Italy was never the sort of place I’d have considered for a beer trip. Wine, scenery and history, yes; beer, definitely not. But the appearance of the “Birra Bus” at Charlbury Beer Festival a few years ago led me into a conversation with its owner, and despite the language barrier – his English was a million times better than my Italian – he persuaded me that Italy was an up-and-coming beer destination.
I put this to the test in the summer of 2018. I chose Rome as my destination, not because it’s the centre of Italian brewing, but because there’s plenty of other stuff to do, and as the capital city, there would probably be some beer too. And it’s easy to get to.
In fact, the journey via Gatwick went like clockwork, and as a bonus my pre-bought and home printed train ticket worked first time in the scanner! So it was just after lunchtime my punctual train deposited me at Montuori’s fantastic late 1940s concrete Termini railway station. Not one of Rome’s most famous buildings, I know, but you have to admire its flowing concrete roof and elegant canopy. Well, I do.
Choosing to visit Rome in July virtually guarantees you sunshine and heat, and today did not disappoint. I sought lunch a couple of blocks away from the hubbub of the station, then afterwards wound my way to my hotel via shady back streets and sun-drenched piazzas.
Later that afternoon I ventured out into the heat for a walk and soon found myself alongside the Tiber. Crossing the Ponte Sisto, I explored the area of Trastevere, a maze of narrow streets, tall shuttered stucco buildings, alleyways, courtyards and pockets of activity: small groups of bars and restaurants gathered in quiet squares, usually dominated by an ornate renaissance church. And graffiti. Everything that didn’t move, and probably quite a lot that did, was covered in graffiti.
My destination was the city’s number one bar, according to a number of online sources I had consulted during my research. Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà is a doorway in a pink and inevitably graffitied wall in the corner of a cobbled square. Lots of places in Rome – my hotel included – are just doorways off the street, leading to passageways and courtyards and onwards to the accommodation, but this door leads straight into the small bar. The lack of space and good weather meant most people were drinking on the street, which gave me a chance to peruse the beer blackboard. The choice was fifteen European craft beers, all served in 0.4l measures, and all at six of those Euro thingies a go, which seemed the be the going rate everywhere. You can probably calculate that drinking in Rome is expensive. I, of course, chose an Italian, as this was the purpose of the trip. Ritual Lab Brewery was founded in 2015 at Formello, about ten kilometres north of Rome and their Pacific IPA (6.5%) was an excellent thirst quencher for the first beer of the tour. And, I vaguely recall, the second, third and fourth.
Over the road is Bir & Fud, in the same ownership as its near neighbour. It’s a long, thin room with a bar down one side at the front with stools where you can sit, and at the rear is a restaurant. This bar boasts 20 keg fonts, and more surprisingly, six hand pumps, offering a Gwatkin cider and four Italian real ales from Hilltop brewery. Hilltop sounds very English, but it’s based in the village of Bassano Romano about 40 miles north of Rome, near Lake Bracciano, and brews a range of beers more in the English style rather than the American craft that seems to prevail Operational since August 2014, it is owned by an Anglo-Italian family; one of the sons, Conor, is head brewer and picked up his brewing skills when at Reading University. I tried their Wot Hop (5%, €6 again), one of a range of single hop pale ales they brew, though the hop used here wasn’t identified on the blackboard.
After a pleasant walk back across the river, I found another small bar just beyond the bustling Piazza Navona. La Boticella is owned by Giovanni Poggi, a welcoming landlord and a fan of American Football, or more accurately the Pittsburgh Steelers, as memorabilia abounds. There are six beer taps offering local craft beers, and a fridge full of interesting, mainly Belgian, bottles. I went for the draught Canediguerra Double IPA (8.2%, €6.50!), from Alessandria, north of Genoa, a biscuity flavour and a massive hit of hops. At this strength, one was enough, and I enjoyed a late dinner opposite where I could watch the world go by as I ate.
