Monday, 17 March 2014

The Italian Job

This is what judging beer looked like in the Brewers Exhibition
back in 1937; the bowler hats are probably in the cloakroom
This is not true to style. Words I have never uttered before and as I said them I wanted to claw them back, vanquish and erase them, but it was too late they were out there (and inside my head a man carrying a notebook filled with the names of thousands of beers he’d drank and put into their appropriate styles hooked his thumbs into his Union Jack waistcoat and tipped his bowler hat at me with malicious glee). Thankfully no one else on the table took any notice of what I’d said. Why should they? The occasion, after all, was the judging at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini, where over 600 beers would be tasted, sipped and investigated over the course of two days by a jury of 40 plus judges from Italy and various parts of Europe. This was my second year of service and the event is one of the best competitions at which I judge during the year — it’s well run, it offers a chance to investigate what’s going on with Italian artisanal beers (no one said the word craft once as far as I can remember), there’s a good crowd of people, there are great beers and setting it in Rimini is a rather ingenious masterstroke — the Adriatic in early spring, plenty of sun and that bright and breezy sense of a seaside resort about to wake up from its winter hibernation.

However, there is a serious side to things. There are 26 categories of beers, including golden ales, IPAs (both English and American influenced), beers made with wine must, sour beers, a variety of Belgian, German and British influenced beers and the one beer style that is uniquely Italian chestnut beer (though it has to be said it’s not the most popular category). We received a press pack with a thorough dissection of what to expect from the variety of beers, the colours, the taste specs, the clarity (or not), the persistence of the foam and whether or not some diacetyl could be allowed. I’m relatively relaxed when it comes to style perimeters, but I found the existence of these rules intriguing and thought-provoking, it was a challenge to be faced, it made for stimulating conversation and it made me think about the beer I was dealing with.

The styles our table dealt with were golden ales, honey beers (a collective groan from the table when we saw this, though there was a stunning one made with chestnut honey), the final of Italian lagers, double IPAs (not as impressive as the ones I judged last year) and the final of Belgian-influenced dubbels. The latter was incredibly impressive and for once we didn’t discover any DMS, diacetyl or solvent notes. However, there were two beers we knocked out, which was when I held a light amber glass to the light, then sniffed the crystalline, slightly dessert wine nose that reminded me of a tripel and uttered the words: this is not to style.

So what I have learned about Italian beer? BrewFist’s Galaxy saison is a superb beer, but I couldn’t pick out any saison character (the Galaxy gives it a big fat character that for me swamps the pleasing austerity of saison); the same brewery’s Too Late double IPA is incredibly drinkable, even at 9.4% and HopFelia’s Foglie d’Erbe is a ringing, chiming assemblage of Northern Brewer, Tettang, Centennial, Citra and Amarillo that all comes together to form a bright, brilliant, zestful, cheerful IPA. I have learned that not all honey beers are bad; I have learned that some Italian brewers make what they call a double IPA but during brewing it seems that they get to the hop precipice, look over and turn back; I have learned that not all Italian beer people swoon over Le Baladin anymore; I have learned that there are some superb lagered beers being made (Bruton’s floral, crisp and bittersweet Eva for instance); and I have learned that dry-hopping roast potatoes is a brave and bold move but doesn’t necessarily work. After all, spuds and hops, er, this is not to style.

The results for the Birra Dell’Anno will be found here and if you go to Rimini then hang out in Catinetta and Fob, where an intriguing beer dinner included pig clouds (think massive pork scratchings), bone marrow with Westmalle bread, pork ribs cooked with bock and dry-hopped potatoes.


  1. We plan to have quite a few more Italian beers at GBBF this year, fingers crossed.

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