Saturday, 14 August 2010

Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA

Many, many years ago, in a previous lifestyle, in a previous life, someone offered me a line of cocaine. I declined, on the basis that I didn't want to put anything into my brain whose only purpose was to convince me that I was having a good time - I wanted to get that feeling by actually having a good time. I was told that I was talking crap, and I remember very vividly their reply - "If your brain tells you you're having a good time, then you're having a good time". I didn't agree with that then, and I don't agree with that now.

I'm not quite sure why Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini IPA (6.6%abv) reminds me so vividly of that exchange. Maybe it's because in over two decades of drinking beer and taking it seriously, I've never met a beer that made me stop and pay attention quite so much to what was happening on my palate in order to enjoy it.

I bought this bottle from the Bieres Sans Frontieres at GBBF, and opened it at the bar and shared it firstly with Sylvia Kopp and an Italian volunteer. They were quite polite about it, but I wasn't initially convinced - it seemed quite dry, perfumed and slightly tannic - that slightly dry-tongued, gum-gripping sensation you get from strong tea. I was a bit nonplussed - £6.50 for a large bottle, and it didn't conform to what I was expecting. But I know better than to dismiss a beer at first taste - maybe it needed a bit of time to relax and recover from its time spent in a bottle.

I meandered off, looking for someone to share it with, seeking further opinion, and didn't have to look far. I found a table containing, among others, The Beer Nut and Impy Malting. They both seemed to enjoy it, but by now, I was getting a bit frustrated. It wasn't that this was a bad beer, but you had to concentrate very hard on the flavours and sensations to get the most out of it. Finding myself at a table, I made some notes:

"Copper-bronze, big aroma, dry and spicy, oak/vanilla? Very fine carbonation, dry, astringent, almost tannic on the palate. Dry and spicy finish. Very elegant, fine grapefruit and jasmine/Earl Grey note. Oddly dry finish. Incredibly fine, but could be dismissed as not very good if you don't pay attention. Although I am paying attention, and I'm still not sure".

I don't think that every beer should be one-dimensional and easily understood, but I just wasn't getting it - there was something interesting here, but I had to pay so much attention to it that it was an intellectual exercise rather than having a taste of beer. It felt as though to get any enjoyment out of this beer, I had to tell my brain that I was enjoying it, rather than just enjoying it (you see, that wasn't just a gratuitous reference to cocaine at the start of this piece - it had a point).

There are quite few styles of beer that need to be studied before they can really be enjoyed - lambic is a category that springs to mind easily. In fact, I'd suggest that at some point in our lives, we all force down that first taste of beer. Some of us never get the taste, and some become fascinated. There probably aren't any beers that you can give to a novice beer drinker and they'll happily adopt it as their new favourite - they are all learned, adult pleasures. And I'm more than willing to give anything a go, but with this beer, I felt like I had to draw the line at convincing myself I was enjoying a beer.

So after that slightly long and rambling tale, the question that emerges is: If you have to think too hard about whether a beer is any good, is it any good? Should every beer be a stab at an examplar for a style? Or can we tolerate and even enjoy the odd sideways look at a style?

[FOOTNOTE: I'm aware that I'm breaking Rule #3 by not going back for a second bottle to verify my opinion. I almost wish I had - but only almost.]


  1. This was one of the most enjoyable beers I had at GBBF although that might be because it was late on and was one of the only beers I actually sat down and relaxed with. I'm probably missing your point but it sounds like it just wasn't to your taste or what you were expecting. Any beer that annoys is surely just not your thing? I think the Cocaine reference is erroneous. Horrible drug it is but you can have a bad time on it same as you can on alcohol, frame of mind Is a factor in imbibing any drug in my experience. I really want to try this beer again now though.

  2. Well thanks for the taste, first of all. I didn't notice the tannic thing, but I do like a bit of tannin in a beer.

    I was surprised by how ordinary it was. Aren't Italian craft beers all supposed to be mental dark cloudy trans-belgian affairs?

  3. Interesting sounding beer - you've certainly piqued my interest. You going to get any of it in? Every once in a while you should have a beer that forces you to stop and pay attention, for sure. It's horses for courses.

  4. I agree that the cocaine reference is completely inappropriate.

    @The Beer Nut: "Aren't Italian craft beers all supposed to be mental dark cloudy trans-belgian affairs?""


