Ciao Biella: an Italian family brewery woos the bloggerati

You can hardly get fresher beer than from a bottle snatched off the production line by the managing director of the brewery, only seconds after it had been filled and capped – and, indeed, it’s excellent, cold, refreshingly flavourful and welcome, even at 10.30 in the morning. Mind, there are few or no Anglo-Saxon breweries where this would be possible, since health’n’safety barriers would be in place to prevent anyone from being able to reach across into the filling machinery and grab a passing bottle from the conveyor. However, this is Italy: while in a British brewery everybody would be forced into hi-vis jackets, ear protectors and goggles, here, where life is visibly more relaxed, visitors can wander about unworried by the HSE.

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

Menabrea brewery managing director Franco Thedy pulls a bottle out of the line

I am at Menabrea (pronounced roughly “MENahBRAYah”), one of the few surviving family-run Italian breweries, with roots that go back to before Italy was a single country. Menabrea is based in the town of Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps, 40 miles from Turin to the south-west and 50 miles from Milan to the east. It is a town of 46,000 people, with soft water coming down from the Alps that, with plenty of nearby pastureland for sheep, has encouraged a local woollen industry: the town is home to Cerruti and Fila, among others. That same soft water is also very good for brewing lagers.

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

Inside the Menabrea brewery in Biella

The brewery was started in 1846 by a couple of cafe owners, Antonio and Gian Battista Caraccio, and Antoine Welf, from Gressoney in the Aosta valley, to the north-west of Biella. Welf was a Walser, that is, a speaker of the Walliser dialect of German found in the Swiss canton of Valais and surrounding territories such as Aosta. Welf disappears, and in 1854 the Caraccio brothers started leasing the brewery in Biella to another Walser, Anton Zimmermann, also from Gressoney, and his compatriot Jean Joseph Menabreaz (sic), who were already running a brewery in the town of Aosta itself. Piedmont – and Aosta – were at that time part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy, but in 1861, with some help from the French and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, was able to declare himself King of a more-or-less united Italy. Three years later, in 1864, Zimmermann and Menabreaz – now, post-unification, with Italianised first names, Antonio and Giuseppe, and, in the latter’s case, a more Italian-looking surname as well, with the final “z” disappearing – bought the brewery in Biella from the Caraccios.

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Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Excellent news, I think, that Wells & Young’s has acquired the Scottish brands McEwan’s and Younger’s from their current owner, Heineken.

The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.

But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749”, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish

“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”

There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.

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The history of yeast: breaking news


Ha! As I wrote yesterday, researchers in yeast genetics are changing the story on the history of yeast all the time, and the day I put that post up, new findings on the genetics of lager yeast came out which, as New Scientist reported, take the hybridisation narrative further down the road to a fascinating destination.

To quote New Scientist, Gavin Sherlock and Barbara Dunn of Stanford University, California, compared the genes of 17 lager and ale yeast strains across the world, with origins dating from between 1883 and 1976, and derived from breweries as diverse as Carlsberg and Labatt, Rainier and Heineken:

It has long been thought that Saccharomyces pastorianus, the yeast used in lager production, formed only once from the hybridisation of S. cerevisiae and S. bayanus. Instead, the team discovered that it happened at least twice in two separate locations in Europe, giving rise to the two different lager families … The hybrid, which makes lager instead of ale, probably evolved in Bavarian beer-brewing cellars during the 16th century.

The team also found that Saaz yeasts have a single copy of each parent yeast’s genome, whereas the Frohberg yeasts have an extra copy from S. cerevisiae. They believe this difference affects the flavour of the lager, as well as how quickly the yeasts can ferment the hops

[my emphasis, and sic, fer gawd’s sake. Bloody journalists … do they know nothing?]

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S&N and continental cock-ups

So Scottish & Newcastle falls to the Carlsberg/Heineken combo, thanks to what now turns out to be its foolish involvement in the Russian beer market, leaving not a single one of the former “Big Six” British brewers in existence, and plenty of questions to be answered – what will happen to S&N’s stake in Caledonian, for example? What about WaverleyTBS, the distribution company S&N owns that delivers many independent small brewers’ beers to British pubs?

Just as important, does Heineken have the ability and experience to make any decent sort of run in the British beer scene, now it has become UK brewing’s biggest player, covering everything from keg and cask ale through standard lager to cider? It’s a much more complicated market than any other the jolly green Dutch giant deals in (even if the head of the Heineken family does live in Britain).

Two other news items you may have missed if you don’t read the trade press suggest that big continental companies can’t hack the intricacies of the UK beer market. First, Inbev is withdrawing the strong Artois Bock after less than three years.

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Making S&Nse

So the sharks have started moving closer to Scottish & Newcastle. This is the latest in a series of foregone conclusions in the British brewing scene since a Conservative government decided it would be a jolly idea to partially sever the tie between brewers and pub ownership with the Beer Orders of 1989.

The result, which had been predicted as far back as 1950, by a right-wing economist called Arthur Seldon, writing in The Economist. was that the big brewers – Bass (including Tennents of Scotland), Whitbread, Allied (Ind Coope, Ansells and Tetley’s), Courage, Grand Met (Watneys), Whitbread and S&N, quickly abandoned pub ownership almost entirely.

Then, because brewing in the UK isn’t that profitable, the big brewers abandoned brewing, so that by 2001 only Scottish & Newcastle was left of the Big Seven brewers of 1989 – the rest merged with others or transformed into something else, such as distillers or hotel companies.

S&N, which swallowed the brewing interests of Courage and Watney, rose from being the smallest of the Big Seven to being the largest UK brewer, while the rest of the industry was brought by Interbrew of Belgium (Whitbread and part of Bass), Coors of the United States (the rest of Bass) and Carlsberg of Denmark (Allied).

Unfortunately for S&N, it never dominated its home market the way Heineken, Anheuser-Busch, Carlsberg or SAB of South Africa did theirs, and it has never been able to find the transformational deal that would turn it into a true and invulnerable giant. It bought Kronenbourg off Danone in 2000, and became the biggest brewer in France; it bought Hartwall of Finland in 2002 and gained a half-share, with Carlsberg, in BBH, owner of the biggest brewing concern in Russia (to Carlsberg’s great annoyance). But what it really needed to do was acquire a truly global coverage, the way Interbrew did by merging with Ambev of Brazil, or SAB did by merging with Miller of the United States.

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