Published on March 6, 2018 | by Alastair Gilmour


What’s Italian for ‘magnificent’?

A beer festival in Rome has John Atkinson purring with delight

It’s ten o’clock, the temperature is in the mid 20s, which is not bad for mid-October. I’m actually outside sipping on a barrel-aged imperial stout from the Estonian brewery, Põhjala. It’s an excellent, rich, full-bodied beer with a slight smokiness from the Islay whisky barrel it’s been aged in, and is a comforting 13.6% abv.

I’m waiting for a taxi, due in 15 minutes, to take me back to the apartment I’m staying in, as it’s actually 22:00, not the morning, and I’ve been here nearly five hours sampling a great variety of international and innovative beers at the EurHop! Beer Festival in Rome. All of them are new to me and it’s only a tiny percentage of what’s available.

I’d only learned about the festival less than a week before, but I was persuaded I needed to come and meet the brewers of some of the best beers in the world. The UK is represented here by some of the most fashionable breweries in the country, including Buxton, Beavertown, Magic Rock and, from Scotland, Fyne Ales. The US is enthusiastically well represented, as is Scandinavia, alongside less well-known brewing countries such as Estonia.

Italy, naturally, is well represented and responsible for around 60 of the breweries present. I’d discovered Italy was much more than Peroni over four years ago, and since then we’ve stocked beers from Brewfist, AMA and had Toccalmatto beers on tap at Hemelvaart Bier Café in Ayton, Berwickshire. But here I can only recognise perhaps a dozen of the Italian contingent offering a fantastic array of new and old beer styles.

I’m impressed by Ca’ del Brado, a brewery specialising in barrel-aged and sour beers using brettanomyces yeasts, much like Chorlton in Manchester. They’re a match for wonderful Belgian gueuze, and their Cuvée De Zrisa is an excellent dry kriek. Most memorably there is Xyauyù, a barrel-aged barley wine from Birra Baladin – complex, fruity and port-like – in the barrel since 2013 and so rich and rare it’s only served in measures of 4.5ml.

Then there are the “grape ales”. The first time I’d heard someone say it, I thought they’d said “grey pale” (well, if you can have white ale…). But, no, this style relies on the beer coming into contact with grapes or wine. Sometimes the beer is added to wine casks with a litre or so of wine left in it, at other times the “must” (pulped grapes including the seeds) is added to the beer in a wine cask. It produces a distinctive, elegant and subtle beer style.

So I wander around the 80-plus stands in a 1930s take on Roman pomp. It’s spacious, airy and has an extensive outdoor area where on Saturday afternoon hundreds make their way outside to drink in (and drink-in) the sun. All in all, this is a fabulous beer festival, currently passing under the radar here, but deserving wider appreciation.

This is EurHop’s seventh renewal, spread over three days; the sessions are long (Friday 17:00-03:00, Saturday 12:00-03:00!), but the pace is relaxed. There are numerous food outlets too, serving a variety of Italian delicacies. Entry is cheap and the festival uses a token system, and though there are various size measures you can choose, they themselves are not cheap.

Though I’m singing its praises to widen its appeal, there’s part of me that wants to keep it secret, so it doesn’t get overcrowded. Nevertheless, if you can get there, I’d urge you to do so. It also worked well for us, as I met the head brewer at Põhjala, Chris Pilkington, who is Scottish, and who directed us to the sole importers of his beers. By the time you read this we will have had a mind-blowing tasting of eight exceptional Põhjala beers.

I also met the man behind another new and fast growing brewery, Het Uiltje from Haarlem in The Netherlands. Robbert Uyleman is an inspiring man of vision and passionate about beer – his own and beers and in general. He is a beer missionary and you are not too late to benefit from his proselytising, as he is coming over to Hemelvaart Bier Cafe at Easter for a tap-takeover where we’re hoping for about a dozen beers will be available. Just don’t miss it!

John Atkinson and Phil Walker run Hemelvaart Bier Café in Ayton, Berwickshire, just off the A1 north of Berwick upon Tweed, specialising in Belgian beers – and all great beers, in fact.

*The Italian for magnificent is magnifico. www.hemelvaart.co.uk

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Alastair Gilmour

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