  5. Good question. Sometimes a beer which makes you work for it - which makes you think about it throughout, especially when with friends who are also talking and thinking about it - is made better by that process. It allows the drinkers to pull it to pieces and take a deeper look inside (or a sideways glance, to use your wording). It doesn't always make it a great beer but there's often something more memorable about a beer which makes you work for it - you may not have particularly enjoyed this one but you remembered it and will likely continue to remember it.

    As for the beer, I enjoyed it but it did have two of us talking for the duration of the bottle as we drank it, discussing what we liked and why and what we were tasting. It's certainly not a boring beer!

  6. MBT - you're right of course, it wasn't to my taste, and if you enjoyed it (and many people did), then this isn't a criticism of your (or anyone's) palate. But I was surprised that I found so little merit in it. I tried hard to enjoy it it, but if you have to try hard to enjoy something, then surely it can't really be any good, can it?

    Beer Nut - it wasn't even that it was ordinary - I quite like ordinary beer (although I may have baulked at paying six quid for a bottle of ordinary beer). So much of the beer, for me, was close to being faulty - the oaky/vanilla thing was close to butteriness, the tannic/astringent thing to me was verging on the unpleasant, and the perfumed thing was weird. I just couldn't tell what the beer was meant to be.

    Leigh - it is interesting, but we won't be getting any.

    Mark - I'm still out on whether the beer was any good, but I'm sure it wasn't really to my taste. It isn't a boring beer, for sure, but I'm not sure that makes it a good beer. Just to clarify, the 'sideways look at a style' is meant to refer to what the brewer does rather than the drinker. So for example, maybe Toccalmatto wanted to make something that wasn't just another big IPA, but something that refers obliquely to the style. I'm not convinced that it's really in the IPA style (and this isn't meant to be a discussion about styles - we all know what the contemporary definition of IPA is), but more frustratingly, I'm still not sure what I think about it. I'm sure that I didn't enjoy it very much.

  7. "There probably aren't any beers that you can give to a novice beer drinker and they'll happily adopt it as their new favourite - they are all learned"

    Well I suppose it depends on the person but i've seen some sweetish oatmeal stouts and fruit beers win novices over. Not sure if they adopted tham as favourites tho.

  8. Rob - I guess you're right, but I think the point I was trying to make is that if you have to pay too much attention to a beer, to think too hard about whether you like it or not, then it's likely that you're not really enjoying it.

  9. I have not tried this beer and if I'm ever in a situation where I could buy a bottle, I won't because I don't like beers that are hard work. If I'm ever offered a taste I'll try it but I wouldn't pay £6 to try it.

  10. Does this then somehow fit into a new style of pale ale? An Italian PA, perhaps? Drinking it is was easy to taste the US influence but at the same time it was clear that it wasn't a US beer.

  11. "I think the point I was trying to make is that if you have to pay too much attention to a beer, to think too hard about whether you like it or not, then it's likely that you're not really enjoying it."

    Couldn't agree more!

  12. Stu - very sensible - I was happy to take a chance on it because I'd heard good things, but hey, you can't win them all. I must have looked like a bit of a Billy No-Mates wandering round trying to find someone to palm it off on, sorry I mean share it with.

    Mark - that's sort of what I wondered - there was something going on there, but I just didn't get it it.

    Tandleman - quite. I'm not sure why it took me so many words, such a clumsy plot device, and so much soul-searching to reach that conclusion.

  13. well if I'd been there I'd have kept you company

  14. Brought my bottle home from gbbf, and maybe the surroundings were better suited to concentrating on the beer. Have to admit when I was distracted watching tv, talking etc, it seemed an average sort of beer, but when I drank and thought about the beer I found it to be very enjoyable. Wish I'd written something down, all I do remember was thinking 'mmm grapefruity/lemony notes and definitely a touch of Sorachi, nodding it's head vigorously towards US Pale Ales in the hops, but in the malt and yeast firmly rooted in Belgium/Netherlands. I too wish I had bought another one. Had the Grado Plato Sticher on the train back, and two more big Italian bottles waiting for me!!! Cheers, Tara.

  15. Stu - if you'd been there, you'd have been more than welcome to it.

    Tara - your reply sums up my dilemma perfectly. There is clearly a lot going on in the beer, but it's such a delicate little flower that unless you give it all your attention, it just gets washed away. I remain unconvinced by it, but I know others tried it and loved it, so maybe its a personal thing. Or perhaps massive bottle variation, or even a faulty bottle.


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.