Jesus turned water into wine, but Teo Musso at Le Baladin has gone one step further — by changing beer into wine. At his bar in Piozzo, a small village high up in the Piemontese hills above the Barolo wine country, he proffers a glass of Xyauyu, a dark, almost black powerfully alcoholic ale (13.5%) that has spent 18 months sitting outside in a container in the courtyard at the brewery. Exposure to air has led to the beer going through a period of oxidisation, which in most cases is sudden death to beer, but here the process has alchemically altered the beer in the most sensational way — it has gone through the valley of shadows and death and come out totally transformed.
Viscous and limpid in the glass, it is warming and sherry-like on the palate, complex and blessed with a restrained but comfortable sweetness: an elegant and esoteric beer that has taken on the character of wine. It is strong, 13.5% in strength, and the drink-by date on the bottle says to be consumed by the end of the world. Clearly, Musso is a man with his eyes firmly fixed on beery nirvana.
Even though wine is king in the country of Italy, craft beer is taking pot shots at the throne, challenging the old hegemony, especially in the style bars and brewpubs springing up in the north. Here in the beer homelands of northern Europe we always think of Peroni and Moretti whenever the subject of Italian beer crops up, inoffensive premium lagers with big advertising budgets and nothing much to get worked up about. However, it is now estimated that there are approximately 150 breweries and brewpubs in Italy, a number that will probably keep growing. Le Baladin, which has been going since 1996, is often seen as the star of the show with Musso as its leading light.
He certainly has the aura of a man who believes his own publicity (‘he is the Jim Morrison of beer,’ I am told by one Italian beer writer). He is tall and rangy, draped in a long scarf, leather-jacketed, stick thin, heavily stubbled and blessed with the sort of distressed, windswept hair that must take forever to do in the morning. Even though he’s in his early 40s, there’s a boyishness about him, an enthusiasm, a sense of adventure or exploration, plus a easy charisma — he greets people in his bar with the sureness of one of those infuriating people who seem to have limitless self-confidence. When we meet he is still thoroughly amused over the battle he had the previous day with a Carlsberg Quality Control Manager at a beer seminar they were both talking at. Ask him about beer and the last thing you will hear will be marketing double-speak.
The home of Le Baladin’s beery heaven is the bar of the same name where the brewery first started. Nowadays, the beer is created (produced doesn’t seem an appropriate word for what he does) in a stand-alone site across the village square and down a side street. In May 2008, it will be all change again as the current brewery will be solely for experimental beers, with the regulars being created elsewhere in the village. For the moment then the brewery remains an adventure in stainless steel, comfortably sited within a nest of tiled walls and floor. 85% of his beers are bottled because he believes that is the best way his beer can be presented, especially when it appears on the beer list of smart restaurants.
Many hail him as a genius, though others of a more conventional stripe might think some of Musso’s ideas as thoroughly bonkers. For a start, most of the fermenting vessels have headphones attached to them. This is due to Musso’s belief that as yeast is alive it can respond to music, in the way newly born babies like a spot of Mozart. There is even a tango guitarist who has composed movements for the different phases of fermentation. Along with the regulation barley and hops, various spices, chocolate, coffee beans and even myrrh go into the brewing pot, while top-fermenting yeasts are joined by strains that usually work with whisky or wine.
Then there is Musso’s latest creation, the Casa Baladin, which is a beer restaurant and hotel across the square from the bar, a unique stronghold of beer cuisine and seven luxuriant rooms all individually decorated to a theme. The Flowers Room is dominated by an incredible three-metre deep brass bath that was brought from North Africa; the Jewels Room is hip and minimalist, while the 70s one is lurid and psychedelic. You get the picture (one of the other beer journalists I was with used the words ‘knocking shop’). There’s also a Turkish bath, while the high-ceilinged lounge continues with this mixture of modern and fantasy: old weathered beams hang over the proceedings, a metal chimney rising out through the roof has the feel of something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, some of the seating comes from an old Paris cinema. ‘I want to transmit experiences to people,’ he says.
This is the sort of room that would be an ideal winter’s night experience with a glass of the brewery’s chestnut-coloured Noel Baladin to hand, a sensuous Christmas ale that has become so popular it is now brewed all year. However, in keeping with Musso’s brewing contrariness, the recipe is changed annually. The 2007 vintage that I try has coffee beans in the mix, while 2006 saw chocolate being added. ‘Next year I don’t know what I will do,’ he laughs. Noel is nutty and alcoholic on the nose, with a hint of vanilla and ground coffee beans in the background. The palate relaxes with a rich and rummy smoothness that is woken up with an appetising espresso-like bitterness. Musso hands around a plate of truffles to accompany this glorious beer; they have Noel within them. Never mind about chocolate liquors, beer is the new confection accessory in town. ‘I like to challenge the way beer can be used with chocolate.’
Challenging our perceptions of what beer is and can be is what Musso is about. His Belgian-style witbier Isaac has a tart, sourish edge to the palate; Elixir is an Abbey-style ale that is fermented with Scottish distillers’ yeast, while Nora contains ginger root and myrrh and is hopped as lightly as Italian brewing laws will allow — it’s weird in the it’s-a-beer-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it mode and absolutely delicious. The Italian spirit of adventure and inspiration that drove the likes of Marco Polo and Da Vinci are very much alive in Teo Musso. ‘Every week I think in my head a new beer and every two months I try and brew one,’ he says. ‘A new taste is like a new way of communicating with people. My beers try to communicate new flavours and aromas to people. I never get bored with brewing. I am like a volcano spewing out new ideas. I could never be a wine producer because there I could only expect to be creative once a year, while in beer you can be creative all the time.’
Nora, 6.8% — dry, spicy and refreshing
Brune, 4.7% — chewy, smoky and creamy with toffee notes
Super Baladin, 8% — strong Belgian-style ale with a candy-sugar sweetness on the palate; chewy, bittersweet and silky with lots of malty flavours
Blonde, 4.9% — honeyed, tart and herbal
Isaac, 5% — delicate and subtle with hints of spice and a quenching sourish edge
Nina, 6.8% — ESB style, which is quenching and chewy
Sei no 6, 5.2% — made with a special mineral water; dark gold in colour, it has an estery, sour, gueuze-like nose, with lemony hints; has spices and buckwheat in the mash and is fermented with a wine yeast.
Wayan, 5.8% — light and subtle with a gentle carbonation, dryish; ‘I contaminate the beer with lacto-bacteria and then bottle and secondary ferment’.
Elixir, 10% — sweetish, has a hint of Belgian triple about it but not as hoppy; sharp and prickly in its carbonation; a dry and fiery triple that doesn’t have the sweetness of the more common Belgian ones.
Erika, 9% — dark orange in colour, made with heather honey and also has pine resin added to the boil; not overly sweet, has a nose that can be compared with like being in a forest after a rain shower; rounded, restrained bitterness, bittersweet dryness; very drinkable.