Home Beer When in Rome: Sam Calagione’s Italian beer journey

When in Rome: Sam Calagione’s Italian beer journey

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CATEGORIES: Beer   Feature   Travel  

Dogfish Head’s iconic brewer Sam Calagione on the Italian journey that led to his new Birra Etrusca, out in November.

In 2011, I partnered with two Italian brewers, Teo Musso from Baladin brewery and Leo di Vincenzo from Birra del Borgo, to become the three contributing brewers at Birreria, a rooftop brewpub at Eataly NYC run by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. I met Teo and Leo nearly a decade ago at the Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy, and recognized them as creative brewing compatriots. The three of us struck a lasting friendship and became the cross-continental Birreria Brothers, training the on-site brewer at Birreria and collaborating on recipes that blend Italian and American ingredients and brewing methods, like our pale ale made with Italian thyme and an English mild brewed with chestnut powder.

A few months ago, Teo, Leo and I planned to meet in Rome to work on a second Birreria brewpub in the Eataly store. All of the Birreria beers brewed in New York City and Rome are draft or cask only, so we agreed it would be fun to collaborate on a bottled beer using ancient Italian brewing ingredients with subtle differences in our production techniques, each unique to our three breweries.

This time, I decided to tap my old friend Dr. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on ancient fermented beverages. I met Dr. Pat in 2000 at a Philly beer festival hosted by our mutual friend Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson. Dr. Pat sipped plum braggot at my booth, and told me about the work he had done vetting the residue found on clay shards in a 2,700-year-old Turkish tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas. This conversation led to our first of many ancient ale collaborations, a beer called Midas Touch that we brewed with saffron, honey and muscat grapes. With Dr. Pat and my Birreria brothers ready to go, we defined our Nicolas Cage-flick-style mission: To resurrect a 3,000-year-old Etruscan beer recipe.

Teo’s a patriarch in the modern Italian craft brewing renaissance. He looks like a gypsy-esque Johnny Depp and is excitable and passionate, frequently whipping out his sketchbook to express his thoughts when our language gap proves too broad. His inventive beers include ingredients like local grapes; in fact, he himself produces more than 80 percent of the ingredients that go into his beer. Leo’s more methodical and organized than Teo and I, and always acts as our rudder. He’s been brewing with local exotic ingredients like chestnut powder, grape must and even tobacco leaves for many years. As our host and steward, he organized visits to museums and tombs, and invited us to test-brew our beer at his production brewery on the outskirts of Rome.

Dr. Pat and I joined Leo and Teo in Rome, and began exploring museums and Etruscan dig sites to inform our recipe. The dig sites are well preserved and yet totally accessible; we walked through them with local experts and historians who described what we were seeing. At the burial site of a warrior prince in Tomb A at Casale Marittimo/Casa Nocera, we saw fascinating fluted drinking bowls that contained hazelnuts in one, a combination of apples and grapes in another, and what was likely pomegranate in yet another. Then, there were the strange, unusual vessel shapes, like the oblong wineskin that held a tree resin (maybe myrrh or frankincense, which had been imported by Phoenicians from modern-day Yemen or Somalia) and a beehive-shaped vessel with honeycomb inside. The whole remains of fruits and tree resin in the vessels indicated they once held a very particular hybrid grog, probably a kind of barley-wheat beer that was served in elaborate bronze cauldrons and drinking cups at the funeral celebration for the warrior prince to usher him into the afterlife.

These fascinating discoveries formed the foundation of our recipe, but we agreed we wanted an indigenous ancient yeast to handle the fermentation. So we reached out to Dr. Duccio Cavalieri, a microbiology researcher and one of the world’s leading yeast experts.

“There is no way to resuscitate a yeast cell or spore from 3,000 years ago,” Cavalieri told us. “All you can do is sequence the DNA from dead cells, which have degraded leaving only short fragments.”

This was going to be an interesting task. The Etruscans lived in Tuscany, a region that has a long heritage of wine varietals. It’s rare, but some people still carry “Tuscan” genes, and we thought the same might happen with yeasts. We eventually found two strains that belonged to a cluster of Etruscan strains; they were isolated in central Tuscany, one in Montalcino, and one between Barberino and Volterra. To be certain, we analyzed them with DNA sequence-gene level markers and discovered they were similar to a group of strains from this region, but were clearly distinguished from other European strains. We used these as the father strains to develop a hybrid yeast, and best of all, we could successfully conclude that our yeast did indeed come from the land of the Etruscans.

We then settled on the rest of the ingredients, paying homage to the gorgeous culinary landscape around us and the ingredients we discovered in the vessels: leaf hops, fresh pomegranate, defatted hazelnut flour, raisins, gentian root, honey (equal parts local wildflower, local clover and Italian chestnut), myrrh resin, pomegranate juice and Senatore Cappelli Italian wheat. We decided to simply call the collaborative beer Birra Etrusca.

“Brewing Birra Etrusca is an opportunity to tell the story of historic fermentations in Italy in a liquid format,” Leo triumphs. “It’s also exciting to think about beers with other brewers with different cultures and ideas, but with the same creative vision.”

Our different ideas will emerge when we make three versions of Birra Etrusca at our three different breweries this fall. We’ll each use the same ingredients, but variant methods and materials in fermentation. Leo has decided to ferment his version in terra cotta amphoras, while Teo will brew his version in wooden fermenters. At Dogfish Head, we’re  going to do the primary fermentation in bronze. Our choices weren’t random: Terra cotta, wood and bronze were three of the most common materials found in the Etruscan tombs. We want to see how each material affects different versions of the same beer.

I recently read a story on epic voyages in the New York Times that began with this sentence: “Modern-day pilgrims may not exhibit all the fervor of their religious-minded predecessors, but they still seek transformative experiences.” It reminded me of all our awesome exploration, cross-pollination, collaboration and diving into the past to create beer’s future. Brewers have been bringing life and vitality to the culinary world since the dawn of civilization. When we use indigenous ingredients in our creations—when we brew outside the Reinheitsge-box—we excavate that noble tradition time and time again.


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