Guest blog post: Beer in Rome

By beer consultant (and long-time friend) Leon Morse:

The last time I visited Rome, which I am shocked to realize was 23 years ago right after finishing college, I had found good beer in the States (Boston’s Commonwealth Brewery, anyone?). My friend David and I embarked on a trip through Europe that yielded good beer in London, Rotterdam (I believe I had my first Belgian abbey style beer there), Berlin, and Prague. Our final destination before a long trip back was Rome. While I recall drinking a lot of beer one night, I can’t recall what it was or even if it was Italian. I hope it was at least Moretti.

Hopefully I at least drank Moretti!
Hopefully I at least drank Moretti!

Indeed, in 1992 craft beer in Italy was —  as it was in much of the States — a curiosity made somewhere else. Baladin converted their Piozzo beer bar into a brewpub in 1996; for ten years it had focused on imports, mainly from Belgium. But Baladin and a handful of other new breweries quickly established a distinct Italian craft brewing identity inspired by others but often relying on uniquely Italian tastes. It seems craft beer has been a welcome invader of Rome, as signs for “birra artigianale,” or “artisanal beer” are not at all difficult to find.

Revisiting Rome this summer was not just an opportunity to rediscover this wonderful city, but was also an opportunity to sample so many more Italian craft beers. Despite many being available in the Washington, DC area, there are many that don’t make it. Besides, the ones here are fresh!

I did not even really need to pack my copy of Beer Advocate, issue 94 (which has an article on the best places to drink good beer in Rome), as David and Laura had already recommended many of them for my trip! Here are my musings on Italian craft beers and the bars where I enjoyed them during my recent stay in the Eternal City.

Oasi della Birra (Oasis of Beer) at Piazza Testaccio was a wonderful, divey-little place with a top floor that is a gourmet market and a basement that reminded me of DC’s Bier Baron (née Brickskeller), what with the small maze of rooms, brick walls, and dusty beer paraphernalia everywhere.

Oasi della Birra
Oasi della Birra

Their tap list is short and a mix of Italian craft beers and imports. Their bottle list is more impressive and features several Italian breweries unknown to me, so I focused my energy (a bit sapped thanks to jet lag) on those.

  • The Admiral (6.3% ABV) from 32 Via dei Birrai was a good choice to pair with food. It poured a cloudy amber with a medium head, had an aroma hinting of almond, and tasted of malt and a bit of orange as it opened up before finishing with a hint of alcohol.
  • Dazio (6.8% ABV) from Ivan Borsato Microbirrificio Casa Veccia was touted as an American Pale Ale, but reminded me of some of the ambers of 1990s U.S. breweries. Clear amber, but with a good bit of yeast at the bottom, it had an aroma of breakfast tea, caramel, and malt. The palate became more complex after being in the glass a bit, becoming more balanced as well; at first it was just sweet then bitter. Not what most would call an American Pale Ale, but went well with our food.
  • La 16 (7% ABV) from Birrificio Math went into the glass a light, mostly clear amber with medium head. It had a subtle but sharp floral aroma hinting of jasmine. Sweet and viscous, it was a pleasant beer to round out the evening.

We also really enjoyed the cured meats, cheeses, and bruschetta (with a selection almost as long as their bottle list) at Oasis of Beer.

At the memorably named “Ma che siete venuti a fa’ ” (which means, roughly, “But what the heck did you come here to do?” — a chant yelled at the opposing team at soccer games) at Via Benedetta, 25, in Trastevere, the terrific bartender Dario happily shared his love for craft beer with me — as well as a few samples!

Their impressive tap list is mostly Italian, with some nice imports as well (Bayerische Bahnhof Gose, for example). It was before lunch, so I only had two.

The affable Dario behind the (tiny) bar
The affable Dario behind the (tiny) bar
  • Son of a Gun (6.5% ABV) from Brewfist was instantly refreshing and flavorful on a hot day. Sure, lots of breweries have hopped on the hoppy saison bandwagon, but it’s a trend far more preferable to, say, bellbottom jeans. Slightly cloudy, gold, with a sticky, frothy head, it smelled of lemons and other citrus contributions from the hops — even before you pick up the glass. Bracing in a pleasant way, bitterness built over time and it finished medium-dry. A memorable choice.
  • Amarillo (4.4% ABV) from Vento Forte was a beer I could drink all day as intended. Pouring clear gold with a sticky, medium head, this one has a catty, orange-pine aroma that clues you in right away that this is a beer for hopheads. It coats your palate with hop flavor despite its light body. Another keeper!

