San Biagio stands as a craft brewery and health spa retreat in the rolling hills near Montecchio, Umbria. Master Brewer Giovanni Rodolfi brings his expertise from a career in the beer industry and uses the local land and celebrated waters to produce a line of distinctive and historically-inspired brews.
by Marielle Donohue and Kelsey Rincavage*
The narrow, snake-like road up the side of the mountain that the San Biagio Craft Brewery sits on feels as ancient as the land itself. Inside one of the converted monastery’s original buildings, however, the brewing process feels thoroughly modern. True to the monastery’s history and a deep loyalty to the land, San Biagio beers bring the best of both worlds. After an earthquake ruined the original building, the owners of the old monastery sold their run-down complex to aspiring beer-makers, who fixed it up and started working. Rodolfi, an industry leader and former teacher at Heineken’s Master Brewer University heard about the project and after realizing that the brewers needed some expertise, left the corporate life to join them as head brew master and has given the place a new life. The team started experimenting with brews in 2002, and has been an operational craft brewery since 2007.
Everything from the recipes to the location denotes a respect for tradition and a love of the craft. The recipes are selected specifically based on how beer was made during the fourteenth century, when the Umbrian Monastery was operating. Documents were found in the monastery dating back to 1333, and these documents have become integral to the brewing operation, from the dedication to traditional brewing to the brand’s marketing. The San Biagio logo is inspired from a fish character found carved into a doorway on one of the upper floors of the monks’ quarters, in what is now a guest room. The fish pictograph appears with the title “San Biagio, A.D. 1333” beneath it on all products. The Trappist style is also honored at San Biagio as they follow the practice of producing beer as monasteries have done for many years; by leaving the yeast in the bottle after fermentation.
One might ask, “For a brewery in the Trappist style, why Umbria?”. The region has been known for its sacred roots and for its famous pure water, known for many years to have soothing and healing qualities. The water was said to have drawn St. Francis of Assisi himself. In the time between the monastery’s operation and the beginnings of the brewery, a local medicine man lived in the same hills and made use of the water for his cures. He is still remembered by the local elders. While the draw to the monastery may have been spiritual for Giovanni Rodolfi, the area’s water is one of his main selling points. The unique beers are made exclusively with this sacred water, so it is good for body and mind.
In the building that houses the small brewery operation, just a few steps away from the main monastery site, the ground floor is packed with everything Rodolfi and his team need to produce their five styles of beer. Glass bottles and shining stainless steel tanks line the walls of the brewery. It is a very small operation, with all the production equipment fitting into a single room. However, there is no talk of expansion because Rodolfi believes that it is more important to create a quality product than to mass produce. This is reflected in the style of his products, as Trappist-style beers are not produced on a large scale.
The brewing process is a lengthy one, and these brewmasters do not cut corners. The beer process begins with the barley and, to stay loyal to locality, San Biagio grows its own. They send this barley away to then be toasted and turned into malt, the key component in beer making. The amount of toasting the malt endures will determine to some degree the color and flavor of the beer. Once the malt is sent back, they can then start the brewing process.
The first step is to “cook” the malt in water, to extract the sugars from the barley. After the sugar has been extracted, the resulting liquid is filtered out and boiled until it reaches the proper consistency. Next, the brewers add their special blends of honey, hops, or bay leaves through the whirlpool tank to create the unique flavor for each type of beer. After the flavor is added, the most important step in the beer making process can begin: fermentation. The brewers drop the temperature of the liquid, and add the yeast. The liquid -not yet beer -then ferments for 18 days in a tank, converting sugar into alcohol. After Rodolfi and his team decide the first fermentation is just right, the second fermentation starts. This second fermentation separates most other brewing companies from Trappist style brewers, and sets San Biagio apart from most other craft brewing operations. After the first fermentation, the beer is mixed with more sugar and poured into the bottle with the yeast. The yeast then continues to ferment the added sugar a second time in the bottle itself for 30 days, and then without any further filtration, the brew is ready to drink.
With such a long and complex process, Rodolfi emphasizes the importance of paying attention to each beer during each step of the brewing process. If you lose concentration on any step, the beer can turn out poor. How can a bad beer be avoided? By tasting, of course: the master beer-maker and his staff of brewers taste the burgeoning beer every day in order to track their progress. They maintain quality, but also stay true to the subtleties in flavor that set their craft brews apart. Rodolfi likens this craft brewing process to the wine industry. In wine, the same grapes from different years can produce very different results. Beer, produced by craft breweries like San Biagio, can result in the same variety, making each new brew unique and delicious.
Speaking of delicious, the trappist style brews do not disappoint. Each brew is inspired by monastic life and named using latin words from the time the monastery was operational. The “Aurum,” a golden beer true to its name, has a light, malty smell that perfectly matches its wheat gold color. The beer has a good body, with almost no bitterness, and seems like a perfect fit for a golden summer day. The “Monasta,” a darker brew, is San Biagio’s flagship product based on a recipe found in monasteries during the 1333 period with honey and bay leaves. The honey and bay leaf come through in the aromas, and mix intricately with a pleasant caramel and malt flavor. The body is a bit heavier than the “Aurum,” and has more bitterness. It is a great beer to drink with a light dinner. Each of the beers were brilliantly brewed to give unique and pleasant flavors while keeping with the tradition of the trappist style.
At San Biagio, master brewer Giovanni Rodolfi is producing some amazing beer in Italy by using Umbria’s finest ingredients, from home-grown barley and herbs to the renowned healing waters. So, while they are available in a few cities across the country, the best place to understand and appreciate the brews are at the old monastery itself, among the land and alongside the talented team that bring the beer to life. San Biagio’s inspired creations are currently for sale in Umbria, Milan, and Palermo, but they hope to expand to other regions and countries around the world.
*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 importanti aziende della regione, raccontando la loro esperienza sul campo e contribuendo a diffondere la qualità alimentare dell’Umbria all’estero.