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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What it means now it’s Miller Time at Meantime

Alastair Hook, left, and Nick Miller

The news that Meantime Brewing Company has appointed Nick Miller, former managing director at SAB Miller UK’s operating company, Miller Brands, as its new chief executive is the most significant event in the UK brewing industry this year.

(Incidentally, I love the iconography of the photo of Nick and Alastair Hook, Meantime’s founder and brewmaster: “We’re not suits, but we’re still serious working dudes who love beer …”)

Don’t, please, lazily assume this means SAB Miller will be acquiring Meantime, the way Molson Coors bought Sharp’s back in February. Meantime is a company with ambitions: it has already announced that it wants to increase production fourfold at its new brewery in Greenwich, south-east London from 25,000 hectolitres a year to 100,000hl in the next five years – that’s a little over 60,000 barrels a year, UK, for the non-metric, about as much as a medium-sized family brewer such as Hall and Woodhouse produces.

If you brew it, they won’t necessarily come, though: hence the appointment of Mr Miller. He is, as far as I can find out, the first real sales and marketing heavyweight ever to join a UK craft brewer. He had 20 years of experience in sales, strategic projects and marketing with Coors UK (formerly Bass), where he was director of sales, before he joined Miller Brands as sales director in 2005. His new employer boasted then that Miller had “a history of consistently delivering improved customer relations, sales and profit”, and he rose to be MD at Miller Brands in 2008.

He certainly seems to know how to sell beer, even in a recession. For example, Miller Brands saw UK sales of Peroni rise 29 per cent in the 12 months to the end of April, 2010. And if you think: “Peroni – pfff”, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that UK sales of the Italian lager are equal to more than 300,000 barrels a year, about as much as Fuller, Smith & Turner’s entire output. It’s the number one “world beer” brand in the UK on-trade and number two in the off-trade.

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Two and a half cheers for Heinrich Beck

One of the funnier five minutes on the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow, where the public brings its mouldering rubbish along hoping for the experts to tell them it’s worth thousands, was a couple of years back when a woman turned up while the programme was being filmed in Scotland with a painting signed by someone called Jack Hoggan. She liked it, she told the Roadshow’s art expert, she had bought it quite cheaply in a junk shop, and she kept seeing pictures that reminded her of it, so the thought she would bring it along to try to find out more about this Hoggan chap.

The BBC art expert was obviously tortured by, on the one side, being able to tell the woman the painting was indeed worth much more than she had paid for it, and on the other, by having to say this was because it was by the painter who later changed his name to Jack Vettriano, the artist the experts loathe and the public adores. Vettriano’s The Singing Butler is one of the most reproduced pictures in Britain (you know it – it’s the one with the couple in evening dress dancing in the rain, while the butler and maid hold wind-blustered umbrellas). Art critics insist his work is flat and derivative. Vettriano is sheltered from their jibes by the £500,000 a year, at least, he makes from reproduction rights to his paintings.

There are plenty of beers that fit into the Jack Vettriano category – loathed by the “experts”, drunk in enough volume by the public that the brewers who make them don’t care. I don’t like Jack Vettriano that much, but there are at leat a couple of beers I’m not supposed to like that I really feel need to have a flag waved on their behalf: they’re, you know, actually, not that bad. Maybe it’s because they’re both from that global megacategory the pilsalikes that they come in for the ritual dismissal. The World’s Top Writer On Beer™ insists

“Even if you want nothing more than simple refreshment, you could do much better than the familiar Foster’s, Corona, American Bud, Carling, Heineken, Grolsch, Beck’s and similar international-style golden lagers from Ruritania, Xanadu or Bongoland. People imagine that these beers are enormously different from one another, but they are all lighter-bodied, blander-tasting, distant impersonations of just one style: the Pilsner lager of Bohemia. None of these imitators is truly individualistic.

but there are two errors in that position.

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