Note that this place is tiny — six stools at the bar and a handful of tables in the back, and does not serve food. But, there are plenty of dining choices in the area.

Brasserie 4:20 was my favorite of all the beer spots I tried. A bit farther out (at Via Portuense, 82), it’s well worth a quick taxi ride. There are a lot of great beers on tap to try plus a selection of bottles if you ask. Mostly the beer is Italian but some nice imports rounded out the selection. At 8:30 on a Sunday, we were the first ones there; things did not get rolling until a few hours (and many beers–some of which I review below) later!

Brasserie 4:20
Brasserie 4:20
  • Picking up where I left off with Vento Forte, I started with their Saison #9 (3.4% ABV). Cloudy gold with a head like meringue, it smells of pine, floral hops, and a bit of lemon. A fantastic saison and a refreshing beer to begin with. It tasted of lemon, grapefruit, and had just a touch of hop bitterness.
  • Bla Bla Blend (6% ABV) from Revelation Cat was my wife’s first choice since she is a fan of sour beers. Well, she’s a fan of many kinds of beers. In any case, this one was excellent. Amber with a thin head, it had a sweet and sour nose. It was bracing but smooth, with lemon/lime rind building to a taste of lime pickle. An excellent sour beer!
  • Guerilla IPA (5.8% ABV) from CR/AK was one of the most distinctive and interesting IPAs I’ve had in a long time. Pouring a cloudy straw color with a medium head, my nose was greeted with black pepper, Tabasco, and a bit of star fruit. The taste moved from black peppercorn to apple to lemon, with some lingering bitterness and a semi-dry finish.
  • Although it was not the last beer of the night, Smuggle Brewing’s Deepest Dark (10% ABV) imperial stout was an excellent pairing with the brownie sundae. Opaque black with a thin tan head, it held a rich aroma of coffee and vanilla. The taste was rich, smooth progression of bourbon, vanilla, coffee, cream, and chocolate. Another outstanding Italian beer!

Staff at Brasserie 4:20 were happy to offer samples and made note of some rare offerings, such as a stash of Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze from 2008. The bottle looked like it had been buried in one of Rome’s catacombs but the contents were amazing.

The food at Brasserie 4:20 goes very well with the beer. The menu is  limited to pub fare, but with a twist and very tasty: for example, burgers are made with hops mixed with the ground beef and cooked a perfect medium rare. Sauces include one made with Laphroaig that tastes just like the Scotch. The habanero sauce is hot and creamy and makes for a great topping for french fries.

At Open Baladin, not far from Campo de’ Fiori at Via degli Specchi, 6, we enjoyed some light snacks as well as another selection of Italian craft beers on tap — and not just from Baladin (as some of the literature notes, they are open minded!).  Again more beers sampled than space allows, so my favorites appear below.

Open Baladin's Wall of Beer
Open Baladin’s Wall of Beer
  • Vedo Tripolo (8.4%) from Bibibir was a fine late afternoon eye-opener. Cloudy straw color with a frothy medium head, it smelled of wheat and yeast. It was dry on the palate, tasting of wheat and white wine, a bit of booze, and some building bitterness. Quite the restorative.
  • Gold (5.2%), a saison from Extraomnes, was an excellent example of the style. Cloudy amber with a head that dissipated somewhat quickly, it smelled of orange and yeast and tasted of those, with an addition of mango and a pleasing medium-thick body.
  • Finally, I went big with Baladin‘s XYAUYU Fume, 2011 version (13.5%). Aged in Islay whisky barrels, this one showed up cloudy brown with no head but with a pronounced smoke aroma and a hint of sweet raisin. It tasted sweet, had a medium body with little carbonation, and kept up the sweet smoke building to more smokiness. An excellent beer.

No.au, in a little piazza north of Piazza Navona (Piazza di Montevecchio, 16), was a nice follow-on after a walk from Open Baladin. The beer list seemed relatively short, focused on esoteric bottled Italian beer. We had one with our snacks.

BdBi(g)BodyIbu served at no.au
BdBi(g)BodyIbu served at no.au
  • BdBi(g)BodyIbu (7%) from Del Borgo. Their website puts this in “Le Bizarre” category. From the bottle it poured a clear deep amber red and had a medium head.  It smelled of tea and hops with some orange peel. On the palate it was big, bitter–orange bitters–hop tea and kept getting more bitter with a cloying–though pleasing–finish.

All I can say is that I can’t wait to get back here to try more new places, go back to many of the same ones, and enjoy what has become an excellent addition to Rome’s renowned food and drink scene!

UPDATE 2016: No.au, mentioned above, has closed.

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