When in Rome – Visiting the World’s Newest Trappist Brewery

After a few months of the dark, damp English winter my wife was pining to head south to reacquainted herself with the sun.  A few destinations were discussed, and eventually Rome rose to the top of the list.  With all that the Eternal City has to offer—unrivaled history, inspiring architecture, amazing food, babes suckling on she-wolves, drivers that pay no heed to traffic laws, corrupt octogenarian politicians, how could I resist?  Squeezing an interesting beer excursion into the trip initially seemed a challenging proposition, then I remembered that the newest Trappist brewery, Tre Fontane, is located in Rome.

Trappist Breweries hold a special place in my heart.  Given the vast selection of beer available now, it’s hard to put into words the way my perception of beer was changed by my first exposure to Chimay Grande Reserve back in the mid-1990s. The singular beer that Orval produces has a permanent seat on my ever-evolving list of the world’s best beers.  Scoring two bottles of Westvleteren XII provided the impetus for the first serious Pat’s Pints blind taste test.  I could go on, but suffice to say that a visit to the newest member of the Trappist club is a quest I could get excited about.

Tre Fontane Sign

A Word on Trappist Breweries

Monasteries that belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, aka Trappists, have brewed beer for centuries, but those beers were not distributed beyond the walls of the monastery until the mid-19th century.  By the end of the 20th century seven Trappist monasteries produced beer that was sold commercially.  All seven breweries were located either in Belgium (Westmalle, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren), in the Netherlands (La Trappe), or straddling the border between the two countries (Achel).  They don’t all make the exact same styles, but their beers have many commonalities. Over the past half-dozen years, the number of Trappist Breweries has swelled and their geographic reach expanded with the addition of Stift Engelszell in Austria (2012), Spencer in Massachusetts (2013), Zundert in the Netherlands (2013), and most recently Tre Fontane in Italy (2014).

Trappists follow the rule of St. Benedict which dictates the monks work to support the monastery.  One way of doing this is to produce goods that are sold to the public.  In 1996 twenty of the 170 or so Trappist/Trappistine monasteries formed the International Trappist Association, a sort of governing body that regulates the sale of authentic Trappist goods. To be designated as an Authentic Trappist Product the goods produced, which include cheese, honey, wine, liquors, chocolate, bread, jam, and beer, must meet the following criteria [1]:

  • The product must be produced within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
  • The factory should follow business practices consistent with a monastic way of life.
  • The profits should be used to cover the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds, any excess must be donated to charity.
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Chiesa S. Maria Scala Coeli one of three churches on the Tre Fontane grounds.

The Tre Fontane Abbey

The Tre Fontane Abbey is located 6-7 miles south of central Rome.  If you have a car I would imagine driving there might be reasonably straightforward, in so much as driving in Italy can ever be called straightforward.  We did not have a car, which meant traveling by public transport.  Convincing my wife and daughter to travel that distance on a bus to visit a monastery that brews beer was not an easy sell.  It was only possible because my daughter was keen to visit the Catacombs of Domitilla, a sunken church connected to a maze of tunnels dug out of the soft volcanic soil where Christians buried their dead 1600 years ago.  Conveniently the catacombs were located midway between our Air BnB and the abbey, which made the whole journey plausible.

After leaving the catacombs we followed Google Maps to a bus stop and waited for a bus that would transport us to a location somewhere in the general vicinity of the abbey.  I’ll spare you the gory details, but bus timetables are notoriously unpredictable and public transport in Rome is not likely to be confused with Tokyo anytime soon.  If you are planning a similar journey the key thing to know is that the abbey is located near the intersection of two major roads, with minimal sidewalks and very few places to cross.  If you do travel by bus be sure to take the 671 bus and get off at Laurentia/Tre Fontane.  It’s an easy walk from there, whereas making your way on foot from any other bus stop (as we did) is non-trivial. [2]

