In mid-October my wife and I joined her family for an eight-day jaunt through a land of great pasta, pizza, wine, and...BEER! Before this trip I had last visited Italy in 2007. While I had certainly begun my craft beer journey by that time, I wasn't quite as obsessed with seeking out great beer while on vacation. We spent time in Milan that summer and had our fair share of Peroni and Moretti (both widely available here in the United States). As I learned during this most recent visit, that was a huge mistake. Italian beer is so, so much more than those two export brands - in fact, much like the United States, Italy has seen an explosion in craft beer production since the early 2000s. This BKABC will be split into two parts covering both Tuscany (Florence & Siena) and Rome. Without further ado, here is Better Know A Beer City(s), Part 3 - Florence & Siena, Italy!
We arrived in Rome on a Saturday morning and jumped on a bus that took us directly to Florence. Our first meal in Italy was at Obika, a mozzarella bar that serves great pizza and has a small but impressive selection of craft beer. We ordered the Pink IPA from Birrificio Almond'22, a small brewery located in Pescara. The beer is hopped with Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin, and Saphir, but the most prominent flavor results from the addition of pink peppercorns. It was a great way to start our Italian beer journey!
The next morning we were given an incredible tour of the city. Unlike many European cities, Florence was spared most of the damage caused by World War II because it was declared an open city by the occupying German forces in March of 1944. As a result, the number of must-see sights is overwhelming. Santa Maria Croce, Il Duomo, the Pitti Palace, Ponte Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens, Santo Spirito, the Uffizi, the Galleria dell'Accademia (containing Michelangelo's David), Santa Maria Novella, the Vasari Corridor...the list goes on and on. Following the tour we stopped for a late lunch at the Florence home of Birrificio Artigianale Mostodolce, which is a small craft brewery that opened in nearby Prato in 2003. While at Mostodolce we sampled four beers: Fra' Bartolomeo (a light, crisp hefeweizen), Martellina (an amber made brewed with Italian chestnut honey), Pepita (an incredibly flavorful and hoppy pilsner), and Volpe (a bock with strong caramel flavors). All four of the beers were excellent - add Mostodolce to the list of must-visit sights in Florence!
On Monday, our last day in Florence, we explored more of the city and then sat down for lunch at one of the many trattorias lining the old cobblestone streets. The craft beer offered at the particular trattoria we chose was Lurisia Sei, a light and refreshing Belgian Pale Ale brewed by Birrificio Le Baladin. Later that afternoon we decided to add some Scottish flair to our Italian vacation by visiting BrewDog Firenze, one of the many pubs owned and operated by the Scottish craft brewery. The pub is a pretty interesting place - it serves American food(!) and is built on top of a 12th century well than can be seen through a glass pane in the floor. We ordered a flight of four beers from the list of eight BrewDog products. Also on tap: Rogue's Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout (our second American craft beer sighting - we spotted Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on draft at another bar the previous evening)! The four beers we tried were Dead Pony Pale Ale, Russian Doll Pale Ale, Jackhammer IPA, and Libertine Black Ale. Russian Doll was the clear winner for us, but, as expected when drinking BrewDog products, all four beers packed serious flavor.
We departed Florence on Tuesday morning and made stops in Pisa (that tower really does lean) and the small, beautiful city of Lucca, which is still enclosed by Renaissance-era walls. There wasn't time to sample any beer, although I was hoping to find a bottle or two from Birrificio Bruton, located 5 miles north of the walled city. We arrived in Siena, our final Tuscan destination, later that evening. Soon after we checked into the hotel I made my first beer run of the trip! We were lucky enough to be staying one block from the Consorzio Agrario di Siena, which is basically a Tuscan version of a very small Whole Foods. It was there that we found most of the beer we would consume in Siena, as well as the best fresh-baked focaccia I've ever had in my life. Cocktail parties in our hotel room featured the foccacia, aged parmesan that was purchased at the Mercato in Florence, and four great Tuscan beers.
The first was Errante from Birrificio San Gimignano, which is labeled on the bottle as a Scrupulous Errors White Ale. The bottle also carries the tagline "Free Beer for Pilgrims," which is a great reference to the fact that Siena was a stop on the Via Francigena, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. The beer is an incredibly delicate but effervescent Belgian-style White Ale. It is so effervescent, in fact, that the bottle I tried to bring home exploded in my checked luggage! The second beer was Starship, an English-style Bitter, from Birrificio L'Olmaia in the Val d'Orcia (near the famous town of Montepulciano). The final two beers came from the same brewery, Prato's I Due Mastri. Ebe, a Belgian Pale Ale brewed with orange peel and coriander, was a modern take on a classic style. Guru, a low-alcohol (4% ABV) Pale Ale, had a unique flavor from the addition of Tuscan-grown sorghum.
While not busy with hotel room cocktail parties, we spent most of our time enjoying a guided tour of the beautiful city. Siena is often considered to be a smaller version of Florence, although it still maintains a decent amount of hustle and bustle. The sights are certainly comparable, including the Piazza del Campo, the Basilica of San Domenico, the Torre del Mangia, and the absolutely stunning Cathedral of Siena. The most interesting thing we learned about Siena is that it is split into 17 districts, or contrades. They are the Eagle, Caterpillar, Snail, Little Owl, Dragon, Giraffe, Crested Porcupine, Unicorn, She-Wolf, Seashell, Goose, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Tower, and Ram. Every year the contrades compete in a horse race around the Piazza del Campo called the Palio di Siena. First run in 1590, Il Palio is the center of civic life in Siena and the source of many rivalries and friendships between the contrades. According to our tour guide, the joy of victory has caused heart attacks and the sorrow of defeat has caused full calendar years of emotional suffering!
Florence, Pisa, Lucca, and Siena are incredibly beautiful, interesting places that also feature great craft beer - I highly recommend a visit! Coming soon: Better Know A Beer City, Part 4 - Roma, Italy! Andiamo a Roma!