Thursday was another scorching day, and I did some of the touristy things I had last seen on my previous visit to the eternal city over thirty years ago: the Colosseum, the Forum and the cute Temple of Hercules Victor. Seeking refreshment, I made across the Tiber once again to Trastevere to seek out a bar which turned out to be closed, so plonked myself outside a neighbouring establishment that looked as though at night it might be a club, but during the day served coffee and beers. The best beer on offer was Moretti IPA, which turned out to be a new brew in the American pale style, and very refreshing it was, or rather, they were, too. After lunch and more people watching at a trattoria, I went back to tourism, and visited the finest building in Rome, the Pantheon. I still marvel how something so clever and elegant could have been constructed in AD 120, and that the dome with its 30 foot diameter oculus, or hole, at the top, survives perfectly intact.
Once I had had my fill of domes and oculi, I went a few blocks away to Open Baladin, a modern craft bar that again had come highly recommended. The bright interior has a long bar boasting about 40 taps and three hand pumps, so I took a seat and checked out the weighty tome that was the beer list. My choice was another refreshing pale, Re Hop (5%), brewed by Toccalmatto Brewery, who are located between Milan and Bologna. I followed this with a couple of other kegs to quench my thirst before trying a Baladin Nina, a 5.9% cask in the style of Fuller’s ESB.
My next beer experience was the following lunchtime. I’d been doing the tourist thing and having a general wander around that day; that evening I was booked on a food tour, so obviously didn’t want to drink too much during the day. I’d also bought a bus and metro ticket, and travelled around, preferring overground on overcrowded and less than punctual buses rather than the gloomy 1970s Metro system. Doppio Malto is a large brew pub just a stone’s throw from the manic Trevi Fountain. They brew a range of beers on the premises, and offer good snack food, all served in a lively, cavernous and industrial-looking interior. Each beer was served in its own individual glass, the APA arriving in a ‘bowl’ about four inches high and six inches in diameter.
I grabbed a couple more Re Hops at Open Baladin in what turned out to be happy hour – only five Euros each! – before getting a bus across the river, past the Vatican and into Prati district for the Rome Food Tour. It was an expensive trip, but worth every cent. The drinking element of the tour was all wine, apart from a canned beer from Crak brewery whilst enjoying more than a dozen varieties of pizza at Pizzarium Bonci, and afterwards, when the group comprising four Americans, Canadian, Swedish and Dutch couples plus myself retired to a local bar well after midnight for a chat and a few beers together.
I returned on foot to the same district on my final day to visit Bar Re, a modern craft bar round the corner from the Vatican. The choice here was extensive: draught beers from all over Europe, including Cloudwater from the UK, and once again, there were three hand pumps. I was given a generous sample of an exceptionally strong Norwegian brew (Nøgne Ø Vic Secret IPA, 7.5%), which was great, but maybe not for a lunchtime. Instead, I renewed my acquaintance with Crak Brewery, who, the barman informed me, are based just north of Padua. The Mundaka (4.8%), brewed with Amarillo and Chinook hops, was just the tonic after my walk.
I ended up doing a lot more walking that day through the sun-drenched streets, though it did actually rain for literally sixty seconds during the afternoon, which surprised everybody. After another visit to the Pantheon, and an expensive pint and a sit down in the Piazza della Rotonda opposite (which has nothing to do with Birmingham) I decided to end my tour back at Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà. The beer list had changed a little from my visit three days previously, and one of the newcomers, Hammer (Villa d’Adda, near Bergamo) American IPA (7%) seemed to be the choice. Again, the bar was busy, and the street drinking area busier. I got into conversation with a group of drinkers who hailed from Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, and a brazen Chicago Attorney, who was passing through the city for one night only. He was the typical American, the centre of attention, and seemed keen to drink as much Italian beer as was possible during a short window of opportunity before dinner with his family, and he did not hang back when it came to buying rounds of drinks! He looked a lot younger on his website too.
It was an enjoyable end to a fantastic trip, chatting about beer and everything else in Rome’s finest bar. This is a great city, and if you do come here once it’s had a chance to recover from the recent Covid troubles, make a special effort to visit Trastevere and Ma Che. To add to the twenty-eight centuries of history, there’s a beer culture becoming established here which puts it very firmly on my tourist trail.