Going for an Italian

Four years ago I was just a red-toothed wine vlogger at the dawn of my foray into the wild world of beer when I attended the very first European Beer Bloggers Conference here in London.

It was an event that changed the path I was on and gave me the opportunity to meet and connect with so many wonderful folks who I call friends today (also produced this rather fun video of the 2-day event). As you might expect I tasted some mind expanding beers from the UK, US, Sweden and even an introduction to Italy’s Birra Artigianale through the excellent Toccalmatto and Birrificio.

Now since then we’ve seen a massive increase in the number UK brewers, a huge influx of US imports (even a good few from Sweden) but somehow Italian craft beer remains as elusive and exotic as it was back then.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 09.14.00Part of the problem surprisingly had nothing to do with a lack of good beer explained beer sommelier Jacopo Mazzeo last October at a lunch hosted by specialist importer Beers from Italy at Tozi restaurant in Victoria.

IMG_6564The Azuurri birra revolution can actually be traced as far back as the mid 90’s with Teo Musso’s passion for Belgian beers leading him to start Birra Balladin which many see as setting things in motion. From there beer guru and sensory analyst Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove inspired a wine-dominated culture including a teenage Jacopo, that there was more to beer than the big 2 or 3 brands. The two men also collaborated to create TeKuseen by many as the ultimate beer tasters glass. This much-heralded receptacle was what all the beers would be served in during our lunch.

At most recent count, there were more than 830 breweries stretching the length and breadth of the boot, yet those age-old barriers of high taxes and punitive duty are preventing them from finding a foothold (sorry couldn’t resist) in more shops, bars and restaurants here in the UK.

The focus of the lunch was on food and beer matching and starred Abruzzo’s Microbirrificio Opperbacco whose wide range of styles gave my palate a real run for its money. Run by Luigi Recchiuti who turned his back on a degree in agricultural science, to brew beers from converted stable on his father’s farmland amidst the olives, grapes and grains of Casarino di Notaresco (love the olives from there!).

IMG_6567IMG_6566After an introduction from our generous benefactors and some very informative background information from Jacopo, we started things off with 4 punto 7 (4.7% abv. 4 point 7 get it?) a fruity golden ale that exuded a dry floral perfume from the glass. Quite tart and dry to begin but mid palate it shone with pithy citrus, honeycomb and dry flowers. It was paired with a double-barreled aperitivo of delicious and unusual roast fennel, carrot, bean and spelt salad as well as deep fried calamari with lemon. The four point seven worked reasonably well with the salad though I felt it wasn’t the ideal match. It fared somewhat better with the calamari as the dryness cut through the oily crunchy batter.

IMG_6570IMG_6571The second course of crab ravioli with tomato and basil partnered a golden Saison that paid homage to the hippy 60’s. Tripping Flowers (6.3%) despite its name gave little way on the nose. I noted some dry hay and honey but it seemed a touch closed. My first sip was bracingly dry and herbal though finished fresh and clean. Going back, I noted sunflower seed, dried rose petal, wild turnip and some almond. I may have been a bit harsh but didn’t feel the match worked. Independently they were both tasty, but together?

IMG_6576IMG_6574Next was the cleverly named Eipiei (6.3%) which sang of orange zest, pine, caramel sponge and gingerbread. I enjoyed the wild Mediterranean herbs, bold resin etched flavours of roasted red pepper and the biting bitterness, and it had a beautiful balance to boot! As a retired sommelier, I was doubtful that an IPA could stand up to that most classic of Italian dishes, aubergine parmigiana. But the match was inspired. The bitterness coping with the acidic richness of the tomato sauce, the red pepper dancing along with the meaty aubergine and the savoury aspects of the beer going toe to toe with that most umami of foods; parmesan cheese. Going out on a bit of a limb it was probably my favourite, most memorable beer and food match in 2015.

It was around this point that starting to feel a little warm and fuzzy (those last two beers being up over 6%) and this being an Italian lunch we were only halfway into it. I must admit as a direct result, my note taking became mush more abstract.