By the time we finally arrived it was nearing 5 pm and the sunset was not far away.  We walked along a small road (via di Acque Salvie) that leads downhill from the busy four lane road to the abbey.  We walked past a statue of St. Benedict posing with a finger over pursed lips to remind visitors of the quiet, contemplative nature of a monastery.  The brewery may be only a few years old, but the history of this site goes back nearly two millennia.  This is the site where St. Paul is believed to have been martyred during Nero’s reign (circa 64 AD).  The legend is that upon being executed his severed head bounced three times and a spring miraculously arose at each point of contact with the ground, thus the name Tre Fontane (Three Fountains).  In the twilight of an overcast winter’s day we had the grounds almost all to ourselves, save a small group of Japanese tourists.  There are three small churches on the site, including a modest church built in honor of St. Paul on the alleged site of his martyrdom.  The quiet, sober atmosphere is a striking contrast to the soaring architecture and hordes of tourists you’ll find when visiting the site where Paul’s fellow apostle was martyred at nearly the same time—St. Peter’s Basilica.  For that reason alone, a visit to Tre Fontane makes for a nice counterpoint to Rome’s more famous tourist attractions.

Curiously there are two shops that sell Trappist goods here.  There is one near the entrance of the complex that sells products made at Tre Fontane as well as selected products made elsewhere.  They were selling 330 and 750 mL bottles of Tre Fontane Tripel, both refrigerated and at room temperature. The smaller bottles sell for €4 a piece.  They also had beers from some of their fellow Trappists (nothing too exotic), beer from an Italian Benedictine abbey called Norcia, and a few selections from commercial breweries, including curiously Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  We went in here when we first arrived to make sure to snag some beer before the shop closed.  Further into the abbey there is another shop, labeled Chocolate Shop on Google Maps, that sells only products produced at Tre Fontane, including their beer.  By the time we left we were in possession of two bottles of beer, a jar of honey, and several large chocolate bars from Tre Fontane.

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The painting on the wall behind the altar in the church of St. Paul of Three Fountains tells you all you need to know about the name of and inspiration for the abbey.

Tre Fontane Tripel

I’m reasonably confident St. Benedict would approve of the philosophy David Byrne espouses in the 1979 Talking Heads song, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”  In that spirit the brewery itself is not open to the public, nor is there a nearby café where you can enjoy a beer and some food.  Really all I can tell you about the brewery is taken from the recently released book Trappist Beer Travels by Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood, and Jessica Deahl.  The 10 hectoliter (8.5 barrels) brewhouse is located in a newly constructed building in the rear of the complex.  Overseen by the monks, layman brew a double batch one day per week for a total annual output of roughly 1000 hL (850 barrels).  The distribution is apparently pretty local, though despite looking I didn’t see Tre Fontane beer for sale anywhere in Rome outside of the abbey.

Tre Fontane produces a singular beer, a golden Tripel, a style that their fellow Trappists at Westmalle pioneered in the 1930’s.  While this style is straight out of the Trappist playbook, the monks at Tre Fontane have built the beer around an ingredient I’ve not previously encountered in a beer, macerated eucalyptus leaves. The monks here have long produced a liquor infused with eucalyptus that is grown on-site, and they wanted to continue that tradition with their beer.  Consider my curiosity piqued.

Upon cracking the lid of the bottle conditioned beer, foam starts slowly snaking its way up the neck of the bottle; there is a small amount of spillage before I can decant into a glass.  As you would expect the beer is quite effervescent upon pouring, raising up a good 3+ fingers of head that quickly settles down to 6-7 mm of tight white head that persists for quite some time.  The color of the underlying beer is amber, a couple of shades darker than the honey that Tre Fontane produces.  The beer is hazy, some might say murky, to the point of being completely opaque.  Eucalyptus dominates the aroma, giving it an herbal, almost tea-like nose that is unlike any beer I’ve encountered.  Eucalyptus is readily apparent in the taste as well, accompanied by an assertive spiciness that I assume comes from phenols produced by the yeast.  The malt flavors are somewhat overshadowed, but what I can initially perceive might be best described as lightly toasted bread.  For most of the beer I felt the malt body was a little thin to stand up to the assertive yeast and eucalyptus flavors, but as I reached the bottom half of the beer and fully decanted the spent yeast into my glass a honey-like sweetness started to emerge that was needed bring some balance to the table. I don’t detect much in the way of hop aroma or flavor, but there is an unmistakable hop bitterness on the sides of tongue.  The body is rather light for such a strong beer, and the high level of carbonation gives a slightly prickly dimension to the mouthfeel.  The finish is a dry and a bit boozy, showing all of its 8.5% abv, leaving you with a not particularly pleasant aftertaste of bitter eucalyptus.

