Menabrea: the beer from Biella

Menabrea: the beer from Biella

by Tom Riby 1 September 2016

Tom Riby visits the historical Menabrea brewery, which has been supplying Italy with craft beer for 150 years.

Tom worked as the producer for Great Italian Chefs.

Tom worked as the producer for Great Italian Chefs. Originally from the UK, he has always been a part of Britain's culinary scene, working with chefs such as Robert Thompson and Gordon Ramsay, Tom now lives in Tuscany, Italy with his family. His obsession with Italy’s culture combined with a shared passion for food is his dream now realised.

From fashion to architecture, art to wine, coffee to beer, Italians are perfectionists in every trade. And while Italy has long been known as a country producing some of the world's best wine, many have often overlooked its impressive craft beers.

Just fifteen years ago, microbrews were nearly impossible to find in Italy. Instead, the country's beer reputation was built on major brands and, in comparison to their American commercial counterparts, they were palatable but nothing to write home about.

Relaxed legislation in Italy actually supports brewers, especially in Tuscany and Piedmont, to experiment with local ingredients like chestnuts, ancient grains, farro, spelt, wild honey, seasonal fruits, wine grapes and Italian spices, which all add their own decidedly Italian flair. But Italian craft beer production has been around for longer than many believe.

Menabrea is Italy’s oldest brewery (founded even before Italy was a single country) in a small town called Biella in Piedmont, 1,400 feet up in the foothills of the Alps. It all began in 1846 when Giuseppe Menabrea travelled to the town and discovered an underground cave system, with ideal conditions for the traditional process of lagering. Combined with the incredibly pure water and cold, fresh air of the region, it was the perfect location for a brewery – 150 years later it has remained in the family’s control, brewing remarkable birra using their own recipe and only five simple ingredients: water, barley, hops, yeast and brewer’s maize.

I visited the brewery to discover what makes Menebrea so special and to meet with Franco Thedy, the family’s fifth generation owner, to talk about how the brewery continues to be an iconic brand and how it has adapted over the years.

The brewery has roots dating back to 1846, and has remained a family business to this day
Menabrea van
Its iconic branding has been famous in Italy for decades

Menabrea today

We arrived in the peaceful and picturesque town of Biella, navigating the historic streets until we saw the old tower of the brewery behind the building clearly labelled Menabrea; a true institution of the town. Today production is around 180,000 hectolitres a year, ninety percent of which is sold in Italy – and of that, half is sold in the north-west of the country.

The remaining ten percent is exported to twenty-eight countries around the world, with plans in place to increase sales globally. ‘We are a small brewery in comparison to big brands,’ Franco tells me. ‘Because Biella is a historic town we cannot expand too much, but we use that to our advantage.’ Franco believes the passion his people feel for the product and a good energy in the brewery is the secret to long lasting success. ‘Modern craft brewers are using computers and automatic systems to make their beer, just like the really big breweries,’ he says. ‘People are not really connected with the product.’

At Menabrea, however, he believes they are; the workers have been there for decades, with some retiring after thirty-five years and people whose fathers and grandfathers worked there. ‘Menabrea is one big family. Everyone is connected with the beer. We want to keep the feeling, the passion, the tradition in this brewery. We want to sell our product and our passion for the product around the world. It’s not just beer – it’s a part of the Italian beer story.’

The cold air and underground cave systems around Biella made it the perfect place to brew lager
Franco Thedy
Franco Thedy is the fifth generation of his family to run Menabrea

A taste of history

Other than the impressive family brand Menebrea has produced, what really makes it a world class beer in terms of taste? ‘Our barley comes from Vitry-le-Francois in the heart of Champagne country, recognised as the premier barley producing region of France,’ says Franco. ‘Our hops come from Hallertau, Bavaria. Gently aromatic but harder to grow than other varieties, they truly deserve their designation as ‘noble hops’.

‘Our water flows naturally from pure Alpine glaciers straight to our brewery,’ he continues. ‘Once sourced, our ingredients are meticulously brewed using a combination of traditional craftsmanship and innovative modern techniques under the supervision of Menabrea's master brewer. The resulting birra is then gently aged for at least thirty days in our caves, two storeys underground. This ensures all our beers acquire their signature taste – complex, malty and hoppy with citrus undertones.’

The current fermentation cellars have fifteen tanks, each holding 650 hectolitres and all fermenting the beer at 14ºC for two weeks. Once fermentation is completed to the brewers’ satisfaction, the temperature is taken down to 0ºC and the yeast drops to the bottom of the fermentation vessels. The yeast is drained off to be reused up to a maximum of seven or eight times, and the fermented beer is run into vessels in the maturation cellar, where it is lagered for four weeks at the usual 0ºC.

The resulting birra is then gently aged for at least thirty days in our caves, two storeys underground. This ensures all our beers acquire their signature taste – complex, malty and hoppy with citrus undertones.

Franco Thedy

Sbirro is a unique Italian cheese washed in Menabrea beer and rolled in spent grain
Italy has recently enjoyed a boom in craft beer, but Menabrea has been staying true to its artisanal values since the 1800s

Beer and cheese

Most of the spent grain is sold to farmers as cattle feed, but some goes across the road to the Botalla cheesemaking plant, where it goes into a ‘beer cheese’ called Sbirro. The collaboration came about twelve years ago when Franco and the owner of the cheese factory were having a beer together before going home. ‘I asked him, ‘hey, Andrea, how can we make a beer cheese?’, because when I went to Belgium I saw a lot of it about,’ says Franco. ‘He said, ‘I’ve no idea, but we’ll try – why not?’ So we started the Menabrea beer cheese project. We were the first to produce a beer cheese in Italy, and now it’s a phenomenon, really popular.’

The cheese is dropped into Menabrea’s Ambrata amber beer, then rolled in spent grain before spending three months in the cellars of the cheese factory maturing. It’s a firm, tangy cheese with a hint of hops, good on its own and excellent melted on top of pizza, and is now available in the UK.

Since we launched Great Italian Chefs, I have been overwhelmed with the passion from chefs and producers who are all challenging themselves to expand and evolve Italy’s flair outside the comfort of tradition. It’s impressive to see how far they will go to uphold the family name, creating bold leaders throughout Italy’s incredible food and drink landscape. Franco has tremendous respect for the company that his forefathers crafted, and everyday he is at the factory testing his product (he even bought a house right next to the factory to be close to the business). Menebrea are also make big efforts to make Biella a beacon for tourism, with a new museum dedicated to the brewery and restaurant. In Franco’s vision of the future, the thing that makes Italian craft beer so special is the ancient Italian history it carries – and how it will be preserved for future generations.