IMG_6580Secondo was yet another two-pronged gastronomic gambit consisting of pork cheeks, cavolo nero and mash potato and a buffalo ricotta ravioli with fresh black truffle (spoiled!). Taking them on was L’una Rossa (6.4%), a red rye Saison with orange peel and coriander. Now on paper things looked good, certainly with the pork cheeks. The beer possessed tart red fruit, caramelised sugars and good full body. But what works in theory, doesn’t always in practice. L’una seemed to lack the depth to marry well with the pork and the earthiness to harmonise with the ravioli. Not a bad match but just not what I was hoping for. Sadly it worked even less well with the ricotta ravioli with the tangy flavours tussling quietly on my tongue. Oh well…

IMG_6583The main courses out of the way we were now on the home stretch with fromaggio up next and the creative naming from Opperbacco continued with an abbey style triple called Triplipa (7.8% Tripel IPA anyone?). Testun al Barolo is semi-hard pasteurised cheese made from alpine cow’s milk. Testun means hard headed and the Barolo refers that most famous Piedmont wine region and the dried Nebbiolo grapes that the cheese is crusted in. Triplipa on its own showed nice stone fruit aromas and was uber dry, yeasty yet refreshing on the palate. However, the highly complex Testun was too much for it. I felt a creamier soft cheese (minus the tannic grape crust) would have been a better option.

IMG_6591 IMG_6587Finalmente, it was dolce time and we were served a Tozi speciality of coffee and amaretto bonet; a dense delicious wintry treat, which is essentially a Piedmontese creme caramel. This was paired with Dieci e Lode, a dark strong (10% enough for you) Belgian-style Trappist ale. Looking like glorious mahogany tar as it was poured and forming a tight bundle of thick foam this beer offered much to the eye as it promised on the palate. Humming in the glass was the intoxicating scent of ripe fig, moist liquorice and winter spice. Then rich cocoa, espresso hints of black peppercorn and rum-soaked Christmas pudding fruits. It is beer truly worthy of its name (Full marks and honour). I loved the bonet and thought the match was good, but would have been very content with the Dieci all on its own.

And rest…

Three hours had passed since we sat down, but it had flown by. It was a great crowd (that included award-winning beer pals Des de Moor and Sophie Atherton) with lively debate and conversation whisking back and forth across the big table.

IMG_6575It may not have been a total success with a few of the pairings not quite working, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational afternoon. It is only in experimentation that we are able to make incredible discoveries and there was one at the very least with the Eipiei and aubergine parmigiana.

Saluti to Tozi for providing brilliant service and lovely food, the superb beers of Opperbacco, Jacopo for playing host and educator and of course, Beers from Italy for the invite and picking up the tab.

Here’s hoping that in time, Birra Artigianale is a language that we all speak a little better.

*Image of Jacopo Mazzeo courtesy of Arsenio M. Navarra

Craft Comes to Croydon

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.19.05Roll up roll up! This Friday and Saturday (Oct 16 &17th) Croydon (yes Croydon!) will be holding its very first Craft Beer Festival.

But why do I suddenly care about the beer scene in Croydon? What could posses me to encourage people to travel to a beer festival in this much-maligned borough?

Well, there’s a story behind that and if you’ll indulge me it goes a little something like this…

When my Mrs. Drink n Eat and I began our search for a first rung on the property ladder, South Norwood was nowhere on our radar. We longed for a cozy bolthole in Crystal Palace or Forest Gate urged on by friends who had bought in those areas before they became the unaffordable meccas that they are today. It actually took what appeared to be a knock-back on a dingy flat in Canning Town for us to totally reset our priorities and lo, we now find ourselves in leafy SE25.

Though it’s a London postcode we are served by London’s largest borough, incidentally an area we had at the outset said we would avoid. But here we were in “The Mighty Croydon” (as my pal Dan used to call it when he lived here), a place that has had a bad rap for as long as I have lived in the nation’s capital (which is a few years now). But as seems the norm across all of London, the ground continues to shift both physically (being built on clay) and socially (gentrification) under our feet.

Now the shopping isn’t as bad as you would think in Croydon centre and that’s even before you take into account the newly green-lit cathedral to consumerism Westfield and the Boxpark hoardings heralding the arrival of those containers of cool, those popped-up shops at East Croydon station. The transport links are excellent with trains, trams and buses shooting out to all points on the compass.

