hink of drinks with an Italian meal and wine comes to mind. With maybe a Campari cocktail beforehand. Diehards might mention fiery after-dinner liquors such as grappa. Few think of beer.
Italians have made wine for millennia. The Greeks brought it to Magna Graecia, and their influence still lingers in the southern large-bodied red wine Aglianico, whose name derives from a corruption of the word Hellenic.
But beer is a relatively new phenomenon. The largest Italian beer maker, Peroni, was founded in 1846 in the Lombardy region and set up its headquarters in Rome less than two decades later. The company produces the country’s two most famous beers, Peroni and Nastro Azzurro.
Beyond these two popular brews, naming an Italian beer gets harder. A few people might come up with Moretti, and an even fewer might toss out the names Menabrea or Ichnusa.
Moretti was about the extent of my knowledge until last December. Walking toward Campo de’ Fiori on my way home I slowed my pace in front of a building draped in scaffolding. The first window I saw had large beer bottles propped up on the sill with a hodgepodge of comfortable looking chairs and couches in the background. The next window revealed the main bar room: brushed steel tables surrounded by bar stools, a long line of taps and countless beer bottles on the back wall. I didn’t hesitate.
The bar runs the length of the room and no less than 35 different taps. The back wall has hundreds of bottles that reaching all to the ceiling. I’d stumbled on a beer haven in wine country.
The place is called Open Baladin and is run by the Baladin brewery. Baladin is based in Piozzo, a small town in the Piedmont, surrounded by the famous Langhe, where Barolo and Barbaresco wines are produced.
Opened in 1986 by Teo Musso, the original goal was to pair good beer, mostly Belgian, with good music. After a few years the focus shifted slightly, and Musso started brewing his own beer and now makes what many consider the best Italian beer.
Every week or so he rotates his new selections, so that the beer list changes just about each time you visit.
Over the course of a few months and with the help of some friends I’ve managed to try 30 or so of their brews. On the whole, I was very impressed.
The Rome location, which opened in November 2009, is often packed. You can order beer by the glass, conveniently priced at €5, or by the bottle, which range from €12 to €18.
The flagship beers are the Baladins, with the Super Baladin my favorite of the group. It stirs memories of winter ale and has great hints of dried fruit and spices. The amber brew goes down smoothly, dangerously so given its eight percent alcohol content.
The Open Baladin, the “mother beer” of the project, is a very nice blond, but its intense hops were a little too much for me. Its little brother, Isaac, is a white beer with a hint of orange that can cool you nicely on a hot Roman summer night.
Of the other breweries represented, the three from Birra del Borgo — located near L’Aquila — were all very good. But the Ducale, listed under Abbey Ales, may be the only one that really lives up to its billing. The hints of caramel and spices add to the delicious long finish of this very rich amber.
The Duchessa has a decidedly hoppy kick but the slight sweet edge cuts it just enough to please the palate. The 33 Ambrata is an amber ale with a nice citrus side to go with herb filled after taste.
They also sell beer by the bottle. You can order at the table or to go, with take-out giving you an appealing 30 percent discount.