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Italy's Rock Star Brewer


We’re driving through Italy, about forty miles south of Turin. The sun is setting and casting a golden glow of weak November warmth over the rounded landscape as early evening mists begin to rise.

Teo MussoMy driver tells me that this is brilliant wine country, pointing out the acres of vines that roam down and around the shapely hillsides. It’s perfect for grapes, he says.

The hills allow the water to run through the vines without flooding them, and the sun, though plentiful, is never too intense. This is the land of Barolo and bottles of this famous Italian red normally fetch upwards of 40 Euros each.

It’s not the local wine I’m interested in, of course. I’m wondering how well the local beer fares in comparison to its illustrious and expensive neighbour.

At the wheel of the car is Maurizio Maestrelli, one of Italy’s leading beer writers. He’s been the perfect host for the last couple of days, selflessly driving me to some of the exciting new breweries that have opened up in the country in the last ten years or so.

Italy is one country in Europe where beer sales have actually risen in recent years, largely because the microbrewery movement has taken off. There are approaching 120 small producers here.

As we crest a steep rise and park up in the square of a peaceful old town named Piozzo, Maurizio tells me that we’re about to meet the 'Jim Morrison of Italian beer'.

Impeccably High Standards

Teo Musso is in his early 40s. He’s been around the world and returned to Italy with cultured rock-star looks, a self-confident, cosmopolitan outlook on life and a burning desire to do new and unusual things. But only if he can do them well.

He’s worked as a music teacher, he runs a recording label, and he’s recently opened a hotel, which – to maintain his impeccably high standards – he designed and manually refitted himself.

Most significantly, in 1986, he established his own pub in this ancient hill town and called it – perhaps with one eye on the mirror – Le Baladin, French for a medieval minstrel, storyteller and jester.

There he developed such an interest in beer that he decided to become a brewer himself and, never one to do things by half, headed off to Belgium to learn the ropes at the somewhat eccentric Brasserie à Vapeur. He came home brimming with ideas for new and unconventional beers.

The brewery opened in 1996, initially in the pub, but later moving next to Teo’s own house just down the road. It is about to expand again, adding new facilities a short drive away.

Adventurous Beers

The reason for the growth is the enormous interest there has been in Teo’s work, both at home and in the export market (85% of Baladin’s beer is bottled). A quick look through his somewhat wacky beer list perhaps explains why.

Firstly, there’s a range of beers that are only brewed using a certain type of mineral water. Called Lurisia, after the trademarked super-pure bottled water, they include some unusual ingredients, such as buckwheat and seeds of angelica. One of these beers is fermented with a Côte du Rhône wine yeast.

There is similar novelty in other areas of Teo’s creative output – in a delicate, spicy wheat beer called Isaac; in an organic, fairly sweet saison called Wayan; and in an 'Egyptian-style beer' called Nora that features ginger and myrrh in its sweet, perfumed taste.

These three are named after Teo’s two children and their mother. Musso’s own 81-year-old mother is name-checked in Mamma Kriek. She collects the cherries by hand, and, after they’ve been through the fermenting vessel, turns them into jam.

There’s a lot more to the impressive Baladin beer list but, from this handful of examples, it is already clear that Teo lives to experiment.

'Every week I think up a new beer and every two months I try a new beer,' he reveals in fractured English.

But, unlike most microbrewers, he’s not absorbed by hops. More his bag are yeast and the wonders of fermentation and maturation. There’s a distinct affiliation between Teo’s beers and the wines he grew up alongside. Like some bibulous alchemist, he seems determined to bring the two closer and closer together.

Teo’s most cherished beer is called Xyauyù. It’s brewed with whisky yeast. Some people told Teo that you couldn’t brew beer with whisky yeast as it doesn’t finish off the fermentation, so he decided to prove them wrong.

The beer is then allowed to mature for 18 months in a tank that permits access to the air. The idea is to advance the effects of oxidation – not something most brewers would welcome – and what emerges is a sweet, toffeeish beer at 13.5%, with a rich, Madeira-like character.

Because the air has already done its worst, the beer can then be kept like a port or sherry and sipped at leisure for months. At more than 25 Euros for a 750 ml bottle, we’re getting closer to the local wine all the time.

Yeast Music

If all this sounds a bit off the wall, wait till you hear about the music. Having read how cows supposedly produce better milk when they are played a little Mozart, Musso decided to give his yeast the same treatment.

Hence the giant blue headphones that are clamped onto the sides of his fermenting vessels, pumping out soothing melodies specially recorded by a guitarist friend.

Is Teo serious about this? Who knows? There’s a decidedly flippant look on his face. Indeed, the whole Le Baladin concept seems slightly unreal and cheekily provocative.

Here is this little pub-brewery, in an otherwise sleepy, remote Italian hill town, that is inspiring Italians to drink more beer than they have ever done before and, at the same time, making established brewers across the world stop and think again about what they do and how they do it.

The minstrel is playing a seductive tune, and more and more people are dancing to it. 

This feature first appeared in What's Brewing in February 2008. Please note that details and facts may have changed since that first publication.

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