But for a gastronomic ghoul l like myself, C-Ville still seemed to have a big problem; no quality pubs, wine bars, restaurants or speciality drink shops. The new Aldi at Norwood Junction isn’t bad for wine (check out my first & follow up blogs). Then there’s Waitrose on George Street and at the Chruch Street Lidl wines are fast improving courtesy of my pal, Matt Walls (and a certain Richard Bamfield MW). But they are supermarkets and to be honest, the Waitrose beer selection doesn’t set my pulse racing (notice I don’t mention Aldi or Lidl’s beer options. There’s reason for that).

I was feeling no more confident about my imbibing opportunities after an evening out with local beer blogger and pal Sam Hill where he took me to the “two best pubs in Croydon”. Now I don’t want to besmirch the Glamorgan who do very good burgers and the Oval Tavern which is a friendly lively boozer indeed but the beverage offerings weren’t great, typified by the fact that we drank bottled Guinness West Indies Porter (which is rather good) in the former and St. Austell’s Tribute in the latter.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom with South Croydon boasting a few good restaurants including Albert’s Table, but greedy me I wanted something whack bang in the centre. Why couldn’t I have it?!

Little did I know that was all about to change last week after meeting up with award-winning, esteemed beer writer friend, that man of many facets Des de Moor (he’s worth a Google). Des had recently published the newly updated and revised The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars (buy it here from the CAMRA Shop) so he is the man in the know when it comes to brewy goings on in the capital.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.19.52Supping an out of date but still characterful Brabo (Belgian inspired Pale Ale of Des’s creation in collaboration with Brains Brewery) and standing in the warm glow of that finest of beer/hot sauce/wine shops Hop Burns and Black in East Dulwich, I bemoaned in true 1st world problem style the dearth of good beer places in my area. As we both waxed lyrical about The Hope in Carshalton (a must go to Pub) Des picked up the store copy of his aforementioned book and poked to the cork coloured topped pages of Outer South London first pointing to The Green Dragon and then to the Wine Cellar which boasts over 1200 wines it was worth a visit but they also did beer. “They have a decent beer range as well as cask beers to take away, and I think they’ve opened another shop in central Croydon as well.” Des said in his musical lilting Tractor Boy twang. This was worth investigating.

So Friday I set about hunting around the tinternet and within minutes by a combination of Twitter and Google maps found the location of Fresh Fields Market/Wine Cellar.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.26.01Thrilled with the prospect of checking out these places practically on my (distant) doorstep I tweeted and texted Sam to enlist his company. Of course, he was in. So it was set.

Later that evening I jumped on the trusty tram and rode the 6 or so stops and as I passed the Lidl (which I knew) I wondered where this Fresh Fields could be? Then lo and behold the tram pulls right up to it and stops. It’s literally right there at Church Street tram stop and if it wasn’t for the annoying safety barriers you could literally walk off the tram right through the doors.

Unassuming as you enter, organic fruit and veg to your left and a drinks case containing the usual suspects of the soft drink world albeit with healthier more exotic leaning. Looking past the tills with same old spirits and smokes behind on the right, all the rest of store stretches out and it appears at first glance to be an off-licence of the normal ilk. A shelf of Echo Falls “wine”, rows of tinned food, pasta, bleach, biscuits etc.

I glance along to some tall wooden wine racks beyond the registers, my hoppy sense starts to tingle at the sight what looks like the chunky forms of German bottles and approaching I can see a decent array. A few of the great S’s are there; Schlenkerla Märzen, Weizen and Helles but so too is Spaten Oktoberfest, a gaggle of Schneider Weisse and the very good Jever Pils.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.30.26Along that wall, there are more wooden racks with an assortment of wines, but tonight was not a night for wine (I did have a peek at the wines and despite a couple interesting bottles the focus here is most definitely beer). Perhaps this Teutonic front was the extent of their beers? My heart began to sink… but as I turned to my left where on a tall metal table sat a stout cask of ale with some tasting glasses (a good sign indeed) there appeared a sliver of an oasis or was it a mirage of glittering glass?

Turning so my angle of view became more direct my breath caught in my throat, it took a few seconds, but finally my brain caught up with what eyes were struggling to take in. Not simply a wall, it was a 7-8 foot wave of beer that even curled at the end to include a glowing chiller fridge as well.Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 10.23.59

Dumbfounded and giddy I grappled with myself to keep from crying out like a lunatic. The selection was immense, especially in terms of London & UK Breweries, and not just a bottle of this or a can of that. Some breweries had more than half a dozen offerings on show. There was stuff I had never seen before from breweries I knew and others who I had been meaning to try. It was Alladin’s friggin cave!

