Birra del Borgo, Baladin, and BrewFist are names well recognisable to serious drinkers in the UK as they can often be found on the taps at some of our more interesting specialist beer bars and discerning bottle shops.
But there is always something particularly appealing about sampling beers in their natural habitat of their domestic market mingling among the natives. A recent trip to Rome provided such an opportunity to sample beers from some of these flagship Italian brewers on home soil and to also experience how the craft beer bar scene is developing in the city.
I’ve long had respect for the Italians and their beer drinking culture that dates back to when I attended a meeting of a band of UK brewers at the Jerusalem Tavern in London’s Clerkenwell (in the early 2000s) who were linked by being growing exporters of British beer into the Italian market.
They appreciated this very different beer style, compared to their own indigenous predominantly lager output. Adding to my respect was that countries with a strong wine heritage tend to be much more likely to have a lesser interest in beer. But the Italians were game enough to give our beers a go even in those Before-Craft beer days (shall we call it BC because the revolution really has been of such an order of magnitude for those of us old enough to know what it was like before).
Top of many visitors’ list of bars to visit would be Open Baladin, which is at the cutting edge of the Roman beer bar scene. Visually it certainly stands out, with its impressive wall of bottles (numbering what must be 200 in total) that seems to highlight the history of Italian bottled beer. One thing it is fair to say is that regardless of the quality of the beer in any of its bottles, the Italians have by far the most stylish liquid carrying vessels in the world.
Beyond the bottles, Open Baladin (with an impressive 35 taps) has some similarity with many places in the UK in its adoption of an industrial-chic interior. It has its roughed-up steel fonts, chunky iron seating, and concrete flooring.
It also gave a hint that the Italian palate (if this is what is defining the output from its craft brewers) has a preference for slightly less extreme flavours. The sours were less sour than I’ve become accustomed, the IPAs less overtly hoppy than many to be found around the world today, and the Saison’s had a lower level zing and distinctiveness of ingredients than I’m used to in the UK. This is not to detract from their general quality, which was consistently high.
In some cases the flavours were sufficiently different to those expected that I’d question whether they’d really been given the correct definition on the listing (chalk boards are standard in Rome it seems). That said, I’ve little interest in beers being rigidly categorised, it’s all about the flavour rather than what style you want to badge it as.
There were also a few odd brews served up that seemed to mix styles and also throw in some odd ingredients – hoppy saison anyone? Thug Life from Birrone, was a strange sounding white APA and Freshie Salt & Pepper from Birra del Borgo’s Australian joint-venture brewery was a rather un-sour sour.
Unlike Open Baladin the remaining recognised beer bars in Rome are wholly frequented by the locals (with no tourists) and give a real flavour of the city – especially in the San Lorenzo area near the Termini rail/bus station. This gritty area boats two top bars and is undoubtedly the ‘happening’ area.
Il Serpente and Luppolo 12 are two very different beasts – with the former almost like a British bar, with its dark wood, low level lighting and knick-knacks scattered all over the place. The latter, in contrast, is more stripped down with an almost cafeteria like vibe about it.
The most highly rated bar in town is in the ‘happened’ area of Trastevere and has the longest name Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà. Among its 16 taps were some interesting imports including Smuttynose Imperial Stout at 10.5% and Weihenstephan Vitus at 7.7%.
What stood out was that the price of these strong foreign brews was exactly the same as all the other beers including more modest ABV beers like Berenice from Eastside Brewing in Latina at 4.6%. They all cost Euros 4. It was just such a pricing policy that united all the bars visited.
Whatever the strength and from wherever in the world they are sourced all the beers are priced the same in each bar. At the particularly interesting No Au even the wines are priced at the same uniform cost (Euros 5). If only life was this simple in the UK where the price differential for strong and foreign beers can be multiples the cost of lower-ABV British brewed beers.
The reason for such a simple policy in Rome is because – I’m told – the Italians simply won’t pay a premium for these more interesting specialist beers. I’m not sure whether it is a good or bad thing that in the UK we accept such a practice without question.
Yes, the bar owners have to make it worthwhile stocking more esoteric beers but how much more experimental would British drinkers be if they could taste brews from across the whole spectrum for the same price as more standard productions.
It’s highly unlikely to happen of course, which simply makes this one more reason to get over to Rome. By the way, there’s some other interesting historical stuff to see while you’re over there too, so I’m told.