Last night my girlfriend came home after a beer tasting with an unfamiliar taste on her lips. The expected flavour of bitterness from the beer had been replaced by sweet and fruity aromas, and so I asked: "Are you sure you haven't tasted wine?"
"The Italians have a new trendy craze - The Grape Beer" my Australian explained. I admit that it aroused an old question that I've asked myself before - after all, what’s Italian culture got to do with beer production, right? Malt and hops are not connected to the area and have always come from far beyond the mountains. Moreover, the beer and its consumption has always belonged to the surrounding Barbarian nations. The proud and patriotic Italians have had no room for this “simple” drink.
IGA - Source
And so, in the recent years Italian producers have decided to change the rules of the game by putting an Italian twist into the production of beer. The Wine Grape. You can say that they took beer production and brought it into their own playground.
The IGA: The Italian Grape Ale is a beer that adds wine grapes along with malt during fermentation. The natural yeast on their skins triggers natural fermentation to occur resulting in an interesting and tasty product that is more connected and loyal to their terroir and local tradition.
And while the Italians are bringing their history and land into the innovative mutation called Italian beers, the Germans seem to be going through a similar process but from a parallel deconstruction of alcoholic beverages culture.
Bavarian Woman Pouring Beer
A year ago we went on a Study Trip to Bavaria, which was accompanied, as always, by visiting interesting small-scale food and beverage producers. Before going there, I admit that I had in my mind images of wooden bars, of women wearing traditional clothes pouring blond beer from traditional taps into the thick glasses of rough men cheering with one hand, holding a pretzel in the other alongside red-cheeked sausage producers, biting into a pork shank dipped in mustard and finishing the meal with a good, warm apple strudel.
And so it was.
Indeed we have tasted a divine strudel, and the dirndl was shown to us in all its glory by the beautiful beer-girls along side the blond young men wearing lederhosen. But all of these images were almost felt like an artificial settings for a region that looked futuristic and foreign. As if a guiding hand deliberately left signs to remind us tourists: "You are in Bavaria."
Because how else would we recognise it?
The historic district of Bavaria, as we experienced it, was far from my imaginations: Where an old brewery once stood, there is now an organic-hippie farm next door to a "bio" supermarkets. Instead of the classic traditional sausage producers, we meet a woman who is making Italian ice cream from her husband's diary, and another woman raising wagyu beef. Instead of the schnapps distilleries we visited a single malt whiskey distillery and a reddish organic bitters manufacturer, who introduced himself as Bavarian-Italian, offering a new, artisanal, naturally made version of Campari.
When I ask Benedikt Pfeufer, the marketing manager of this small bitters brand named “Mondino” if he can foresee the possibility of a competition for a brand that is so identified with Italy as Campari, he laughs. I wasn't sure if it was out of fear or braveness, but it seems like these guys might have quite an interesting offer to the futuristic society that Germany is wise enough to precede.
Mondino is an organic product (and vegan - they don’t use gelatine in the filtration process). Instead of a secret recipe that contains unclear quantities of sugar like the famous Campari, the Bavarian beverage openly tells its components: orange blossom, orange peel ("we are the only ones who can use them and their essential oils because they are organic, meaning not sprayed "), a freshly cut orange, ginseng root that grows wildly in the surrounding forests, and hibiscus flowers that contribute to impart the red colour. The result is the exact drink you want before a meal - bitter and tempting to the stomach, preparing you for the meal ahead - plus you get a pleasant feeling from good raw ingredients. The price is not cheap (€ 19 for a 750ml bottle), but if you ask me it's worth it.
Bitters Ageing at Mondino
Florian Stetter, who founded the Slyrs single distillery in 1999, also realised that he did not necessarily have to continue the family business of refining fruit into schnapps. On one of his visits to Scotland, and with the generous help of a few glasses of whiskey, he concluded that Upper Bavaria, its climate, the lakes, the pine trees, the mountains and the azure lakes, was as good as for the production of single malt whiskey. To my question about the differences between the clear and soft water of Scotland and the more hard water of Germany, the young guide answered that the water is all taken from the surrounding Alps and undergoes salt filtration. The cereals themselves come from the Bavarian region. At the moment they are still not exporting the whiskey outside of Germany, and the production stands at about 120,000 bottles a year of a great single malt, 3 and 12 years.
What is it in Bavaria that makes the tradition turn into an almost meaningless decor in a world of progress? It is not clear. Perhaps it is related to the fact that the food traditions are looser than in Italy and France, or perhaps it has to do with the horrors of World War II, and so the Germans developed both individualism and disavowal, which led to a more innovative perspective when it comes to food and beverages production.
Whisky Ageing Barrels in Bavaria
Germany, Italy - Europe
Whatever the reason may be, Bavaria in particular, and Germany in general, look ahead, and do not stop to look back. And Germany is not alone. The beer grapes or single German malt, or the rum and gin production of Piedmont are on the same side of the revolution. Can you hear this? It's the sound of the alcoholic beverage scheme of Europe slowly breaking. It seems that the rules are changing, and maybe now it’s time say goodbye to the rigid duties and laws that have characterised it so much in the last few centuries, and let the young, new, “glocalised” manufacturers to dictate the new rules of the game.