I firmly believe that a person who loves good wine also appreciates the flavor of artisanal beer. It’s a question of fine-tuning your taste buds and telling them to wake up and decide what to like and dislike. If your taste buds are “turned on” for wine (and probably good food too), they won’t just turn off when someone passes around the Natty Light.
I fell in love with San Michele beer the moment I drank my first sip of smoked “Aida” at a pizzeria. Smoked! Never had I tasted such an awesome idea for beer. I’ve had unusual flavors, which in our artisanal beer culture may now seem laughingly so last year—sour beer, blueberry beer—but never smoked. The fact that its name and label portrays one of my favorite stops in Torino, climbing the mountain path up to the Sacra di San Michele (Saint Michael’s Abbey), made it seem like it was made for me.
Il ragazzo and I had to visit it, as it’s located just 20 minutes away from the city in Sant’Ambrogio di Torino.
When we arrived (see below for directions on how to get there), we saw the one-time pasta factory situated almost directly at the foot of mountain of the ancient abbey. The brewmeister, Bruno, told us that their old brewery in Avigliana had a postcard-perfect view out one of their windows looking at the Sacra, and so they named it after this majestic inspiration. The abbey certainly inspires: it is also the official symbol of the region of Piemonte. After moving their location in August 2013, the new view of the Abbey isn’t so bad, either.
First, Bruno led us through the new tasting room of the brewery. The vintage-revamped style with its scalloped, brick ceiling matches their retro label. The room was still full of boxes and crates, but soon it will become a bar area where they’ll serve beer and hot and cold dishes.
We walked into the next room where a guy was mashing (mixing the grain and water and heating the mix to allow the enzymes to break down the starches into sugar). All their beer is made with Alpine spring water, and is unfiltered and unpasteurized. Then, we headed into the last room where beer fermented and was bottled. They only make a limited number of their 10 flavors each new batch; while they’ve expanded, they still have just eight fermentation tanks and produce 60,000 liters of beer a year.
Back in the reception room where the cash register and shelves of beer stand, Bruno explained the names of the beers to us. “They’re each named after a character from a famous opera,” he said. It seems some Italian stereotypes hold true. They proclaim their beers are an “opera di passione,” or a “work of passion” (the word game isn’t quite as perfect in English). The name of the character is chosen based on his or her personality as it matches the style of the beer.
The Butterfly, a Kolsch style beer, is named after Japanese protagonist Cio-Cio San of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The low alcohol grade and balanced bubbles and foam reflect the innocence of the 15-year-old character; the lightly fruity flavor is neither bitter nor sweet, but recalls Japanese cherries and cherry blossoms. The chestnut beer Norma, which has won awards for best beer three years in a row, takes the name of one of Italian opera’s strongest female characters from Bellini's work. Highly emotional moments are reflected in the high fermentation; the sweetness of Norma’s infatuation with the Roman invader is in the fruity, caramel aftertaste; and that special ingredient, chestnut, was central in the ancient Celtic diet.
We sat at the counter on stools made to look like enormous bottle caps, and tasted the Weizen, or wheat beer, La Valchiria (named after Wagner’s mythic Nordic female warrior). It was light and lemony, refreshing even though he (correctly) served it to us at just a bit cooler than room temp. There is a time and a place for ice-cold beer, and that is usually on a hot summer day with a cheap beer in hand. To really taste the flavors of an artisanal beer well, it should be cool, not nearly frozen.
We can’t wait to return when the brewery is all outfitted with its tasting area, and its rooms are refurbished and full of beer. And I think they’re on to something here: after hiking up to the Sacra and returning to the bottom, nothing could be more welcoming than a nice, freshly-brewed pint.
How to get to the brewery: Take the train from Turin to Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, which takes about 20 minutes. When you get off, walk out to the main road (SS25) and cross it, then head to the right for just about 4 or 5 minutes. The brewery is off to the left, impossible to miss, on Via Terzo Reggimento Alpini.
I love Piemonte’s food and wine, the city of Turin, and my proximity to the Alps! My goal and challenge is to see as much of the region as possible using public transportation, but if you have a car I’d appreciate the ride. My intro to wine was at the Univ. of Gastronomic Sciences, and I love visiting family wineries, plus discovering Piemonte's craft beer scene. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite wine, but Nebbiolo never disappoints (from Barbaresco to Ghemme). As for beer, the Birrificio San Michele makes an incredible beechwood smoked brew.