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.30.59Belgium and the US were well represented with all the Flemish classics on show, and more beers from Brooklyn and Anchor than I had ever seen. Speaking of Anchor, their collaboration with Brotherhood Brewing Brotherhood Steam is a revelation and perhaps the best beer I have had this year. Heaven in a can.

What also impressed me was the pricing. For instance, Beavertown Neck Oil is £1.99, yes you read right one ninety-nine. In addition plenty of top beers are priced at a very decent £2.49 and even 75cl bottles of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace are on at £9.99. Not satisfied with a very fair pricing policy FFM also offers a 10% discount when you buy 6 bottles (they also offer a 10% off to card carrying CAMRA members).

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.31.32Stood like some creepy beer stalker unable to even touch anything I was soon approached by a friendly smiling member of staff who asked those magical words; “Would you like to taste some beer?”. He brought me a little goblet of Triple FFF Brewing Company “Stairway” from the cask and I slurped it greedily, my mouth having gone completely dry.

My hands quivered as I texted Sam to tell him that he to see this place with his own eyes and that wasn’t a drinking venue as such, and we’d have to go elsewhere. He told me later he knew it was serious when I declined to meet him in a pub and that “I’d just wait there for him”.

While I waited on Mr. Hill that kind member of staff introduced me to the manager Ben (aka Benedict Nicholas Selvaratnam). He’s the perfect ambassador for this venture; warm, friendly, passionate about good beer and wholly committed to turning Fresh Fields Market into the beer destination for not only Croydon centre but the entire borough. He talked me through some of the recent hiccups (having to ditch the once larger selection of organic fruit and veg because it wasn’t selling) and his vision for its ambitious future.

As it stands they have to commit more of the shop to convenience store items to make up the costs in these early days, but Ben has already earmarked an entire aisle for “clearing out and just filling with good beer”. But he’s not done there. There are plans for a growler/flagon fresh beer filling station and meet the brewer events as well.

He even asked me if there were any breweries I wanted to see on the shelves! Now that’s a man who aims to please.

Eventually, Sam turned up and we began that unique ritual that such places can have on grown men. We shouted and squealed like ten-year-old boys dashing back and forth pointing to this or that on the shelf. But soon we regained our composure enough to fill our arms with those magic six then tromped to the till like conquering heroes.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 10.35.32Ben rang up my purchases and I couldn’t help feeling like he missed something out, or did he give me a better discount? But no, on examination it was all there with the 10% off. Bargain.

We talked some more about the market but then talk turned to the imminent Croydon Craft Beer Festival of which Fresh Fields is a major sponsor along with New Addington based Cronx Brewery. Sam and I both grabbed tickets (£3 in advance from Fresh Fields Market, The Oval Tavern, The Wine Cellar and Brgr&Beer or £3.84 through Eventbright or £4 on the door) and after heartily thanking Ben we wandered out into the night clutching our treasures.

We headed in the direction of Matthew’s Yard, an eclectic cafe, art and music warehouse space that houses BRGR & Beer. While we ordered we discovered from the very friendly staff that festival’s celebration of good beer wasn’t limited to the goings on at the Braithwaite Hall. They were hosting the folks behind Fourpure Brewing Co. and Gypsy Hill Brewery with special events also afoot at the Green Dragon, the Spread Eagle, Croydon Clocktower Cafe and much mentioned Oval Tavern.

BRGR & Beer do some mean burgers (Beef, Chicken, and Veggie) and their rosemary fries are a real coup and as it says on the tin; there’s a decent selection of bottle beers. Do check em out.

Right, I think that’s it and you are up to date.

I am now looking forward to the weekend and sampling London’s best and brightest at Braithwaite Hall along with bottles and cans from around the globe. There’s even tell that some small scale London-based cider producers will be showing their wares too, which will be music to the ears for those of you who eschew grain-based beverages. Speaking of tunes, Gastropub Live will be providing live bands and food stalls will round out what looks to be the event that puts Croydon Craft Beer on the map.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 09.43.52I hope to see you there.

 

Israeli Craft Beer

My rather euphoric discovery of the Israeli craft beer scene was on a beautiful sunny spring afternoon in 2013. I spent several hours, chatting, eating and drinking microbrews at Beer Market in Jaffa Port, Tel Aviv.