I really wanted to like this beer, but I’d be lying if I said it lived up to my expectations.  In my humble opinion the eucalyptus is too dominant and the alcohol not sufficiently well hidden.  These are flaws that might be ameliorated if the final gravity was a bit higher, leaving behind some residual malt sweetness to balance out the spices and booze.  If you stripped away the eucalyptus I’m skeptical the craftmanship would live up to the high bar set by other Trappist Breweries.  Despite those reservations if the recipe and process were dialed in this could be an interesting addition to the Trappist beer catalog.  Trappist brewers are nothing if not patient, and after all they are only making one type of beer, so give it a few years and the beer might grow to become a more fitting compliment to the wonderful abbey where it is made.

Tre Fontane Tripel
Trappist monks give in to the haze craze.

Open Baladin

Given this was my first visit to Italy in almost 20 years I wanted to see what else I could learn about Italian beer. Europe is replete with countries that have centuries old brewing traditions, but Italy is not one of them.  Once you get beyond mass produced lagers, the beer scene in Italy is even younger than in the US.  In a 1999 post from the Beer Hunter website Michael Jackson estimates there were perhaps 20 brewpubs in the entire country at that time.

Unfortunately for me, most of the established Italian brewers are located in the north of the country, but all is not lost because one of the pioneers of the Italian craft beer movement, Baladin, operates a brewpub in Rome called Open Baladin.   Interestingly Baladin goes back to the mid-1990s, and they get top billing in Jackson’s 1999 story on Italian beer.  Here’s what the Beer Hunter has to say about them, starting with a quote from founder Teo Musso:

“My wife is from Lille—that is why my brewpub has a French name.  Having spent time in Northern France, I know the great beers of Belgium, and have taken the opportunity to work in some of the breweries there…”

The brewpub is called Le Baladin; it produces a Belgian-style wheat beer and a Tripel, among other styles; it’s owner is Teo Musso; and its location is the town of Piozzo, in the province of Cuneo, south of Turin.

He goes onto say that the wheat beer (Isaac Biere) is brewed with coriander and orange juice, and the Tripel (Super Baladin) is fermented with an English yeast and bottle conditioned for two months with a Belgian strain.

After a day spent wandering around the Colosseum and the ruins that make up the Roman Forum a trip to Open Baladin for dinner was in order.  The gourmet burgers at Open Baladin were so delicious they (nearly) restored my credibility with the family for the long trek out to Tre Fontane.  With over 30 beers on tap from a handful of Italian breweries it wasn’t easy narrowing down my beer selections, but over the course of our visit I managed to work in three beers, all completely different in style, all very good.

Baladin Bar
The bar at Open Baladin is nothing if not colorful.

Open Baladin featured 2-3 beers on cask, and I’ve grown quite fond of them while living in the UK.  So my entry was a Hazelnut Porter (5.5% abv) by Milan’s Birrificio Lambrate.  It’s not easy to extract flavors from nuts while brewing, and with most hazelnut beers the flavors are either too subtle or too artificial.  Not so with this beer, where the hazelnut flavor was masterfully integrated with rich chocolate flavors.  The smooth, creamy texture afforded by the cask pour were a perfect vehicle for this beer.

Baladin’s Nazionale (6.5% abv, 30 IBU) claims to be the first beer made entirely from Italian-grown ingredients.  It occupies the ground somewhere between a saison and a pale ale, vaguely in the vein of Orval without the Brett.  It features a mix of floral hops and the added spices (coriander and bergamot) on the nose, and a wonderfully balanced blend of spices and bready malts in the taste.  Light bodied with a dry finish, it’s a great beer for pairing with one of Open Baladin’s gourmet burgers.

