Come here ’til I tell you something: there’s more to Parma than just the ham and cheese. The whole of Italy is making a bit of a splash lately when it comes to beer. The general direction of contemporary Italian birra seems to be a beautiful mix of the sensibilities of the two greatest brewing nations on Earth, that is the Belgians and the Americans.
Italy is unburdened with the ball and chain of tradition, instead it has the freedom to experiment. You can find all the fleeting trends that we see in American brewing, wood aged beers, big beers, hoppy beers, sour experiments, and all manner of hybrid styles. Yet at the same time, they take their beer seriously, in a way that reminds me of Belgium. Craft brewing is really young in Italy, but from the outset it seems to have allied itself with excellent food. Probably the best range of beer I saw in Italy was the selection carried by the trendy grocery/lifestyle store Eataly in Bologna, where many Italian beers rubbed shoulders with the best of Belgium, America, Britain and the rest of the world. Perhaps what really made the Belgian connection for me though, was the preponderance of 75cl bottles, they were everywhere.
Toccalmatto is a small, young brewery – less than two years old – in Fidenza, not far from Parma. They only bottle in large bottles, and I asked Bruno Carilli, the owner/brewer whether it was hard to shift these in bars. “Italy is a wine country” he told me, “so it’s normal to share a bottle. Anyway, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that my beer just another beer.” Don’t worry, there’s no chance we’ll be confusing this with Peroni or Moretti any time soon.
It was really refreshing to see Toccalmatto’s brewery. It’s a simple affair, it doesn’t take up much space, it doesn’t have a huge capacity, it is well organised, but overall it’s simple. They bottle by hand with a simple gravity filler, and the beer is bottle conditioned. Good beer doesn’t need to come out of fancy equipment Bruno says. Perhaps there are limits though – he has recently come back from a visit to the Great British Beer Festival, and he visited Kernel brewery in London. “But they are crazy” he tells me. He shows me some pictures he took of their brewery, which I recently visited myself. It is in a tiny space under a railway arch. “But they brew beer right beside these people who are making cheese!” he tells me in disbelief, adding once more that they are crazy. We agree that Kernel make some very nice beer nonetheless.
Toccalmatto make quite a few different beers, many of which I was lucky to taste during my visit. First up was their Saison, Sibilla. It was an excellent saison, up with the best of the Belgians. It was very pale, and there was a citrus quality to the hop flavour. Bruno told me that the yeast strain he used also caused that citrus flavour, it was not the Dupont style yeast “because I am not making a version of Dupont”. Fair enough. It had a very dry finish, which did not last. All of the flavour was up front. Bruno seemed happy with this appraisal, telling me that “drinkability” was a key thing that he was trying to achieve, He wanted his beers to leave you wanting more, they should not be heavy, or filling. They should be tasty but easy drinkers. I have read that this is a trait also prized by the Belgians, who use sugar for this same reason – to make beers “digestible”.
Stray Dog Bitter was up next. This one was funny. It features a bulldog on the label, and a green white and red Union Jack. Bruno rather proudly showed me a certificate from the website Ratebeer.com which had it as the top rated bitter, above the British renditions that we all know and love. He seemed quite happy with himself to have upset the apple cart with an Italian version of the quintessentially British beer. As we go to press it has just been pipped by Jolly Pumpkin, for all these things are worth! I found that it had a thinner body than I expected. Styrian Goldings hops were certainly in attendance. It had little caramel, and again the drinkability was key.
We tried a beer called Zona Cesarini, which was a twist on an American styled hoppy beer. Pointedly, non-American hops were forward, including Motueka and Sorachi Ace. The name was polysemic, it refers to Cesarini, a 1930s Italian/Argentinian footballer who had a habit of scoring in the last few minutes of the 90, in what is still called the “Cesarini Zone” by Italians. Furthermore the label features a Japanese Kamikaze pilot, referencing the Japanese (Sorachi) element, and also the “last minute” aspect of the beer: just like Cesarini’s goals, most of the hops don’t go in until towards the end of 90 minutes! For that reason it has very little bitterness, but a huge Motueka Pineapple flavour, Citra’s signature tangerine flavour makes an appearance, and Sorachi Ace are renowned for being lemony hops. All in all it’s a fruity affair; I very much liked it—it reminded me a little of Metalman’s Windjammer.
And the beer kept flowing. Bruno opened a bottle of Surfing Hop, which he described as a “Double IPA with artistic license”. Again there was a little subversion of the normal style. Sure, there were some American hops, but the malt was French, the yeast was Belgian, and it was quite dark. I was impressed by this, because when I brew, I find that the Belgian yeasts that I love can be too dominant to let me achieve the American style of late hop flavour which I also love, but Surfing Hop pulls it off.
At this stage Bruno revealed that he had a cellar. What was in the cellar? Barrels! Now you know I am a fan of barrels, and I was mightily impressed already at the beers that this simple little brewery was producing, but the experimental beers that we tasted then were really special. The first was a really big Barleywine that we sampled straight out of the Caol Ila barrel that it was aging in. Caol Ila is a lovely Islay single malt, a style I am really fond of because of those smoky peaty flavours that are associated with it, and this really didn’t disappoint, it was big and sweet, but it had picked up a really nice peaty flavour from the whiskey barrel.
But there was stillmore. An Imperial Stout, which I think was in a calvados barrel. Bruno had whiskey, wine, calvados, a number of barrel types. This was no straightforward barrel-aged imperial stout (how passé) – it had the wild yeast brettanomyces added during aging. For all you myco-geeks, he stressed that this was not brettanomyces clausanus, but rather the kind that is found in gueuze and Flanders red, I presume he meant brettanomyces bruxellensis. In any case, this stout was incredibly complex. The big malty flavour was still there, but there was that wild acidic flavour right in the middle of the taste. My notebook says “v. hard to describe” so I’ll stop there. The barrel projects were both in the development stage, but they seemed pretty promising to me! He confessed that he had consulted his friend Jean Van Roy of Cantillon when he initially planned his barrel project. No better man.
We had been there several hours at that stage, so we decided to let Bruno get home, the couple of other brewers he employs had long since left. I picked up a bottle of Re Hop (King Hop) to take back to the hotel with me, since it’s one of their best sellers. I can easily see why. It’s a 5% moderately hopped golden ale, in fact it’s extremely pale. The malt base is Pils, and I would guess not much else. The hopping is a mixture between the signature American Cascade flavour, and some late German Perle addition. It poured with a frothy, lasting head, and it was a little cloudy. It reminded me of some of the modern hoppy Belgian pales that the likes of Senne are producing. It had a very dry finish, due to the minimal crystal character. I found the European/American hop balance very pleasant. The beer wasn’t even cold, but 75cl seemed to disappear quite fast – drinkability topped the agenda once more. It was a lovely way to finish a great day, I really enjoyed meeting Bruno, seeing the gear, the beer, and the barrels. I think they’re doing something really special over there, and I hope they make it up in our direction soon. Importers take note!