In a country known for its wine, the tradition of beer making is not to be ignored. This is especially apparent at Birra San Biagio, where brewers work hard to sustain traditional brewing methods while capturing the essence of Umbria in a bottle.
by Mary Clay Kline and Jonathan Maislin*
Nestled in the Umbrian countryside among furtive farmland and vineyard vines is a brewery: Birra San Biagio. To find such a novelty in a country recognized for its fine wines might seem surprising, but San Biagio’s roots run deep. It all started with a monastery. Traditionally, although not so much in Italy, monks brewed beer because it made sense. Monks were hard workers who wanted to use their land to its fullest, so they grew barley on their land and with it made a product to sell and consume. In addition, the river water at Nocera Umbra near the monastery was renowned for its purity.
Nocera Umbra’s water was also known for its supposed healing powers. There are records of many prominent Italians, including Saint Francis of Assisi, who traveled to the river to drink the water and were healed of their ailments. It is only fitting this virtuous water was chosen to create some of the finest beer in Italy. After an earthquake destroyed the monastery in 1997, the soon-to-be founders of San Biagio knew they wanted to do something meaningful with the land. They asked themselves: What kind of economy can work here? They looked to old practices and to a document dated 1333 that confirmed that beer was indeed brewed at the monastery. The founders decided to get the monastery back to its roots and made a plan to begin beer production. In 2009, San Biagio hired master brewer Giovanni Rodolfi.
“You know the beer of the region,” Rodolfi said in reference to the quality of beer made with barley from Umbria’s fertile soil and near-holy water. Rodolfi, with his piercingly azure eyes and full gray beard, looks particularly Merlin-esque. In fact, many consider him to be a beer wizard of sorts. His career began 22 years ago at Stella Artois. He started to move up in the company when Anheuser-Busch InBev bought it out in 2008. He then became a professor at the beer university at Heineken. After co-authoring a couple of books on food and beer pairings, Rodolfi felt the need to do something more for quality beer. He was drawn to Umbria, “the green heart of Italy.” When he met the people who worked at San Biagio, he knew he had found a special place.
“It’s not just a product. It’s a passion,” Rodolfi said of San Biagio. It is easy to see that Rodolfi’s workshop, which is located near the monastery, has become a second home for him. Yeasty scents waft in and out of the production room, all under the watch of St. Arnold, the protector of the beer maker, St. Biagio, the protector of the throat (“Even by saying the name ‘San Biagio,’ your throat is cleared,” Rodolfi said.), and Rodolfi himself.
The small-operations, certified organic brewery is managed solely by three full-time workers and an intern, but they manage to produce 250,000 bottles of beer per year. Basic production at San Biagio is well-regulated but does not operate so differently from other craft breweries worldwide — until, however, they are bottled. San Biagio’s beers ferment for a second time inside the bottle, conditioning flavors and keeping the yeasts alive while aging the beer for 15 days.
The main places in Italy where San Biagio’s beer can be found are in Milan, Sicily, and, of course, Umbria. In each of these areas, Rodolfi has talked with other beer experts who are infatuated with San Biagio’s beers. In fact, since selling and distribution throughout Italy has been so successful, they have looked more into international distribution. Buyers from China, Japan, and Canada have expressed interest. If beer weren’t so difficult to sell outside of Italy, San Biagio might be a household name everywhere in the world. Rodolfi said that the best part of his job is getting to taste each beer every day at noon. Due to these constant check-ups, each beer concocted at San Biagio is poised to be flavorful and unique.
The Monasta may be the beer most synonymous with the brewery. This amber-colored, slightly sweet beer is brewed in the style of the monks who lived on the land almost a millennium ago, with bay leaves and honey. San Biagio’s brewers work with a beekeeper from Gubbio and use locally grown bay leaves to keep the monks’ tradition alive. The Aurum beer lives up to its name, gold, and is light and bright. Rodolfi said it is good for aperitivo because it has a low alcohol content and is not bitter. Each of San Biagio’s beers bears a Latin name because of the monastery’s Latin-based founding.
The recently remodeled monastery at San Biagio is an ode to its chaste past. The dining room is filled with simply but elegantly clothed tables, each place setting arranged as if it were for royalty. The room glows with natural light from a giant window that provides an equally regal view: the Umbrian hill country. Chefs carefully craft meals to accompany San Biagio’s beers in the dining room, as well as incorporating beers into some of their dishes. Monasta replaces wine generally used for deglazing risotto, infusing the creamy rice dish with herby notes of bay leaf and honeyed sweetness. Verbum, a crisp, light ale, is paired with a spinach and broccoli souffle blanketed in peppery parmesan sauce.
Drinking beer during a meal is a taboo that Rodolfi and his team have had some success in breaking. Wine has long been the Italian dinner drink of choice, but Rodolfi said that things are changing as people become more open-minded. San Biagio vies for a theme of conviviality, and with that comes the shared activity of drinking beer. Drinking the beer that was used to cook the meal with takes the flavor of the dish to another level.
San Biagio has branched beyond the tradition of beer making, and the San Biagio experience also includes a hotel and spa. The hotel has 20 rooms that can be rented out to escape and enjoy an ideal rural countryside vacation. The establishment does not have internet, but that was an intentional decision. To attain the level of complete relaxation and serenity San Biagio has to offer, surroundings insist that one must isolate himself from the troubles and stresses of daily life. As another part of the relaxation experience and as a relic of the past, San Biagio also employs a botanical workshop. Until his recent death, one person, a medicine man, lived in the monastery. The medicine man used ancient medical beliefs to concoct remedies for the unwell, and San Biagio continues this practice today by selling similar healing products.
Due to the religious and historical connection to the monastery, some patrons visit San Biagio in search of physical and spiritual rejuvenation; a way to go back in time to when life was simpler. Located in one of the rooms is a very distinct fish-like symbol. The fish symbolizes the purity and sanctity of the water at Nocera Umbra. Rodolfi said that the symbol allows him to feel connected to the monks that used to be there, how they lived their lives hundreds of years ago.
Birra San Biagio provides an escape from the speed of everyday life and an introduction to sophisticated yet rustic agrarian Italy. Guests are welcomed with the spirit of conviviality: with delicious craft beer, a relaxing atmosphere, and several breaths of fresh air.
*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.