arma has a pretty secure place in the gastronomic pantheon, what with its cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) and Prosciutto di Parma (and incidentally, the best gelato I’ve ever had). You’d think they could rest on their laurels a bit, but in the suburbs, a new addition is brewing…literally. Birrificio del Ducato is one of Italy’s up-and-coming microbreweries, and they’re taking that culinary tradition into some unexpected places.
Giovanni Campari, the brewmaster, is part of Italy’s second generation of Italian craft brewers. Like many in Italy, and like our own microbrew pioneers a couple of decades ago, he started as a homebrewer. However, with a degree in Food Science and Technology, he wasn’t starting from scratch. After graduating he had initially worked with sourdough bread, coffee roasting, and the like, but says he was “fascinated by the fermentation process, and brewing provided an excuse to realize the theories” he had studied in school. Eventually he and a couple of friends got excited enough about his brewing progress that they went into business together. Before he made the jump to professional brewmaster, though, he went to finishing school at Birrificio Italiano, one of the older craft breweries (that is to say, dating back to 1996). He says brewmaster Agostino Arioli helped him develop recipes for what would become his first commercial brews.
Campari says that the first generation of Italian brewers were inspired by Belgian and German traditions, whereas he and his peers, inspired mostly by their pioneering compatriots, are moving toward developing an Italian beer identity. His Pils, “Via Emilia,” for example, is inspired by Arioli’s own pilsener. Jon Lundbom, a manager for Ducato’s American importer, B. United, says Campari has another influence: America. “He’s a hop-head.” Campari owns up to it, too, saying he “saw the light” when he began tasting American IPAs and pale ales.
Interest in craft beers is booming around Italy; Campari says many are getting into the biz with the hopes of making a fast buck. His own beers have been successful enough that one bar in Milan sells about 10 kegs of his Via Emilia each week, They’ve asked him for even more beer, but he wants to supply other markets. The hope is to control expansion, focusing on quality restaurants, so that the business can develop a strong reputation and lasting power.
Not that he isn’t interested in some flash; this year, he became the first Italian brewer to compete in the World Beer Cup. His three beers all fall into classic categories: a Pilsener, a Saison (or Belgian farmhouse ale), and an Imperial Stout. Each one, though, has a personal touch, facilitiated by Campari’s scientific approach. “I use yeasts that allow me to play with my materials.” The saison, Nuova Mattina, has touches of chamomile, ginger, and even green pepper – spice in a saison is expected, but Ducato’s pantry is a bit unusual. The stout, looking perhaps to some contemporary chocolatiers who have found the benefit of hot spice, uses hot chilies to provide some dryness on the finish of the chocolatey richness that defines the Imperial stout style.
Italian beers are developing a reputation for these sorts of unusual ingredients; in some cases, it could be said to be a marketing gimmick. But the Ducato beers remain true to their styles, even if they’re embellished in unexpected ways. The Nuova Mattina combines several different types of malt, oats, and two kinds of hops, in addition to the herbs and spices. When all that comes out the other side, you end up with a dark blond beer, with notes of mandarin, tangerine, floral hops, and white pepper, complemented by touches of chamomile and coriander. The flavors are more assertive than many Belgian saisons, but with a lighter body and dry finish, it adapts well to the warmer climes of Italy.
The Verdi Imperial Stout is medium-bodied, and drier than many beers in this style. It shows a mix of cocoa, carob, and licorice notes, with the aforementioned chili coming through clearly, but still well-balanced, on the finish, adding interest to that dryness. The pilsener, Via Emilia, is the most conventional of the three beers as far as ingredients go. However, Campari dry-hops the beer throughout its four-week lagering (aging) period, allowing him to give the beer more body and density up-front but still finish dry and refreshing – this is where the “hop-head” instinct shows his colors. Some oatmeal and floral notes appear on the nose and mid-palate, along with citrus, grass, and honey notes.
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