San Biagio is a craft brewery in Nocera Umbra, Umbria, Italy with a taste for history and the land. Based out of an ancient restored monastery, their beer pays homage to the past and the healing properties of water. Giovanni Rodolfi, a renowned beer enthusiast, author, and teacher, guides the team at San Biagio to create a selection of beers deeply connected to terroir and the history of monastic brewing.
by Emily McCarter and Savannah Eades*
In the rolling countryside of Nocera, Umbria, settled at the very top of a winding road is an ancient monastery. Once used for prayer and sacrament it is now used as the home and inspiration for San Biagio craft beer. The name San Biagio indeed refers to the monastery itself, dating back to the year 1333; a name that was chosen out of appreciation and esteem for the monastery’s history and deep connection to the region. Inside the brewery, the sweet, earthy smell of fermenting grains permeates the air. Silver fermentation tanks line two of the production room walls, and massive flats of tinted glass beer bottles occupy the spare interior space. A painting of San Arnold, the protector of beer makers, looks down from the entrance. The faint hum of machinery balances the firm voice of the brewery’s main artisan and brewmaster, Giovanni Rodolfi, who on this particular day leads a team of two young brewers through the day’s crafting.
The expert behind this artisanal beer, Giovanni captures the essence of hard work and leadership. His presence is cheerful and purely inviting, only enhanced by his warm humor and long, greying beard. The two younger brewers stop to listen as he describes the process and history of artisanal beer making – perhaps out of respect for him, or possibly to take this opportunity to listen to him speak so enthusiastically about their work. He expresses his affection for his craft – using it as a medium through which he exerts his passion and refines his knowledge. Before relocating to the Umbrian countryside, Giovanni worked a high paying job at Heineken. He also was a professor at a beer university, and authored a book on beer and food pairings called “Birra e… piccoli piatti grandi abbinamenti”. After his high powered carrier in the industrial beer world Giovanni was ready to practice what he had spent so much of his life teaching about: craft beer. He found a home at San Biagio and fell in love with Umbria, the green heart of Italy. This location and company are essential parts of his brewing practice.
He describes not only his passion for brewing but also his dedication to the history and traditional practice of crafting beer – for nutrition and refreshment. Indeed, he has “devoted his soul, mind and body to the production of San Biagio’s excellent Italian craft beers” (San Biagio). When asked what the best part of his job was, besides daily tastings at noon, he answered without hesitation: when you taste any of his crafted beers you’re not just tasting the flavor – you’re tasting the work he puts into his craft, savoring the passion and feeling the soul behind every individual batch. In this way San Biagio has an element of personal connection not only to each beer that they craft, but also with each individual who experiences the passion of their brews.
Craft breweries in Italy distinguish themselves from other countries small scale breweries by taking advantage of its long history and knowledge of wine. The concept of terroir is borrowed from wine culture and used in creating beers of great quality connected to the land and its traditions. San Biagio is a certified organic agricultural company that produces all of their own barley, which in turn transfers the essence of this land and the nutrients in the soil directly into the beverage. Giovanni explains, “Whoever drinks this beer drinks this place. You drink all that is around it. You drink the soul, this territory, and these people.”
The location of the brewery is a mere 15 minute drive from Nocera Umbria, a place known for its water. To make a good beer it is important to be aware of water quality because beer is composed of 90% water. San Biagio is careful to listen to and cultivate the history of the monastery and utilize their terroir to the best of their abilities. There is a legend that Saint Francis of Assisi came to this region to heal himself in a time of need. Giovanni described another story which depicts a wealthy business man traveling to this area to collect water for his sickly daughter. It is clear that there is a mix of truth and legend in the practices at San Biagio. Part science and part magic, these brews are a timeless piece of art.
Drawing from the ancient practice of brewing beer by the benedictine monks, San Biagio was born out of desire to create a product deeply connected to history and terroir. In the craft beer Monasta, San Biagio uses honey and bay leaf, a technique dating back to the 8th century. Other beers sold by San Biagio spanning from lighter to darker brews are, Verbum, Gaudens, Amber, and Aurum. Each beer has a suggested meal to be paired with its tasting notes that correspond with traditional Italian cuisine. Gaudens, for example might be best complimented by a meal of pasta or pizza, while Aurum would fare better with seasoned sheep cheese and roasted meat. For dessert, the pairing of San Biagio’s Amber ale alongside an Italian Tiramisu or pure chocolate cake. With Giovanni’s extensive knowledge of beer and cuisine, San Biagio successfully provides a wide range of flavors to go with any meal.
The brewery does not only craft high quality drink for the body and soul, but also applies similar values to nutrition and healing. In a separate part of the old monastery, down a series of staircases lies an apothecary modeled from the practices of the town’s historic healer – a noteworthy element of San Biagio’s spiritual past. Inside is the “center of regeneration”, which is inspired by ancient herbal practices for physical and spiritual restoration. The apothecary itself incorporates bushels of dried flowers and herbs displayed on layered wooden shelves, along with oils, creams, soaps, and teas for holistic rejuvenation that work in tandem with food and drink. The San Biagio team assures, “we are dedicated to protecting these little ordinary conditions of peace and tranquility, strongly regenerating, favorable to your and our relaxation” (Monastery of San Biagio). In this way, San Biagio is a sincere synthesis of healing and rejuvenation, committing themselves to the nutrition of the body, mind, and soul alike through their cultivation of gastronomic delight and biological well-being.
Together San Biagio is not only a brewery but an entire experience, promoting the healing aspects of this land and its water. With Giovanni at the lead, the company has access to a vast amount of brewing knowledge, and produces an entirely versatile and exuberant collection of beers connected to terrior. The monastery and each individual beer make a homage to the spiritual history of brewing in places of prayer. The taste of San Biagio’s brews are something worth going out of your way to experience because in every sip of craft beer there is a sense of respect for the past and an emphasis on the significance of place. San Biagio’s beer is only sold online or in Umbria, Milan, and Sicily. Whether you are a beer connoisseur or someone just looking for a beer to have with friends, San Biagio’s is a taste of history you will never forget.
*Questo articolo è il risultato della collaborazione tra SapereFood e Umbra Institute, filiale italiana di alcuni college e università statunitensi con sede a Perugia. Dopo un approfondimento sul settore agroalimentare e sullle tecniche di scrittura giornalistica, gli studenti di Umbra Institute hanno visitato alcune aziende della regione, raccontando la loro esperienza sul campo e contribuendo a diffondere la qualità alimentare dell’Umbria all’estero.