Paolo and His Magical Bag of Tricks or Our Trip to Baladin part 3

The kids stared at their empty soda bottles and just put their heads down.  My wife’s expression showed that waiting was getting old.  I tried to keep the optimistic grin pasted on my face and silently prayed to God and that Melane’s boyfriend would show up. Baladin (59)

My white knight rode into the piazza on a scooter.  Brandishing aviators and bedecked in a Felix the Cat t-shirt Paolo came forward to meet us.  Like Melane he spoke excellent English.  He was warm and friendly as we told him our story and offered him the tokens of homebrew and t-shirts from the parish beer club.  But nothing could have prepared us for how gracious and generous he turned out to be.

After talking for a while he told us he was going to take us on a tour.  We got in the car and followed him on a 10 minute drive out of town to the industrial brewery.  He buzzed us through the gates and into the empty parking lot.

Baladin (19)Once inside we had to don the obligatory hairnets and booties.  This finally gave my children something to do.  Now I have been on many a brewery tour and I know when they are being given by rote.   You know the spiel, “Here’s the fermenter… over there’s the mash tun… there’s the bottling line… yada, yada, yada.”

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In contrast, Paolo took over an hour to highlight, not just the basics for the benefit of my family but also to explain in detail what steps Baladin was taking that were unique or innovative.  There were also many samples drawn directly from the tanks.  Yum! Of note was the beer, NationAle, which represented Teo’s dream of the first beer to be made from all Italian ingredients.

Baladin (40)From there we headed back into town for a visit to Cantina Baladin.  Like Dogfish Head’s brewpub in Rehoboth, Cantina Baladin was where Teo started it all.  It was both his brewery and his bar until his growing fame allowed him to expand.  Yet although it is no longer really open to the public, it is still an active site for brewing and for Teo’s artistic expression.                                                              The kitchen (seen below) has been decorated to look just like the kitchen from his childhood including paintings of his family.


Baladin (46)But the real magic here was in their casks.  There was an extraordinary array of beer in wine casks.  The same beer was being aged in 40 different white and 40 different red barrels, each wine carefully chosen from all across Italy.  I was tempted to book a room in Casa Baladin (their boutique hotel) next door so that we could stay and sample them all.  But the hour was growing late and Paolo had already been more than generous with his time.

After a quick tour of Casa Baladin (each room is completely different), we headed back to the piazza and to the table where we first met our savior more than three hours before.  After a quick picture and a warm goodbye he headed back to his scooter and we to our car.  Although we would take the highway back we still had a long trip ahead.

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The next year I had to good fortune to see Paolo again.  This time I only had to travel 20minutes to see him during Philly Beer Week at the newly opened Alla Spina.  He remembered me and even complimented up on the beer we gave him.

At a time where everyone is rushed and so few the virtue of hospitality, Paolo, Melane and the crew at Baladin really bucked the trend.  They could have easily dismissed us as tourists who they would never have to see again and sent us on our way.  But they didn’t.  Instead they bent over backwards, going so far as to come into work on their day off and treated us like royalty, not for any gain, but simply because they wanted to make sure a family of strangers was treated well.

And so in the end  I am actually grateful that Google Maps sucks.  If it had told us that it would have taken five hours to get there we probably never would have gone.  And so while I will never put my whole trust in their estimations ever again, I am grateful that on that one Sunday in July they managed to lead me to Baladin.

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Teo? He just left!…. or Our Trip to Baladin part 2

I write this the day after a doozy of aDSC_0054 snowstorm.  At present it is a balmy 7 degrees outside with a wind chill of minus 14.  After several hours digging out cars, etc, I found myself thinking fondly of the featureless agricultural plains of Piedmont.

That is no small statement because after about an hour of travel, my already frustrated family was getting near the end of their collective patience.  My son’s DS was dead and he had no car charger.  My daughter was tuned out with her iPod.  My wife was staring straight ahead and trying very hard not to look at me. After one or two missed turns the sign for Piozzo mercifully came into view.  The five minutes or so that it took us to rumble down the side road seemed to go on forever.  Eventually we pulled into the piazza at the center of town and there on our left was Baladin.

Baladin (3)The awning stretched out over a dozen tables which were largely filled with folks enjoying the a lazy Sunday afternoon.  I was so overjoyed and relieved that we had actually reached our destination that I almost sprinted out of the car having to catch myself in order to allow my family time to creakily emerge from the car and stretch.

