewy
Sei no 6, 5.2% — made with a special mineral water; dark gold in colour, it has an estery, sour, gueuze-like nose, with lemony hints; has spices and buckwheat in the mash and is fermented with a wine yeast.
Wayan, 5.8% — light and subtle with a gentle carbonation, dryish; ‘I contaminate the beer with lacto-bacteria and then bottle and secondary ferment’.
Elixir, 10% — sweetish, has a hint of Belgian triple about it but not as hoppy; sharp and prickly in its carbonation; a dry and fiery triple that doesn’t have the sweetness of the more common Belgian ones.
Erika, 9% — dark orange in colour, made with heather honey and also has pine resin added to the boil; not overly sweet, has a nose that can be compared with like being in a forest after a rain shower; rounded, restrained bitterness, bittersweet dryness; very drinkable.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Burning Sky gets its timing right

Mark Tranter
Morning has broken in the East Sussex village of Firle and at the brewery Burning Sky the working day has began. The bells in the flint-faced church opposite sound the hour and the muffled clang of metal casks banging together beyond the wooden doors of the brewery entrance reach out as if in friendly response. Brewer Mark Tranter looks at the clock as if to confirm where he is at this stage of the day. It’s time to go to work.

Time, indeed. Time will be the fifth ingredient (or the fifth element if you will) in the beers produced by Tranter’s new brewery Burning Sky. Within the old barn with its brand new concrete floor, assemblage of shiny stainless steel vessels and a boiler whose tuneless humming puts me in mind of an elderly guy who’s a regular in my local, there is also a quartet of 2500-litre oak barrels. Two of them sit on their side, formerly filled with red wine, while the other two, upright, pot-bellied, are newly made; medium toast French oak I’m told. A further 16 225-litre wooden barrels gather in the corner, with another four on order. Someday soon these barrels will hold plenty of beer that will sleep the sleep of the just.

‘These barrels are a statement of my intent,’ says Tranter, who made his name as the head brewer at Dark Star, the creator of beers such as Hophead and Revelation, a former home brewer who started working with Dark Star’s founder Rob Jones in the 1990s (there’s an irony that Tranter’s current assistant Tom is also a home brewer — the wheel turns full circle).

‘I was proud of the part I played in what I achieved,’ he says of his time at Dark Star. ‘It was a real wrench to leave, but one of the reasons for getting out was that I didn’t want to look back and regret not doing things. I had an itch I wanted to scratch. I also wanted to do this brewery properly and didn’t want to sit in a van dropping a nine here and there. I wanted a decent sized brewery (this is 15 barrels) and everything has to be good.’

He left Dark Star in the spring, went over to the States and then having secured the building, undertook the alterations and got hold of the kit, the first brew was at the end of September. Three cask beers are regularly brewed: Plateau is a 3.5% pale winsome beer that is juicy and fruity (mandarin, peach, pineapple, hop sack pungency) and finishes with a dusty, dry bitterness; Aurora is 5.6% and is, as Tranter insists, ‘a strong pale ale not an IPA’ — it has a Cointreau-like orange character, a husky dryness that demands another taste and a slate-like dryness in the finish; finally, there’s the 7% IPA Devil’s Rest, which is almost red in colour and has a fragrant cherry/cedar nose (with a hint of amaretto), a nutty, stone-like centre, sensuous citrus and ferocious dry finish. This is a rugged IPA, Mount Rushmore with stubble perhaps.

And then we come to time, Tranter’s fifth element, fifth ingredient, burning passion perhaps. He’s always been interested in what breweries outside these isles do, there’s a restlessness about his creativity, which I recall from a trip we made to several small Czech breweries a couple of years ago. Then I recall the first time I tasted Dark Star’s exciting, extravagant Tripel, a gorgeous beer that possessed the fatness and ringing, chiming, jellied fruitiness of some of the tripels I’ve had in Belgium. Then there’s saison of which he is a devotee.

Burning Sky currently brews two saisons. At the moment there is Saison l’automne, a beer for this time of the year, complex, dry and spicy, and a reflection of what is available in the hedgerows of Sussex. For this beer, Tranter collected a load of rosehips and after steeping them in boiling water added the juice to the fermenting beer. ‘I love saisons and I love the countryside,’ he says, ‘this saison’s base recipe will remain the same all the year round but its seasonal ingredients will change. I had this idea that my seasonal saisons would reflect the seasons and whatever was in season at the time would be added to the beer.’ Saison l’hiver will feature hawthorns.

