Milan – from fashion capital to Craft Capital

This weekend, I discovered quite by accident that Milan has decided to build upon its mantle of “fashion capital of Europe” with its explosion of boutique beers – more than 600 now available from across Italy, according to Maurizio Maestrelli (Milan’s most famous beer journalist who I happened across in Lambrate pub).  I was visiting with some friends because we thought it would be a nice City to base ourselves out of to play some bridge (yes, the card game), away from the British autumnal weather, to find a spot of culture and warmth – we were not disappointed.  Two of us are CAMRA members, whilst a third invests in the CAMRA managed funds (exclusively in the beer market) portfolio – so it wasn’t long before we had done a search online for “craft beers Milan”.  Much to our surprise, the city seemed to be swamped with potential venues.  So amongst our sojourns to other cultural sites like the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery, we managed to fit in a few hands of cards (30 rubbers actually) in the occasional specialist craft beer establishments.  I completely lost the plot in a few games, but I blame Diablo for his midas touch…

Diablo  Beer Mug

There is a slight snobbery in the UK’s real-ale market, something to do with the fight back against the global lager players, when, since the late ’70s, beer with flavour served from kegs has been re-establishing itself across all quarters of Britain.  Notwithstanding this fine British stance, the Americans were fast on the UK’s heels (40 years on, Sam Adams last year because the first ever beer billionaire), and started the global “craft beer” drive… also flavoursome beer, but fizzy and cold, unlike the flat, warm stuff the Brits so dearly love.  However, as with my previous post about Sharps in Cornwall, what is very different about craft beers around the world (versus, say, an English bitter) is that you don’t quaff a craft ale in quite the same way as you do a lager or bitter.  You sup it, gently – mostly because craft ales tend to weigh in at 6% plus (often stronger), and so they are genuinely now competing for the same wine-drinkers market: a fine alcoholic beverage to accompany the best cuisine.  Unless, of course, you’re British by descent, in which case  you skull it in exactly the same way as you would your beloved real ale (or indeed tasteless lager)… being Brits abroad, we obviously succumbed to the latter ruling and found ourselves quickly appreciative of even the sourest of beers.

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The first bar we tried was in a most unlikely venue, on a main road in an industrial area – Dundas Cafe.  The beers in the picture were a fine introduction to local Milanese cult beers.  Four to select from, without hesitation, I tried them all – helpfully, there was a rather delightful platter or two of snacks to accompany the beer, which the Europeans do so well (and we need to play catch up).  Moving right-to-left, “Seta” by Birrifico Rurale is a modest starter – blanche, cloudy in appearance with a subtle citrus, sweet flavour.  “Reset”, however, from the same brewer was a marked change: honey, juniper, almost too sour, and with a sulphurous overture.  “S Ambroeus” (named after Saint Ambroeus, Bishop of Milan in the late 4th Century) is a classic marmalade and hoppy number – not to be missed.  Finally, last but not least, was the “Dahu Rossa” – a gourmet beer, full of strawberry, yet sour, misty through the glass.  It was definitely time to see what else Milan had to offer.

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We drove down the backstreets of Milan until eventually we found Isola della Birra – an international craft beer pub that has been running since 1994.  Max, the proprietor, doesn’t speak English; we don’t speak Italian; but we settle for his suggestion of French (who’d have thought).  I tell him about and he immediately points out the Australian beer awards that the Italian beers have been walking away with over recent years.  The top local beer in the style of a trappist stout is the Scaligero Canus Magnus, which goes down very well with a large bowl of popcorn.

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Finally, we end up in Lambrate (where I met Maurizio) – it turns out that we’ve missed all the other great craft beer bars in Milan, which gives me a great excuse to come back to visit LambicZoon, Baladin, BQ, and La Ratera (an excellent restaurant too).  Again, there’s a smörgåsbord of Italian delicacies to accompany the plethora of Lambrate’s home-brewed keg and cask beers, which Maurizio reminds me is essential to the drinking experience.  The atmosphere for a Sunday night (the bar is already packed 5 minutes after opening at 6pm) is incomparable, even to the 4 Pines in Manly on a Friday night, with loads of tables as well as standing room all taken – despite the crowd, you can still hear yourself think (about the 4 Spades you’re about to be defeated in) and there’s some cool jazz and rock playing all night.  At 11pm, I take a breather outside on the street, and I’m flabbergasted to count 100 folk have also spilled out from the packed bar with their beers, all milling around, chatting, enjoying the 20 degree October evening.  The beer?  Well, it’s truly exceptional – I would take you through their line-up, but, then, what’s left for you to explore when you come here?  All I can say is that their 8% double IPA was the pinnacle of a great evening – very smooth, slightly hoppy, with a typical citrus finish. On the downside, they only serve pints – that’s what we Brits like to see!