I snagged a few local bottles to sample back in the UK and tasted them at the Stormbird with a few good beer pals. They included: Des de Moor, Richard Warmsley, Sam Hill, Mark Charlwood and the infamous Glynn Roberts.

We started things off with Shapiro Pale Ale which had been a brewery I had liked in TA. Their Pale at 5% abv was hazy and full of yeast. There was some peach, tin corn and mint with a creamy bitter texture. Just ok.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 13.29.52Next was HaDubim Kiwi (5.3%). I had met Dagan their brewer while I was at the Beer Market in Jaffa, very nice guy. His Kiwi poured hazy golden with aromas of zesty gooseberry jam. Ultra dry with tart citrus and a kiwi skin finish. Pretty good.

Numero three was from family run brewery Taybeh actually based in the West Bank. Their Amber (5.5%) despite being brewed according to the German purity laws whiffed of brewed tea and sour Gueze. We established without tasting it that it was infected. A real shame as it had travelled so far.

Our bad run continued with Alexander and their Green (6%). An IPA with an “Israeli twist” that smelt of soapy cotton wool was also infected.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 13.30.30We were due some luck and it came in the lusciously dense molasses black form of Alon Porter (5%) from Negev. Metalic aromas of copper, Lebanese spices, cayenne pepper and baked black plum. The texture of velvet, pure earthy mineral expression, roasted coffee with a long dry finish. Very very good.

Maibeerovicz was last up and their Doppelbock (7.5%) was a hazy muck brown with a Kirsh nail polish remover nose. Oh no… Sour cherry, liquorice root and peach on the palate but like all three blended up and left out on a window sill for a few days in summer. Yep it was infected with something nasty.

Perhaps I fell victim to those “Holiday Booze Blues”? Where one is sorely underwhelmed or even downright disappointed with a tipple that filled you with such pleasure in a foreign land.

That said the beers I drank in Tel Aviv were quite fresh and one cannot account for randomising factors that may haunt novice brewers in a fledgling brew scene.

Besides the superb Negev and solid Hadubim here’s hoping the next time I am able to try the rest that their beers are in better shape…

Brains Craft Beer

Craft or Micro Brew is all the rage these days with smaller scale breweries popping up all over the country brewing beers of real quality and originality. Not content to be left behind Welsh brewing juggernaut Brains launched Brains Craft Beer in May 2012 and has already produced over 50 different beers! Here’s what I thought of 3 of them;

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 16.35.07Barry Island IPA 6% US inspired IPA made in collaboration w/ Simon Martin

Pale copper on the eye producing no real head.

Nose is sour, barley sugar, lemon, leather & cantaloupe melon.

Palate is sharp, malted sugars & bread, moreish easy drinking, lemon zest & herb finish.

Not bad at all and would happily go with garlic prawns. 6.75/10

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 16.35.28Atlantic White 6%  Belgian & US mash up producing a White IPA 

Yellow gold with good frothy head.

Smelt herbaceous, golden syrup, sunflower and grapefruit pips.

Nutty, spicy herbs, rocket, lean and a bit soapy.

Decent. Went well with Haddock mustard & cheese fishcakes. 6.25/10

 

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 16.35.40The Shy Porter 4.5% A traditional brown porter w/ added coconut chips and raw cacao nibs

Rich thick foam head, hazy cola brown.

Sweet & raw chocolate nose.

Sweet coconut, sour, unbalanced, acidic, pina colada, not right.

Fairly disappointing and I actually chucked it down the sink. 3.5/10

So these bottled signs were decent(barring the very poor or perhaps faulty Shy Porter), but having tried a few more of their beers at GBBF(Great British Beer Festival) on cask, I must concede that I find Brains Craft Beer tastes like a big brewer trying very hard to produce “craft beer”. By that I mean it’s perfectly ok, but lacks real character and that artesian touch.

Postscript :

At the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards 2013 in December last year I tasted beers from Brains Contitental Beer Challenge, where they worked in collaboration with some highly regarded UK beer writers & professionals. The aim of which was to brew the best classic continental style, with most adding their own unique twist. I tried a number of them and found most of them to be of a universally high standard, but was especially impressed by the Challenge winner Rye Catcher by Glenn Payne, Brabo by Des De Moor and Three C’Son by Adrian Tierney-Jones.  Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 12.00.27Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 12.01.00Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 12.01.19