They settled around a table while I went inside to get us all drinks and to see if the owner and brewmaster, Teo Musso was around.  As I mentioned before I had been carefully planning this beer pilgrimage for months and so had tried to leave little to chance.  I had emailed Baladin weeks before to let them know I was coming with the hopes of arranging a tour or even, a chance to meet Teo himself.  Moreover, I had not come empty handed.  I brought with me some t-shirts from our church beer club and a bottle of our homebrew that I had carefully carried and protected for three weeks and through four countries. Baladin (9)

Upon entering the bar I was greeted by Melane.  After returning her greeting I asked if she spoke English.  Her reply was priceless, “Yes” she said patiently, “I speak English, and French and German and a leeetle bit of Italian.” Her smile was just as charming as I explained that we had come from the US and had driven from Cannes that day with the hopes of a tour and the chance to meet Teo.

“Oh.” she replied, “Teo?  He just left.”

I was utterly crestfallen.  It now appeared that we had spend the better part of a precious vacation day driving so we could order a couple of beers and a sandwich.  Melane must have read the disappointment on my face because she quickly said, “Let me see what I can do.  My boyfriend is Teo’s assistant.  Maybe he can come in.” Baladin (12)

We chatted a bit more and I ordered a Nelson for my wife and a Nina for myself.  The children got some of their house made lemon sodas.  Although the drinks were all quite tasty- the children insisted that we try their sodas- it did little to cushion the blow when I shared the news that Teo had gone.

While we waited we chatted with our waiter and I ordered a different beer this time opting for a Wayan.  As I sipped it I wondered if this trip would go down in family lore as the great beer fiasco.

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To be concluded next week….

Damn you Google Maps! or Our Trip to Baladin

The kids were bored and carsick and my wife was quietly fuming.  We had just passed through a tunnel leaving the beauty of the French Maritime Alps into the Piedmont region of Italy.  Our collective anticipation at nearing our destination quickly deflated.  What stretched before us was not anything like the way one pictures Italy.  Instead I felt like we had become victims of some quantum glitch and ended up in Nebraska by mistake.  Flat, featureless farmland stretched endless before us.  Gone were the beautiful villages.  Olive groves- gone.  Charm and romance- gone, gone, gone.

It all began several months before as we planned the itinerary for our time on the Riviera.  As I now do for all trips I started to look around the region for beer.  Thanks to the Beer Mapping Project I found that although there were no worthwhile beer destinations near us in France, that in fact the world famous Baladin was less than 200 km (123 miles) away. Screenshot (3) According to Google Maps the trip should take three hours.  Since we had a rental car I thought- hey that’s not too bad- we can stop off in some villages along the way for some sightseeing and culture.  I had even hoped to stop off at nearby Birrificio Troll to maximize the beery return of the day.

And so I made my case to the family and they grudgingly assented.  In looking at our calendar we opted to travel on a Sunday.  This would come into play later as we realized that most of Italy, including gas stations, is closed on Sundays, especially in the month of August.  We got an early start leaving about 9 am.  We very quickly got off on a bad foot, missing the highway exit past Niece.  But we were soon back on the correct road.  Nevertheless, navigation was challenging.  Turn offs were not clearly marked or not marked in a way we could readily comprehend.  Yet in spite of these initial delays I was confident we could still make it there in less than four hours. Sopsel (7)

Upon entering the mountains we stopped off in the village of Sopsel for some sightseeing and lunch.  The early afternoon sun heated the car as we set off for the next leg and I was beginning to feel an ember of anxiety starting to glow in the pit of my stomach. I had no idea of what lay ahead.

Sopsel (16)The roads out of Sopsel got more and now winding and narrow.  Soon we started to wonder if we had gotten off on a goat path by mistake.  We would climb and navigate hairpin turns up to what appeared to be a summit and start to breathe a sigh of relief only to find that another peak appear before us.  In the efforts to avert full scale mutiny I attempted to keep everyone focused on the breathtaking scenery of streams and ancient olive groves set on terraces cut into the rock. From time to time we would stop to look over the edge or for a necessary pee break.

Two hours later the signs for the tunnel that would lead us into Italy was finally in sight.  Along the way I had begun to speculate that Google must have been calculating the projected travel time for a helicopter and not a car.

Then all traffic ground to a halt.  Apparently the tunnel only allowed for one way traffic.  We sat for more than 20 minutes as the cars wound their way out of Italy.  By the time we finally started moving it was well past three.  I had begun to seriously consider giving up and heading back to a village we passed a few miles back that seemed to be setting up for a festival in honor of a local saint.  But my stubborn gene kicked in and over the silent and sullen objections of my family, we pressed forward.  images (1)

My efforts to raise everyone’s spirits with the promise of the beauty of Italy were soon dashed as the monotony of Nebraska, I mean Piedmont, stretched before us.   I began to wonder if we would ever get there and if we did, would it be worth it?

