They say…

Des de Moor
Best beer and travel writing award 2015, 2011 -- British Guild of Beer Writers Awards
Accredited Beer Sommelier
Writer of "Probably the best book about beer in London" - Londonist
"A necessity if you're a beer geek travelling to London town" - Beer Advocate
"A joy to read" - Roger Protz
"Very authoritative" - Tim Webb.
"One of the top beer writers in the UK" - Mark Dredge.
"A beer guru" - Popbitch.
Des de Moor

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Borgo Equilibrista

Birra del Equilibrista

ABV: 10.9%
Origin: Borgorose, Latium, Italy
Website: www.birradelborgo.it

Even the most experienced beer taster ultimately comes up against subjective judgement and hazy guesses about brewers’ intentions when evaluating beers, particularly those that push the envelope of categories. Plenty of professionals struggle with lambics and the new wild beers inspired by them, and once as a table captain at a beer competition I had to manage a serious argument with some members of my team – including a rather good professional brewer – who felt Samuel Adams Triple Bock should be disqualified as it wasn’t a beer.

I mention this as I’m not sure where I should stand on this particular, rather extraordinary, beer, which I tasted at an international beer tasting at the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Leeds. It originates from Birra del Borgo, one of the most widely acclaimed of the new breed of small Italian craft brewers.

Founded by former biochemist and home brewer Leonardo Di Vincenzo in 2005, the brewery now operates on two sites in the small village of Borgorese. Its best known brand is ReAle, one of the earlier European takes on a modern American pale ale, but it makes a wide range of seasonals and specials often incorporating unusual techniques and ingredients.

Equilibrista is one such, classified by the brewery as bizzarre and sperimentale in style, and brewed in small quantities once a year. It’s an attempt at a beer-wine hybrid, aiming to achieve the ‘equilibrium’ of the name. A conventional hopped barley malt wort is added to the must of Sangiovese grapes, the latter making up 39% of the mixture, and fermented with wine yeast.

The beer is then treated according to the methode traditionelle used for Champagne – refermented in the bottle with Champagne yeast over the course of a year, with bottles stored upside down and turned by hand to encourage the sediment to settle on the cork, which is then rapidly removed and replaced in a process called dégorgement, at which point another dose of concentrated must provokes a renewed sparkle.

There are other ‘Champagne’ beers, of which perhaps the best known is Bosteels DeuS, but this is something rather different that doesn’t attempt to imitate Champagne as such. My sample, from the 2011 vintage, poured a rich pinkish amber colour with a fizzy, slightly pink-tinged head. The aroma was decidedly winy, but still with subtle notes of hops besides the fruit, and a slight but definite trace of lambic-like wild yeast.

The palate was rather sweet at first, reminding me more of those luscious Italian sparklers like Asti Spumante than the more prestigious and drier French variety. There was plenty of grapey fruit, but the beer rapidly dried, becoming quite tart, with a complex and definitely sour lemon juice note and some spicy, grapy complexity.

Tannins from grapeskins – a very unusual note in a beer – were a feature on a lightly citric, subtly fruity finish with a hint of vanilla. And that light sourness persisted – not overwhelming, and actually making quite a harmonised contribution to the overall complexity. I noted a very rewarding taste experience, with the funky sourish notes a pleasant surprise in what was already a highly unusual beer.

Then a few days later, another beer expert – a highly experienced taster and beer judge – told me that the sourness was unintentional. Presumably at some point in the complex process, some bug or other [corrected from “a wild yeast” — see comments below] sneaked in unwanted and did its acidic stuff. I haven’t been able to verify this, but I do recall there was no mention of wild yeast on the label, there’s certainly no mention of it on the brewery website, and while some online reviews refer to the sourness (and ratebeer even classifies it as a ‘Sour Ale/Wild Ale’), others do not. And Champagne shouldn’t be sour, so why should a drink that’s trying to strike a balance between beer and bubbly?

So was I taken for a mug in being caught rhapsodising over a bad beer with a serious technical fault, of the sort that I’d normally pour straight down the sink? Was I seduced by the reputation of the brewer, by the trendy status of Italian craft beer, by the enigmatic label and the stylish designer bottle with its cork and capsule?

I don’t think so. If this was an accident, it was a happy one, at least to my taste. The sourness wasn’t overbearing, and worked well against the rich, deep fruity tones of the wine must and the relatively light hopping. There are precedents for sour beers made with grapes – such as the much admired grape lambic Vigneronne from Brussels’ Cantillon brewery. While it would be interesting to taste Equilibrista as intended, a deliberately funky version might also have a future.

As to whether a drink made with wine yeasts and a large quantity of grape sugar in its primary fermentation qualifies as a beer or not, that’s an argument for another day.

4 comments to Borgo Equilibrista

  • Excellent question. I don’t think it makes you a mug to make a judgement based on the your honest reaction and the limited information you have at hand. It would be worse to say “I need to know more about this beer before I’ll pronounce on whether I like it or not”. (And we’ve certainly had accidentally sour/hazy beers we’ve enjoyed anyway.)

  • Apologies for being pedantic, but I don’t think sourness in beer can ever be attributed to yeast. Yeast will bring ‘funky’ flavours to a beer but sourness will always be a result of bacteria.

  • Des

    Don’t apologise, Mark — it’s important to get the facts right about beer and good to be reminded when you slip up. Wild yeasts can certainly produce tangy notes, and checking the Oxford Companion to Beer, which I think is reliable on the technical stuff if not always on the historical or cultural stuff, Brettanomyces will produce acetic acid, giving a “crisp acidity”. It goes on to say, however, that lactic acid bacteria are needed to create a truly sour beer. I think this beer was truly sour, though not overbearingly so, and I’ll correct the piece accordingly.

  • Intersting … Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) agrees about brett strains being acetic acid producers (mainly in the presence of glucose). (It also cites the Oxford Companion as a reference).

    You learn something new every day …

    I think you’re right though. The sourness in this beer is much more likely to be due to lactic bacteria.

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