For a glimpse of where craft beer in American restaurants may be headed, scan the beer list of Alla Spina, the new Philadelphia dining spot that showcases distinctive, hard-to-find Italian craft beers and rustic Italian-style bar food.
The month-old gastropub is surprising patrons with Italian brews that show complex nuances of myrrh, juniper berries, citrus, ginger and absinthe. The fourth restaurant in Philadelphia for chef-owner Marc Vetri and his partners, Alla Spina means “from the tap” in Italian.
The unusual styles, ingredients and flavor profiles of Italian craft beers have been making a stir in the beer world for a few years now but are still relatively new to the United States, even in a market full of beer aficionados like Philly, beverage director Steve Wildy said.
“Even for the diehard beer geeks, the Italian stuff is really uncharted territory,” Wildy said.
Five or six of Alla Spina’s 20 draft beers and more than a dozen of its 50 bottled brews are small-scale, quality-driven Italian products. The rest of the selections represent local craft brands and international favorites.
What makes craft brewing in Italy so unique is the lack of a brewing tradition to define beer styles, unlike other nations with longer brewing histories, Wildy said.
“Some Italian brewers use a Belgian, German or American beer style as a point of departure, while others do things from an entirely different angle,” Wildy said.
Even those brewers who start with a traditional style, such as blonde ale or India Pale Ale, “tend to veer off-road at some point and make it entirely differently,” he added.
If Italian brewers have a common trait, it’s a penchant for using substances other than hops to add bitterness and flavor to beer, Wildy said. That’s where myrrh, an aromatic tree resin from Africa and the Middle East, comes in. One particular beer is made with myrrh, ginger and orange rind.
“It is tough to parse exactly where the bitterness in that beer comes from, but it definitely tastes like something exotic floral, spicy and bitter, probably because of the myrrh,” Wildy said.
Another example is blonde ale made in used chardonnay wine barrels and flavored with juniper berries and an Italian citrus fruit called chinotto. Wildy likened its taste to the Belgian ale style called saison, but with a few twists: “The result is saison-like — fresh, fruity, and thirst quenching — but with all these extra notes and different layers.”
Another Italian offering is laced with absinthe and wormwood, used with typical Italian restraint, Wildy noted.
“The Italians seem to incorporate things like that as subtle notes to add to the depth of flavor, rather than 100-percent up front,” said Wildy.
The early indication is that Philadelphia’s beer cognoscenti are giving a thumbs-up to Alla Spina’s new sensations.
“I have been really surprised that every person with serious beer knowledge who has tasted something new on the Italian side has been very positive about it, really intrigued by it,” Wildy said.