Then there is a Saison à la Provision, which is a different beast altogether. Though it has the same recipe as l’automne (lager malt, spelt, wheat, carahell, East Kent Goldings, Saaz, Styrian Goldings and Soriachi Ace), it’s accordingly amped up to 6.5%, has no rosehips or anything from the hedgerows but instead Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus are added towards the end of fermentation. The glass I drunk in the fabulous Snowdrop Inn in Lewes was hazy orange in colour, with a leathery, lemony, bitter, orange, dry, bracing character while the large long dry finish reminded me of one of those long endless runs that I seem to vaguely remember on Ski Sunday. I drunk it with the ferocity of a wolf coming down on the fold — I wouldn’t mind a barrel of this permanently on tap at home. It’s also a magnificent food beer, being a wonderful companion to the Snowdrop’s magnificent battered gurnard and chips.   

This would be the last time I drink it this way. On the following morning when I was at the brewery, Tranter was brewing the Provision and from now on it would be transferred to one of the 2500-litre oak barrels, and time would take over for the next two to three months. There will also be a 6% stout that will go into wood and a Flemish Red Ale, which Tranter reckons will need 18 months in wood.

There is a calm concentration about the way Tranter is going about his business. He can do the PR with meet the brewer nights and getting writers to visit his brewery but he’s not going to be using the word awesome any time soon. He’s a brewer first and foremost, inclined to the creative side of making beer but hasn’t forgotten that brewing is also a business. ‘Yes I’m nervous about it all,’ he says, ‘there’s a lot riding on what I am doing — what if it doesn’t work out, people have been kind, but if it doesn’t work out, what is there?’

I don’t think he has to worry. On the basis of the beers I’ve tasted and the skill and invention of the brewer I think Burning Sky is here to stay — after all it’s got time on its side.

a statement of intent

Saturday 16 November 2013

…like a massive ant army on the march

With the sound of a massive ant army on the march, the grain for the first mash of the day at Burning Sky travels along the tube until it reaches the safety of the mash tun — as Shakespeare might have written if he’d been interested in covering the beer scene of his time, this island of brewing is full of noises, strange sounds and sweet melodies. The clanging of metal, the wheezy breathing of the boiler, the shouts of the brewer and now this a massive ant army on the march .

Monday 4 November 2013

The Wicker Man as beer

Saturday night, the dark dark night, somewhere in the countryside outside Malmedy, pointillist beads of light flickering in the surrounding hills and fields, while here at the start of a lane that leads down to Brasserie de Bellevaux, fiery torches are held aloft, handed out to initially bemused but then delighted beer writers, who have just spent two days in Liege judging beer at the Brussels Beer Challenge (the competition, now in its second year, aims to be held in a different place every year — I’ll be writing a bit more about it later in the week).

Down the lane we go, The Wicker Man being mentioned time and time again (as well as Madonna when some wax drips on my hand), with a local brass band ahead of us leading the way, invoking a wonderful if Laurel & Hardyesque sense of carnival. It’s joyous, surreal, giggle inducing and above all fun, which is what is forgotten sometimes about beer. Hey beer is fun.

Into the farm yard we herd, where Bellevaux has grown since being set up by former chemist Wil Schuwer in 2004, torches still jerking up and down, while a bonfire crackles, glistening haunches of wild boar slowly turning on a spit. I’ve had some great beer moments and this is yet another memorable one.

Across the yard in the brewery, the copper clad vessels reflect the light, adding more lustre to the evening, while glasses of the brewery’s bracing Blonde and its bone-dry Black are handed around. Wil’s wife Carla Berghuis greets us, emotion in her voice as she tells the brewery’s story, its mantra of localism and good beer stirring and joyful at once amid the smell of wood smoke and the good natured mood of the judges.

In the brewery, Wil discusses beer and brewing, especially Bellevaux Black, which appears in 1001 Beers. ‘When I thought of it,’ he says, ‘I thought of a British beer, but this being Belgium we added some foam. I now like to think of it as a porter.’ It is a beautiful beer, a sleek dark chestnut colour with an autumnal aroma of berries, a smoothness on the palate punctuated spikes of roast and dryness before finishing with an appetising dryness. I found it a comfortable and considerate companion to the wild boar and uplifting when it met the cranberry sauce I dolloped onto my plate.

The brewery also makes Tom’s Pale Ale, a Brune and a Triple that at 9% was a perilously addictive beer — dried pineapple, voluptuous sweetness followed by an ascetic dryness. What’s not to like? And while we ate a woman with an accordion wandered amongst the diners, adding to the sense of the occasion (this was not U Fleku with the man in the Corsican bandit’s hand scowling as he waits for change). Good beer, good food but more than that a great, hearty, homely, friendly, joyous sense of occasion. If you’re in the Ardennes look these guys up — I can’t promise the fire parade and the band though.