The snow-clad crags and bright green mountain meadows were spectacular driving south through the Swiss Alps on the way to Italy. Cremant, Alsacien champagne was the morning drink of choice on our tour bus...
Strasbourg, France, had been the gathering place for our fall European tour -- more precisely, the Mondial de la biere festival. My duties put me front and central at the fest organizing, for the third consecutive year, the American Pavilion. The Strasbourg festival is the younger sibling of the Montreal festival of the same name. It ran for four days, Fri-Mon, Oct. 21-24 featuring 500 beers from 120 breweries and 14 countries. Yep, it was a pretty big show. In the American Pavilion, we poured 45 different beers from 13 breweries. (See Strasbourg story in ASN's Dec-Jan issue or here on online).
Our tour group arrived in Strasbourg from the US on the Sunday, by way of Stuttgart and Baden-Baden. Lodged at the Hilton, the Fest was just a stone's throw away, so the group had the best part of two days to check out city and Fest (with VIP access). Tuesday, we spent a day touring in Alsace, driving down to picturesque Colmar with a stop the Bott Freres winery. Purchases of the Cremant (they can't call it champagne, because it is not the champagne area) proved popular, especially after the heavy beer work at Mondial. With the sun sinking over Les Vosges (the Alsacien hills), the bus returned to Strasbourg with a stop at Brasserie Saint-Pierre, a small bottling brewpub with a lot of selections. We particularly liked the Christmas Ale.
Our crew for this tour -- our first Italian caper -- was a bit smaller (15) than the norm, but it was kind of experimental, a new departure so to speak. Of course we had Carolyn and Willy Blowers -- they never miss a trip; the globetrotting Mullins, John and Maryanne, they're always traveling somewhere; Bill and Barbara Comella, also familiar faces aboard (especially Bill); upstate NY dwellers Jim and Charlotte Dugan; New Jersey newcomers Marianne and Frank Magno; Mondial president Jeannine Marois -- thanks for the bus beer!; suave Bill Tydings from Maryland; tour operator Greg Dennis with wife Vicki; and yours truly.
So, Day 3 took us through the Alps to beautiful Lake Como, Italy. Some of our crew jumped on the hydrofoil for a ride across the lake to Bellagio as soon as we got into town. Dinner was at Birrificio di Como a large German beer hall-type brewpub that was obviously used to catering groups. We drank decent, but regular beer styles out of beer towers. They served us wine too and a mixed grill. Next to us was a long table of bank employees.
Day 4 took us around Milan and into the Barolo wine country of Piedmont. This was quite educational for myself, being nowhere near as wine-savvy as our tour operator Greg, who launched into descriptions of the various vinous details of the Barolo region (a Nebbiolo can be a Barolo but not vice versa!). We made a stop in Alba, home of the White Truffle Festival, a week hence. Bill Comella sniffed out a Grappa store and several of the crew bought some barrel-aged Grappa, the distillate made from spent and crushed grape residue. He and Barbara were scheduled to return to Alba for the 'shroom fest after the group's departure.
Our hotel was actually in the town of Barolo. While some went hunting for lunch in the village, a few of us hit the hotel's neighboring restaurant; pasta, naturally. You pay for the pasta topping separately (there is even a charge of 2 Euros for napkin a and cutlery). If you want white truffles shaved onto your dish, you can pay anywhere from 28-40 euros extra! But the view from the patio was worth the price of admission -- the rolling vineyards of the Barolo region, harvest over, just enough warmth in the sun to sit outside.
Following a brief tasting in the hotel's cellars (Hotel Barolo is also a winery) we mosied down to Piozzo, home of Le Baladin brewery, one of Italy's pioneering and most eclectic microbreweries. When I first visited Baladin four years ago, owner/brewer Teo Musso had his brewery set up in the village across from his parent's house. The beer was pumped under the main street to the Baladin Cafe. Now Baladin has built a state-of-the-art production brewery in a neighboring village. Brewer Paolo Fontana welcomed us. There was a lot of buzz about Baladin's new project, a beer made with all-Italian ingredients. Indeed, owner Teo Musso was visiting Italian farmers in the barley-growing region in the south with whom he had contracted. And suddenly there was Teo, back ahead of schedule after 800 miles on the road.
We tasted several tap offerings in the Cafe Baladin -- Nina, a Bitter, and Super Baladin, the brewery's first, Belgian-inspired brew; Isaac, a wit beer and Nora, with notes of citrus and ginger. Thirst slaked, we adjourned across the street to Casa Baladin for a sumptuous 7-course dinner; the creations of chef Maurizio Camilli weren't large, but they sure were intricate. Bottled beer pairings included Wayan, featuring barley, spelt and wheat; Mama Kriek, named for Teo's mother, who painstakingly prepared the cherries for the first batch; Elixir, 10%, brewed from yeasts used in Islay whiskies; and Xyauyu, a barleywine-style treat from the barrel room. After dinner, Teo brought out a couple of new creations from his Reserve line -- Lune, a fantastically wood-aged blond beer, and Terre, similar in red, unabashedly proclaiming them as Italy's new "White" and "Red".
In Milan, our walking guide took us through the old city center; there are still echoes of the Renaissance -- the Domo, third largest cathedral in the world after Rome and Barcelona; the Old Fort, the Opera House. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper was unfortunately unavailable to us, museum workers deciding to go on strike that day. Some of us, staying an extra day were able to view it -- that was definitely a woman sitting next to Jesus (per Da Vinci code) -- the guide explained that John the Disciple was so close to Jesus he was depicted as an angel.
In the evening we made it en masse, by subway, to Birrificio Lambrate, Milan's long-running (since 1997), small but bustling brewpub. They put out piles of food for Happy Hour every day at their 6 p.m. opening; smiling Jean Paulo poured us pints of most of the brewpub's offerings -- Domm, hefe-weizen; Ortiga, on the handpump, an English golden ale; Ligera, also on the handpump, an American pale ale; Sant Ambroeus, a Belgian golden ale; Lambrate, delicious, 6.8% English strong ale; Porpora, 7.8% dangerously drinkable hoppy bock; and Ghisa, intriguing smoked stout (imperial version in the bottle).
We toasted the trip with a "See You in Belgium" cheers!