In the Città della Birra, craft beer is replacing fine wineStepping into the main dining room of the agriturismo Il Guiso was almost like diving into a glass of beer, the amber hue of the room matching the tones of the frothy liquid. Filippo Isotti greeted me with a smile, a handshake, and a bottle of Riserva Speciale, toned with that same golden glow. This particular brew is a local craft beer—a perfect start for the unique meal we were about to experience. Isotti, the owner and sometimes cook at Il Guiso, is a kind of mad scientist in the field of “alogastronomy,” the modern art of pairing food with carefully chosen Italian craft beers.
Replacing the “wine” in “wine and dine” with a tall, cool one? A different kind of beverage trend has emerged in Italy in the past 10 years. The same people who made liquid art out of grapes and coffee beans are now perfecting the art of brewing craft beer.
Just an hour’s drive southwest of Urbino, in the Montefeltro area of the Le Marche region, lies the town of Apecchio, or “Città della Birra” as the locals say: City of Beer. It is a place where beer is regarded with the same sophistication and appreciation as fine champagne and caviar. Nestled in the foothills of the Appenines, Apecchio is surrounded by natural marvels of mountains and forests, including Mt. Nerone, source of the invaluable spring water used in the beers that the town promotes. The Città della Birra is aptly nicknamed for hosting two of Italy’s most well-known craft breweries. On one side of Apecchio is Collesi, a quaint, family-owned brewery, which is home to the Imper Ale line, a collection that just received a gold medal in the 2012 New York International Beer Competition for the second year in a row. On the opposite side is Amarcord, named after the Oscar-winning Fellini classic, a craft brewery known for a line representing the four female leads of the film (La Gradisca, La Midòna, La Volpina and La Tabachéra) and for Riserva Speciale, its “champagne of beers.”
Back at the hillside niche of Il Guiso, Isotti had his own poetic perspective on Riserva Speciale. “It is a beer that cannot be included in a range,” he said, while pouring the peach-colored liquid into over-sized wine glasses. “It escapes definition.” Isotti pairs Riserva especially with the first course of his standard “beer menu” because the sweetness of the beer perfectly offsets the saltiness of the prosciutto crudo, ciaccia (a special type of focaccia from the Montefeltro area), and assorted pecorino cheeses served with beer marmalade.Before delving into the first course feast, I raised the glass of Riserva Speciale to my lips, sensing the bouquet of sour cherries and honey that characterize the brew. I took a sip—a regal introduction to the all-Amarcord lunch that awaited us.
Following the overture of sweet and salty antipasti came a symphony of dishes. These not only were paired with various Amarcord’s AMA line but also included the beers as ingredients. This was a show that posed a new threat to cooking with wine.
First was creamy risotto with local truffles and herbs, made with the AMA Bionda that sat beside it; brewed with orange honey, the light, citrusy Bionda balanced the heaviness of the risotto. Next came pork roast with ratatouille vegetables straight from Isotti’s garden; AMA Bruna, with its dark, bitter accents, was used to tenderize and enhance the meat while complementing the ratatouille nicely. Marking the end of the meal was the Sicilian dessert zabaione, a custard usually made with Marsala wine, but in this case tasting of AMA Mora, the coffee-infused dark ale that sat alongside it. The experience made American tailgating with hot dogs and Bud Light seem like sacrilege.
“We call it beer, but these new beers are excellent beers. They can’t be called like the beers before them.” Isotti spoke while enjoying a post-plate performance cigarette over a glass of AMA Bruna and hunks of grana padano, a soft parmesan-like cheese. I found myself wondering if wine and cheese were ever really complements. That is the Apecchio effect: leaving the Italian reality of fine wine and entering a world where beer reigns supreme as the drink of the sophisticate.
In fact, a whole association was formulated around this idea a year ago, to promote Apecchio and the Italian craft beer revolution and to relay the significance of alogastronomy to any passer-by through tours, tastings, and restaurant recommendations. The group even coined the term “alogastronomia” from the familiar “enogastronomia,” the art of pairing food with wine; they used the prefix “alo” from ale to define the sophistication of the craft beer. To them, this beer-and-food thing is a serious matter. In the all-brick, dim orange glow of the association’s headquarters, Massimo Cardellini, the association president, recently summed up the idea.
“We’re not aiming for Oktoberfest,” Cardellini told me as he swirled a glass of the award-winning Collesi Imper Ale Tripolo Malto. “We want to create a culture.”
This article is from Urbino Now magazine’s Escursione section, which recommends day trips and activities within an hour or so of Urbino. Please view more magazine articles or order a complete printed copy of Urbino Now.