Craft brewing: Italy’s Le Baladin
One of the original rock stars of Italian craft, has big ambitions
Teo Musso founded Le Baladin in 1996, a pioneer of the Italian craft beer scene, especially as 10 years previously he had opened a Belgian beer bar of the same name in his home village of Piozzo, south of Turin. I first met him in 2008, intrigued by already legendary tales of a rock star brewer, who had music played to his fermenting beers.
These were beers made with speciality grains, spices, chocolate, coffee beans and myrrh, while top-fermenting yeast was joined by strains more usually found in whisky or wine. They were complex but friendly and packaged in elegant wine-like bottles.
Xyauyù was the star, a dark and powerfully alcoholic ale that had spent 18 months sitting outside in a container in the brewery courtyard. Viscous and limpid in the glass, it was warming and sherry-like.
Eight years later, I am back in Piozzo, sipping a glass of the same beer. This version has been matured in wood for five years, giving it a port-like character with notes of chocolate, sultana and toffee alongside a creamy and smooth mouth feel.
There have been many changes during the intervening years in planet Baladin.
There are more Baladin bars in Italy and elsewhere in the world and Musso remains a beery superstar. However, the big change is the opening of its new production plant, a stand-alone facility in seven hectares of grounds off the main road below the village.
Alongside the brewery, offices and a massive ancient barn (which houses eating areas, a lounge and aging cellars), a huge box-like structure catches the eye. Blue-grey in colour and branded with Le Baladin’s logo, according to Musso this is a re-fermenting ‘box’, meant to handle more than 2,500 pallets of bottled beer at any one time (either 75cl or 33cl).
“I thought it would be great to perfect this process of a second re-fermentation in the bottle,” he explains. “In many breweries’ rooms where bottles are kept you have fluctuations of temperatures, which is not good for the beer, so my dream was of a place you couldn’t enter and as a consequence the temperature would be kept constant. Each new collection of pallets will spend a week at 20˚C, then a week at 23˚C, and then another at 18˚C. The pallets will be moved around by robot and then they will go to a fridge where it will be 5˚C and finally then to a non-controlled warehouse.”
There is a flamboyance about Musso, rarely see in other brewers. As he leads a group of importers and beer writers around the new light and airy brew house (built by Meccanica Spadoni of Orvieto), the space seems to be an extension of his personality.
The olive green walls are painted with bold words declaring the function of each section (fermentation, etc). The gantry we walk above has samples of hops, malts and spices dotted about and, finally, before descending to see a collection of newly made oak wooden barrels, we watch a short film that features a young Musso (played by a young actor) sitting in a field of barley, and then the adult Musso (played by the brewer) appears sitting beneath a tree in the middle of the same barley field.
All this showmanship would be useless without exceptional beers and fortunately Musso doesn’t fail. There are no IPAs, Black, Imperial or otherwise, but on the other hand, the dry and chewy Belgian-style ale Super and Open Rock’n’Roll, a bittersweet pale ale with pepper in the mix, are ineluctable in their appeal.
If he sounds like a hippy don’t be deceived. Musso is ambitious. In the current year he expects to reach 24,000hl, though the new brewery kit has the capacity to reach 45,000hl, which is his aim by 2022.
His real passion and ambition is the community of beer and brewing, best expressed by his plans to open up the brewery’s grounds as a space where families and friends can come and eat at a communal BBQ and drink his beers. He talks about bakers making bread in old ovens, regular farmers’ markets and cheese makers and butchers all playing their part.
“It is about connecting with the land,” he says, “I want to put beer in its agricultural context.”
With this in mind (and after spending €12.5 million so far), he has announced that he will launch a crowdfunding appeal for the project.
“It is not just about the money,” he says, “It is about getting people to feel that they have a share in something that belongs to them.”
Musso was a pioneer in the Italian craft brewing movement and today is now riding a wave of provenance, craft beer and community. He progresses. That alone is worthy of rising a glass of Xyauyù of.
Italian craft brewing blossoms
The Italian beer scene continues to fizz and flicker with excitement as the number of craft/micro/artisanal breweries fast approaches the 1,000 mark. The land of Ferrari, fashion and fat, spicy reds has also become the land of Giovanni Barleycorn as the likes of BrewFist, Ducato and Birrifico Italiano produce highly accomplished beers that can stand their own against anything brewed in more traditional beer countries.
Of course, just like in any other country that has experienced a brewing revolution, Britain and the USA included, not every beer from a new brewery hits the mark. According to Birrifico Italiano’s Agostino Arioli, “the scene is really creative and not crazy like it was ten and a half years ago when there were stupid beers being made. Italian brewers are now beating their own way forward; they are referring to classic styles from the UK, US, Germany and Belgium, but then developing their own styles.”
Hot picks to check out include Grado Plato, whose dark chocolaty Chocarrubica has carobs added, while its Weizentea is a Bavarian wheat beer with added green tea. Meanwhile, Foglie d’Erbe’s Hopfelia is a bright, brilliant, zestful and cheerful IPA and BrewFist go all American-style craft with Spaceman IPA.