For an after dinner digestif I opted for a small pour of Baladin’s barrel-aged Xyauyu Barleywine, 2013 vintage (14% abv).  Walnut brown in color, with good clarity, and completely still.  The nose was very boozy, as you would expect for a beer of this strength, mingled with the rich fruit flavors of a Madeira or Port wine.  Maybe it was just my mood, but the taste was just amazing—rich, smooth, complex with just the right balance between residual sweetness and alcohol.  Rich maltiness is the centerpiece, but the accents of vanilla, cherry, and oak make for deliciously decadent treat.  Very much in the vein of a fortified wine (and I’m thinking Sherry/Port rather than MadDog here) I couldn’t bring myself to shell out €27 for 500 mL bottle to bring home in my luggage, but I couldn’t resist a bottle of Cantillon’s Rose de Gambrinus that was on sale for takeaway.

Birra Nazionale

Brief Notes on other places of interest

A few quick thoughts on other places I experienced.  Perhaps of use if a visit to the Eternal City is in your future.

Beer and Salt (Birra e Sale) – This is a small deli located on an charming back street between Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori.  There’s only seating for a dozen or so people, but the deli sandwiches are killer and the selection of Italian craft beers extensive.  Take my advice and hit this place up for lunch.

Johnny’s Off License – This is a one room bottle shop near Campo de Fiori (there is another location south of the Colosseum).  It’s well curated and the man who was working there was glad to share his knowledge of Italian craft beer.  Definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.

Birriffico Italiano – Another of the venerable Italian craft brewers whose roots date back to the 20th century, and one with a penchant for making good lagers.  Taking inspiration from Jeff Alworth’s excellent “Secrets of Master Brewers” I was looking for Tipopils but found Bibock, an excellent bock that showcases rich golden malts accented by subtle fruity notes.

LoverBeerBeerbera is a spontaneously fermented ale made with Barbera grapes and aged in oak, from wild ale specialists Loverbeer.  The nose is fruity with an inviting balsalmic note, the acidity is right in the sweet spot for a sour beer. It’s bright, fruity, balanced and would pair well with Italian cuisine.  The carbonation was a bit low for my liking though.  Wild/sour beer lovers should keep an eye open for LoverBeer

Italian Craft Beers

Hilltop Brewing – This young brewery is run by Anglo-Irish immigrants and unusually is located in the south of the country, about 40 miles north of Rome.  The attendant at Johnny’s Off License recommended I try Gallagher’s Irish Stout by Hilltop.  It’s well made beer featuring rich chocolate flavors from the malts, but the inclusion of smoked Irish seaweed may be a bridge too far for me.

Ma Che – This beer bar, located in the charming Trastevere neighborhood west of the Tiber, gets glowing reviews in various online forums, and was recommended to me by a couple of people on social media.  Despite my best intentions I wasn’t able to visit, but a look at their online taplist shows some interesting selections from Italy and beyond (Brasserie de la Senne and improbably Block 15 Brewing from Corvallis, OR), makes me wish I did.

Da Enzo Al 29  – A small family restaurant also located in the Trastevere neighborhood.  Both the owner of our Air BnB and Angelo Signorino singled this out this place as one of the best restaurants in Rome.  I wish I could confirm that first hand but the line at opening time on a Monday night was twice the seating capacity of the restaurant.  Undoubtedly the food must be delicious, but go for lunch or make reservations ahead.

da Enzo
Rome, where they queue for lasagna not double IPAs.

Closing Thoughts

As a historical site Tre Fontane is well worth a visit, but you would do well to temper your expectations of the beer made there.  Next month I’m heading to Belgium and the Netherlands, so this won’t be the only Trappist beer report from the road.  Despite the mediocrity of the beer at Tre Fontane, my overall impressions of Italian Craft beer were very positive.  Unshackled by the traditions that run deep in many northern European countries, Italian brewers have managed to combine the full flavored American approach to brewing with the Italian love of fresh ingredients and food friendly beverages.

[1] Trappist Beer Travels – Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries, C. Wallace, S. Wood, J. Deahl, Schiffer Publishing (2017).

[2] I believe it is also possible to take the metro/subway to get to a location that is a 15 minute walk to the abbey.  I have no first knowledge of that route though.

 

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