I was honored to again be asked to judge the Birra dell’Anno (the competition among Italian craft breweries) and attend the corresponding Beer Attraction, which is basically a “Great Italian Beer Festival” but also includes booths from all international brewers; however, only birra artigianale Italiano (Italian craft beer) compete.
It is scheduled for mid-February every year in Rimini, the popular seaside town on Italy’s Adriatic coast that is best known as the hometown of famed filmmaker Federico Fellini.
While the judges hail from all over the world (but mainly Italy), there are usually no more than two or three from the US. This year, however, there were five of us, four from California alone — Santa Rosa’s Herlinda Heras, San Francisco’s “Wicked” Pete Slosberg, San Diego’s Graciela Cervantes, LA’s yours truly as well as Doug Odell, founder of Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo.
Doug and I were joined by Italian beer judge, wine sommelier and table captain Anna Borrelli to comprise our judging team. And once again, the jury was headed by Italy’s foremost expert in beer, Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove.
While the judges hail from all over the world (but mainly Italy), there are usually no more than two or three from the US.
And as fate (or perhaps design) would have it, one of the categories (which we judged the final round of) was American-style IPA. As hazy IPAs are not in this competition’s style guide, the one cloudy beer to make it to our round was immediately rejected, and not just for it lack of clarity; it was marred by off flavors and was possibly infected. While our medalists were decent attempts at the style, dry-hopped alá West Coast, they would not even come close to placing if this was a US competition and the beers were American-made. The beer from Birrificio del Gomito, from Agugliano down the coast a bit from Rimini, was our choice for Gold — the closest to a true West Coast IPA we tasted.
The other two final rounds we weighed in on — Sours (a catch-all category for everything except Berliner Weisse, Gose and Barrel-aged) and Red IGA (Italian Grape Ale) — were much better beers, and we cited 2 honorable mentions in each category, aside from the three medalists. Birrificio BioNoć of Trentino was the clear winner with Maraska, a flavorful and complex Oud Bruin characterized by sweet-and-sour cherries — not unlike Belgium’s Verhaeghe Echte Kriek or LA’s Smog City’s Spittin’ and Cussin.’
As for the red grape beer, the multi-faceted flavors of Brewine Rosé from Birrificio La Fenice outside of Milano was our first place choice. Interestingly, both honorable mentions went to Birrificio Beer in Trivero, which aced this category last year with an IGA that was a cross between a fine red wine and a Flanders Red.
The Birrificio dell’Anno (brewery of the year) was awarded to the cheekily named Birrificio Mukkeller of Porto Sant’Elpidio, which won four awards at this year’s competition…
The Birrificio dell’Anno (brewery of the year) was awarded to the cheekily named Birrificio Mukkeller of Porto Sant’Elpidio, which won four awards at this year’s competition: Gold in the European Lager, Belgian Strong Ale and American Porter/Stout categories, as well as Bronze in the Weizen competition.
After a celebratory dinner for the judges and staff — and international bottle share — following the final judging, the next couple days were spent wandering the fest, trying new beers and old favorites, as well as meeting new brewers and reconnecting with past acquaintances and friends.
The US Brewers Association had a booth there, and brought along beers from across the country. Doug even guided some Italians (and Polish beer judges) through the Odell’s brews there. And, for the first time, the BA sponsored a panel discussion (one of the few that was conducted in English as well as Italian), featuring the BA’s executive chef Adam Dulye and Coronado Brewing’s co-owner Rick Chapman, discussing the importance of independence and quality for craft breweries in both the US and Italy.
All Roads Lead To…
Then we judges were off on our own. I returned once again to Rome to better acquaint myself with its ever-amazing craft beer scene. You know you’re heading to a burgeoning beer mecca when the high-speed train from Rimini sells 33cl bottles of Nazionale, the all-Italian-ingredient Belgian-style Blonde Ale from Birra Baladin of Piozzo, one of the first and best of the Italian craft breweries, having been founded in 1996 by Teo Musso. Named the Birrificio dell’Anno in 2017, Baladin had to settle for two awards this year: Silver in the Barleywine section and Bronze in the English/American Strong Ale category.
In fact, the brewery’s Open Baladin pub/restaurant in Rome is one of the models for the county’s craft beer and food destinations, with 35 taps, three hand pumps and countless bottles — of Baladin, other Italian craft, and international beers (usually always a Cantillon on draft, and several in bottles). Between the vast selection, and the quick tap turnover, you can visit three times in a week, and still not get to taste everything you want (I should know).
Rome’s prized publican, Manuele Collona, has no less than three top-flight beer destinations in Rome
Rome’s prized publican, Manuele Collona, has no less than three top-flight beer destinations in Rome. Two of them, the football pub Ma che siete venuti a fá (loosely translated as “What did you come here for?”) and the gastropub/pizzeria Bir e Fud (self explanatory) are both in the old, trendy Trastevere section of the city. You are bound to find the best of Italian and international craft here, as well as at Manuele’s newest place, BE.RE., located literally on the border of Vatican City. This bright, modern place sports 18 keg taps, two traditional casks and three Franconia-style tabletop barrel casks — and not a US craft beer in sight, although several inspired by them. The food menu is highlighted by the tasty trapizzini (hand-held, meat-filled pizza sandwiches), perfect for sopping up that extra alcohol you are sure to consume when you see the beer list.
About a five-minute walk from BE.RE. is L’Osteria de Birra del Borgo, the upscale restaurant and brewpub of del Borgo, whose owner/brewmaster Leonardo di Vincenzo — like Baladin’s Teo Musso — is a world-class brewer, and remains as experimental and innovative as he was before, sadly, selling his brewery to AB InBev in 2015. He may have been kicked out of the Italian craft brewing group because of the sale, but don’t discount his beers, particularly the IGAs.
For the destination of your next international beercation, consider Italy (especially in February, when you can attend the four-day Beer Attraction in Rimini), and Rome in particular. As California itself has proven, some of the best craft beer is produced in regions known for their amazing wines.