There are some cultures that are just synonymous with beer, and I don’t think Italy’s one of them. Homeland to some of the world’s most famous wines? Sure. A rich and varied history of liqueurs and digestifs and herbal concoctions brewed by monks in tucked-away abbeys? Definitely. Beer? Meh.
And yet, the Veneto-based craft brewery Birra Antoniana has been copping a lot of medals in the last couple of years, including European Brewer of the Year at this year’s International Beer Challenge. These guys are, like much of the Good Stuff in northern Italy, very farm-to-table in their philosophy. The barley is grown locally. So are the hops. The whole ingredient supply chain is kept as short as possible, for an honest expression of place and dependably high quality. They’re affiliated with Slow Food International, an organization dedicated to the preservation of local foodways (and drinkways!).
Their “Ponte Molino” wheat beer is a celebration of Castelveltrano’s traditional baking wheat, a strain called Timilio. It’s a sweet grain with complex aromatics and the resulting brew is a copper-tinted, golden saison-type beer with a heady bouquet of spices and citrus peel and marzipan.
If you’re a lager person, the Borgo della Paglia is worth checking out too. It’s delicate-bodied and features another Slow Food cause celebre, an heirloom corn varietal from the Padana Plain called Biancoperla; The name means “white pearl” and it is the strain traditionally used for white polenta-and like many a tasty heirloom crop it has suffered a production in decline in the last 50 years because of competition from less interesting but higher-yielding hybrids. This beer is a slightly iridescent white in the glass and has a pronounced sweet finish, with herbaceous aromatics and enough hoppiness to keep the natural sweetness of the corn in check. It’s silky and rounded and persistent.
Aside from their Slow Food heritage crop brews, Antonina also has a range of “classic” beers, each with its own twist. “Stila Vienna” is just that, a Vienna-style lager with a rich gold color and a malty, bread-crusty character. (It’s really good.)
“Altinate” is an intense dry-hopped lager with a powerful profusion of tropical fruit notes (grapefruit and mango especially).
I especially appreciate the “Portello” ale, an amber-gold Belgian style concoction with a strong coriander note and a caramel and orange rind finish. Perfectly balanced, quite rich, but doesn’t go on and on about it, you know? There are similar odes to white beer (“Ai Tudi”), strong ale (“Eremitani”) and blond lager (“Scudata”). Each gives a nod to a particular strand of brewing tradition; all have a strongly northern Italian sense of place.
Two of my personal faves are from the “Panorama” range: “Marechiaro,” a celebration of the food and culture of Naples and probably a beer-guy’s dream date pairing for serious Napoletano pizza, it’s a bottom-fermented blonde with a lush texture, gentle hop florals and body for days- and “Pasubio,” a clear, saison lager that’s dry, refreshing, and intensely perfumed by five different hops varietals.
Veneto is a gastronomic paradise, and Antoniana’s beers are all extremely food-forward. It’s a diverse but coherent range of brews and they are likely crowd-pleasers. Which is reason enough to pay attention to these guys. In addition, you’re supporting small-scale, ecologically conscious, low-footprint beer-making when you serve this stuff, and that is righteous too. I mean, you really should just have one more if it means helping to save an endangered ancient wheat strain, shouldn’t you?