To be continued next week….

“Laborare est orare, sed potare clarius.”

I have always struggled with authors like Umberto Ecco who throw in long quotations in other languages and then never offer a translation, even as a footnote.  So please forgive my pretension for titling this week’s post in Latin.  However, for those of you who never studied the language or for those like me who have forgotten all they ever learned with the possible exception of “Amo, Amas, Amat,” I will not keep you guessing for long.

The phrase “Laborare est orare, sed potare clarius” is based on the Benedictine motto,  “Laborare est orare,” which means, “Working is praying.”  This was to emphasize not just the importance of work but that explain that work, when done mindfully, dutifully, and in the service of God and of others, is as sacred and important to one’s spiritual well being as prayer.   The beer-in-a-beer-mug-with-ears-of-wheat-and-halo-T-Shirtsexpansion, “Working is praying, but drinking is superior,” would seem to be rather tongue in cheek.  But is it?

I first came across this phrase in an article by Todd Agliaoro entitled, The Theology of the Bottle.  He in turn cites a passage written by Hillaire Belloc,

” [I]t was five miles since we had last acknowledged the goodness of God in the drinking of ale, which is a kind of prayer, as it says in the motto : “Laborare est orare sed potare clarior, which signifies that work is noble, and prayer its equal, but that drinking good ale is a more renowned and glorious act than any other to which man can lend himself. And on this account it is that you have a God of Wine, and of various liquors sundry other Gods, that is, imaginations of men or Demons, but in the matter of ale no need for symbol, only that it is King.”


The more attentive among you will have noticed that my quotation and Belloc’s are slightly different.  That is because, according to my friend and Latin scholar, Carl Rubino, the Latin should be “clarius” not “clarior.”

But what really matters is not so much grammar but whether or not the quotation has any theological validity.  Is Belloc right in claiming that the drinking of good ale is indeed a kind of prayer? Perhaps the better question is why shouldn’t it be?

God hands beer to manWhy shouldn’t be enjoyment of best things in life be a spiritual act?  Beer comes both from the fruit of the earth which is a gift of God and as the result of human labor and ingenuity, which is also a gift of God.  If we approach a mug of good beer with such reverence and recognition, how could it not also be an act of devotion?  How could it not deepen our appreciation of all the blessings of this life and of the goodness of God?

This is not to say that all drinking of beer is sacred, any more than all work is sacred.  But it does allow that all beer, particularly beer that is well crafted and of good quality, holds the potential to become a sacred experience.  Or as Agliaoro puts it, the jolly melding of Church and tavern that celebrated God’s presence in creation from tabernacle to tankard”

Such a continuum and continuity of the sacred and mundane is very much in keeping with the principles of Celtic theology which asserts that God can be encountered and known through creation and in the mundane experiences of life.

So the next time you set out to enjoy that glass of craft beer, take a moment to pause and consider all that the beautiful swirling liquid embodies.  I promise the wait will be worth it because in the end it can only make the beer taste better and it might even bring you closer to God.

Happy New Beer!

After the taking the week off for Christmas I thought it was important to get back to writing.  As our celebrations and indulgences wrap up I find myself looking at my cellar and wishing I had seized the opportunity to break into more of my cherished “reserve” bottles of barleywine and barrel aged treasures something I wrote about here).  As it was I didn’t drink enormously over the holidays and tackling a 24 oz bottle of 11-14% ambrosia on my own is a serious commitment.

Last night as I was getting ready to toast the arrival of 2014 I found myself pondering what beer would perfectly suit the occasion.  I mentally flipped through the rarities I was saving but found nothing compelling.  I found myself drawn to an old and consistent favorite- Rochefort 10.  It was the ideal segue way from the dry champagne we had started with and it’s familiarity allowed me to savor without forcing me to be too analytical. DSC_1423

Today I find myself wanting to start the New Year off an equally positive and delicious note.  With my reluctance to crack open any treasures still firmly in mind, I will confront that reticence head on.  After supper I will open my one truly vintage bottle of Thomas Hardy’s from 1989 as a first step towards overcoming the neurosis that makes me think that my best bottles are somehow too precious to be enjoyed but instead need to be hoarded away for some mythical “someday” that may never arrive.

How will you celebrate the New Year?  What bad habits (beer related or otherwise) will you strive to overcome?  Whatever the case may be I wish you a blessed and healthy 2014!