A beer expert leaves industrial production to revitalize the beer making traditions of monasteries in the Umbrian hillside and reconnect beer to the land.
by Mia Fishkin and Meghan Gaffney*
Giovanni Rodolfi left the world of industrial beer for an ancient monastery in Nocera Umbra. He abandoned a profitable yet uninspired business of mass produced beer at Heineken for the agricultural and spiritual traditions of Umbria. Giovanni and the San Biagio company brew their beer as a religious obligation and duty to the land, rather than a money-making enterprise. The San Biagio brewery, named after the monastery in which it is housed, is a revival of the typical practices of Umbrian monks, evidence of which was found on the San Biagio property. Giovanni discovered a document dated from 1333 with a beer recipe written by monks. This ancient relic represented a culture of working the land in conjunction with religiosity. To show these deep and historical roots, the San Biagio logo stamped on every box and bottle includes the words “A.D. 1333.” At San Biagio, there is a huge sense of pride in the continuity and genuineness of brewing beer in Nocera Umbra that is not easily found in most industries.
The 1333 document is a prized historical and culinary text that inspired the brewers’ purpose and their beers. They aim to honor the traditions of monks in their practices. Giovanni uses some of the same ingredients as the monks such as spices, honey, and bay leaves to make beer. San Biagio also re-ferments their beer inside the bottle in order to produce the carbonation naturally as monks would have done. The barley used in the beer is grown on the premises, a Benedictine tradition, before it is sent away to become malt. The use of hops, standard in most of today’s beers, originated in the Middle Ages as an aromatic and preservative. This represents another way in which San Biagio revisits practices of the past to create a modern, appreciated product.
In the time when the monks brewed beer at the San Biagio monastery, Saints were very important to use of the land. Saint Benedict was the source of these types of establishments: monasteries that used the resources on the land to make a product. Cultivating the land gave it value which was especially important in the fertile and agricultural region of Umbria. Monasteries established across Umbria all practiced some form of land cultivation, but beer-making was specifically associated with religious life at the time. These historic connections inspired Giovanni Rodolfi at San Biagio to reinvest in Umbrian territory and monastic traditions by creating his own craft brewery.
The religious connection at San Biagio goes further than the monastery to beer-making connection; two other saints play a role. Saint Arnold’s picture is hung in the building where the beer is fermented and bottled. This saint is known as the protector of beermakers. When asked, Giovanni admitted that he was not devoted to this saint but that it “couldn’t hurt.” Saint Francis also played his part in establishing the fame of this area. Legend states that Saint Francis used water sourced from Nocera Umbra, the town where San Biagio brewery is located, to heal ill followers. Once it was popularized that the daughter of a wealthy businessman was miraculously cured after drinking it, the sacred water was bottled and sold all over. This story persists today because for Giovanni, a good liquid resource means good beer. Beer is 90% water and San Biagio claims that their excellence stems from its quality in Nocera Umbra.
While, most would consider wine as the quintessentially land-linked Italian beverage, Giovanni would argue that craft beer can indeed be like wine. But, as Giovanni looked towards the history and culture of monks in Umbria, he found a clear role for specificity and taste of place in beer making. Now he carefully makes 7 different kinds of beer that are only sold in a few Italian regions, and by selling this beer he feels as if he is sharing a part of Umbria. Giovanni believes that a craft beer should connect a consumer to a place, a soul, and an experience. Listening to Giovanni talk about his work with craft beer, it became apparent that he views the qualities of beer as no different from those of wine.
At San Biagio, the beer, like Italy’s wines, is linked to the land. Beer itself is an agricultural product because hops and barley, the two main ingredients in beer, need to be grown. Beer is following a trend that began in the wine industry around twenty years ago when people began to notice where the grapes themselves were coming from. This makes sense when making something like craft beer, because barley grown using different techniques on separate pieces of land can have different flavors. By paying attention to where the ingredients come from, Giovanni has more control over the flavors he wants and adds more variety to his end result. His investment in the history is fascinating, but by itself it could not stand on its own. At the heart of it all he is making beer, which lives up to its history and truly is delicious.
To properly experience Giovanni’s beers they should be part of a meal, which is the way he intends it to be served. Each variety compliments certain foods, just as a wine pairing would. He wants everyone who drinks it to have the entire experience including swishing water around the glass to get a proper pour, smelling the aromas, and drinking it with good food and friends. The flavors in the beers are carefully layered with some coming together and combining while others can be tasted in distinct waves. Aurum is a mild antique gold colored beer that manages not to have a bitter aftertaste while still not being considered a sweet beer. Another variety is Monasta, which is a reminder of the old monastery, which tastes like honey and bay leaves. The combination can sound strange in a beer at first, but they meld quite seamlessly together and it balances well with a grain. These are simply two of the seven he meticulously makes, testing the beer throughout the entire product to make sure it has the desired flavors when completed.
One can taste and experience the passion and concentration put into the making of San Biagio beers. The atmosphere of San Biagio emulates a distance from industrial sameness and a closeness to nature and craftsmanship. The tradition of herbal remedies practiced by the monks is carried on in the spa and wellness area of San Biagio. Visitors can have a holistic experience which includes dining, drinking, aromatics, and herbal treatments. One can sense the qualities of a simpler time and become acquainted with the Umbrian landscape. A sensory knowledge of beer is not complete without this historical, monastic connectivity.
Giovanni’s connection to the religious roots of the land and beercraft are apparent in the practices he uses and his mentality towards beer making, but religion and history are only a part of what he does today. He is not a man who is content with what has been done and when asked, states that his favorite beer is the next one he will make. Constantly moving forward, he wants to change how the beer industry is viewed in Italy. He wants to be part of the change that develops beers which encompass the history of Italy and embody regional tastes.
*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.