A few weeks ago I visited Birra del Borgo's new brewery (pictured left) in Borgorose, about an hour outside Rome. As I rocked to and fro on the train, I pondered the truth of the fact that you can make good beer anywhere, and the question "Why?" kept popping into my head. Why Borgorose? When you are from Rome, a city that has an incredible beer scene fuelled largely by the explosion in Italian craft brewing in the last five years (a tenfold increase in breweries in that time), why would you locate your brewery in a remote village in the foothills of the central Apennines?
The answer that Leonardo di Vincenzo, founder of the brewery, gives is a touch prosaic, but with a romantic twist; it was cheap, and he had family ties in Borgorose (his grandparents live there). His attachment to the locality is so strong that he hopes eventually to open a bar in the tiny village, which is an impressively humble aspiration for someone who is also about to open a brewpub in New York in collaboration with Teo Musso (Baladin), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River).
We start off the tour trying a few of the newly bottled 33cl offerings - My Antonia, ReAle, ReAle Extra and Duchessa are all about to be bottled in this format for export to the UK and the USA. My Antonia (reviewed here) is my favourite, now just pipping ReAle to the post. In small format, it loses a little of the foghorn-like blast of malt and hops, but it is still wonderful. We have a look at their new 25hl brewplant, which is in fact the old brewplant from Baladin. I ask Leonardo how production is increasing, and he says that they have brewed as much in the first six months of 2010 as they did in the whole of 2009. They've got great beers and, with the addition of ten new tanks later this year, they'll have spare capacity. Bottling, kegging and casking will all take place on site by the middle of 2011. Birra del Borgo are coming for your taste buds in a big way.
As impressive as all this is, at this point in the tour, I'm starting to feel that I've underestimated both the scale of the operation, and the drive behind it. This is reinforced when we take a drive through the cobbled square at the centre of Borgorose, to the original brewery (pictured right), fronting onto pastures at the edge of the village. It's being cleaned down ahead of the following day's Discovery channel shoot with Sam Calagione (see here for more info on the programme). The smaller capacity that this offers means that it will be kept on as the brewery's experimental plant - in fact, Leonardo mentions that he quite often sends one of the brewery team down here to make a beer of their choosing.
It's here that I realise how badly I've underestimated Leonardo. In a shed at the back of the old brewery, there is a cage pallet of their signature 75cl bottles, packed with a new beer, Equilibrista (Italian for tight-rope walker). This beer is a blend of regular wort and clear Chianti must. The pressed grape juice had no contact with the grape skins, and so is completely clear. The beer is surprising in many ways; it hides its 11%abv very well; it tastes both like a beer and a wine; and it is at once familiar and easy to understand, but does it's balancing act in a way that means your brain is constantly flipping back and forth between wine and beer. The remaining bottles are to be disgorged in the same way as champagne, removing the majority of the sediment. I ask where the disgorgement will take place, and naturally, it will take place right here. "Have you done this before?" I ask. "No, but we were shown how to do it, and I'm sure we can handle it" is Leo's predictably confident response.
We round off the visit tasting a couple of barrel-aged beers, the 2008 edition of 25 Dodici (25th December, their Christmas beer) and two barrels of Sedici Gradi (Sixteen Degrees, their strong, dark barley wine). The 25 Dodici is decaying more or less gracefully, exhibiting a lot of the same 'spoiled' character that Greene King's Old 5X has, an experiment waiting for a conclusion. The two barrels of Sedici Gradi (16%abv) are different from each other, one a new fill, one a refill. The plan is to blend the two barrels for a single release, and after trying the oaked, slightly tannic-textured new fill and the rounded, sherried notes of the refill, we blend them together in one glass for an impromptu preview of the final beer. Despite the 30°C heat in the brewery, I can't stop sipping at the enormous, voluptuous blended barley wine in my hand.
There's a higher force at work here, reflected in the symmetry at the heart of Sedici Gradi. The beer has sixteen months in oak, is 16%abv, and should be drunk at 16°C. The playfulness at the heart of everything - the devil-may-care blending of beer and wine, the blended beers done with Cantillon, the simultaneous production of My Antonia in two different countries by two different breweries - doesn't mask the fact that this is a world-class brewery gearing up to take over the world.
One final statistic that Leonardo gave me during the tour. As I mentioned earlier, in the last five years, the number of Italian craft breweries has gone from 40 to 400. In that time, production of 'industrial' Italian lager has dropped by 15%. If, as seems likely, the younger generation of Italian drinkers are rejecting wine as something their parents drink, and aren't interested in generic yellow fizzy, then as blogger Knut Albert claimed a few weeks ago, Italy really is set to become the new California.
TRANSPARENCY STATEMENT - I paid for my flights, but Birra del Borgo accomodated me in Rome, and made sure I didn't go hungry or thirsty.