"I see you have some of the best Italian beers", said Leonardo di Vincenzo, brewmaster of Birra del Borgo, grinning and pointing at a range of Peroni beers. He'd popped up to Beer-Ritz, the shop that I manage (but don't own), the morning after the Italian craft beer dinner, and had decided to ignore the two metre long stretch of his own lavishly packaged beers on the bottom shelf for the rather less impressive trio of Italian macrobrews.
Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Italian craft beer dinner at Leeds' excellent Cross Keys pub. It was really a showcase for the astonishing beers of Birra del Borgo, although there was a pre-dinner aperitif of Amarcord Gradisca slipped in at the start, a perfectly decent dry, faintly herbal pilsner. Then the fun began.
The first beer, Duchessa (6.2%abv), is a pale golden ale made from spelt (a variety of grain). Leonardo was at pains to point out that the fruity character of the beer (and it really did taste of mango and pineapples) was largely down to the quality of the grain. The beer itself has a relatively neutral hop character, allowing this juicy fruitiness to shine through. It was paired with a delicious pea soup with shredded ham hock and a poached quail's egg, then on to the next beer: Baladin Open.
Open (7.5%abv) is an IPA-style beer, with two distinguishing features. It's a pale copper-gold IPA with a surprisingly easy-drinking character for its strength, full of tangerines, grapefruit and a faint pepperiness. It's other unique selling point is that it was marketed as the world's first open-source beer: the recipe was published and people were invited to make their own version of it. If anyone has done this, and got anywhere near the original (or bettered it), I'd love to hear about it. (Now I think of it, that may be as good a place as any to start with my home brewing - hey, why not reach for the stars?).
A royal pair of beers were served around the main course of chicken breast stuffed with goat's cheese, served in a wild garlic sauce (the recipe for that wasn't made available, sadly, but that would have made it an open source sauce). ReAle and ReAle Extra (both at 6.4%abv) are a demonstration of how sometimes mistakes can be good things. They are two beers brewed to the same recipe (give or take about 1% crystal malt), but ReAle Extra has the majority of its aroma hop load added right at the end of the boil. This was originally the result of a mistake in the brewhouse, when Leonardo was distracted from his honest toil of brewing by an unspecified distraction (there may have been beer drinking involved). The original version (ReAle, meaning 'royal', but clearly typographically altered to suggest real ale) is the winner, for me, being stuffed full of juicy marmalade notes, although the popular opinion is the the Extra is a better beer, having a drier, herbal, spiced lemon character. I can't imagine either would disappoint, should you track some down.
Pudding of poached strawberries served with strawberry ice cream and a black pepper tuile biscuit was good on its own, but was kicked into overdrive with a glass of KeTo Reporter (5.2%abv), a sweetish dark porter brewed with the addition of fresh Kentucky tobacco leaves (hence 'Ke To'). Yes, I know that it sounds as though you'd say "bleurgh, there's bloody TOBACCO in this beer!", but the sweetly spicy influence of the wicked weed is a background note, and although noticeable, never dominates.
Gosh, that's a lot of words about a small, new(ish) Italian craft brewery, and I still have about the same again to write about some upcoming events they have planned. Watch this space.
Many thanks to Giulio at Vertical Drinks, Leonardo of Birra del Borgo, and the staff at The Cross Keys for an excellent evening.
POSTSCRIPT: During the dinner, The Cross Keys was showing the Italy vs. Paraguay match on a big screen at one end of the room. Although I'm not a fan of big-screen TVs showing football at dinner, one of the more admirable things I've seen this year was Leonardo introducing one of his beers while Paraguay slammed home the opening goal against Italy. He watched it happen, but didn't bat an eyelid. Total class.