Few who travel to Italy can resist the country’s charm. That includes the staff of Harpoon Brewery, who were there earlier this year on one of the company’s annual European education trips (what a perk!). Harpoon brewers and office workers are eligible for trips on certain work anniversaries, traveling as a group to observe how beer is made, sometimes in places that only celebrate wine.
Recently, the staff ended up at the Tuscan town of Birrificio L’Olmaia, in Montepulciano. “Everyone thought that was the coolest place,” says Charlie Cummings, one of Harpoon’s brewers, so they decided to do something evocative of the spot. Enter L’Olmaia’s brewer, Moreno Ercolani, a lover of rock music (he was wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt when we met recently in Boston), and unabashed enthusiast of hoppy beers. Ercolani founded L’Olmaia in 2004, in a Tuscan farmhouse he describes as looking like “the one in the postcard.”
The Italian brewer agreed to collaborate with Harpoon’s Cummings, but he wanted the brew to be made with red wine. The duo collaborated over e-mail, brewing three test batches before deciding on the final recipe. They named their creation Tuscan Pool Party; the Harpoon crew spent many nights sitting by a pool reflecting on their surroundings.
“The first couple of pilot batches we did, we used a little higher percentage of wine,” says Cummings. “People loved the aroma. It was really wine-like. But they said they didn’t want to drink that much of it.”
Cummings said the pair agreed on using Amarillo hops, and a relatively simple pale malt base, but tweaking the guest ingredient was a process. They settled on a ratio of 12 percent wine by volume; the wine is a 75/25 mix of sangiovese and merlot grapes, the same ratio used in a typical Tuscan Chianti. The beer is aged on French oak spirals. “The most difficult thing is the balance of beer and wine,” says Ercolani. He likes what they produced. “You smell wine, you can smell the wood,” he says.
The first craft beer Ercolani ever tasted was Tipo Pils, a crisp lager from Northern Italy’s Birrificio Italiano. He cites Sierra Nevada, Stone, Dogfish Head, Lagunitas, and Rogue as some of the first American craft beers he tried.
Neither Ercolani nor Cummings wanted Tuscan Pool Party to be too sweet. The beer smells strongly of grape juice and oak. You can taste those flavors, but they’re lightened by the slight, fruity bitterness of the Amarillo hops. As the brewers and I sip, tannins stick to our cheeks. The beer brings Ercolani back to a simpler time.
“In Italy, 90 percent of people drink wine,” says Ercolani. “When we are younger, I am on my grandfather’s lap, and I remember him with a bottle of wine.” He motions to the brewery laboratory, then to the massive brewing equipment.
“I live in a different world,” he says.Gary Dzen can be reached at email@example.com.