It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then we were drunk …
How many times have you used that old excuse for regrettable behaviour? Even four negronis deep, you kinda knew Marmite and Victoria sponge wasn’t going to be a great combo.
And yet sometimes, some of the best ideas, including culinary ones, get cooked up over a few drinks. Take Sbirro cheese, for example—a “beer cheese” made in the city of Biella near Turin, Italy.
Franco Thedy’s family have been making Menabrea, one of the country’s best known lagers, above a network of underground caves in Turin since 1846—before Italy was even a thing, in fact. Thedy is a fifth-generation brewer, producing Menabrea on the same spot as his great-great-great grandfather, making it Italy’s oldest continuously producing brewery.
Just over the road is Botalla, the cheesemakers. While not quite as old as Italy, nor Menabrea, the family business has been making cheese in Biella since 1947. The two families are so neighbourly that their cellars used to run together.
One night, Sandro Bonino, descendent of Botalla’s original founder, decided to have the Thedys over for dinner. There was cheese, of course, and beer. And it was while the neighbours were drinking beer that Franco and Andrea Bonino, one of Sandro’s sons, came up with the genius idea of making a cheese using beer.
It would be the ultimate meld of Italian gastronomic craftsmanship.
Both Menabrea and Botalla are very particular about how they make their products, staying true to traditional methods.
“My family walked down from the mountains near the French and Swiss border to Biella, and stayed here to produce beer,” says Thedy, “The water was absolutely perfect for the style of beer we still make. It’s the purity of the water that means Menabrea exists.”
The lager is still made in the traditional way, with two weeks fermentation in vertical tanks. Yeast settles at the bottom (Thedy fills a jug full of beery yeast slops from a tap at the bottom of the tank for me to have a sniff) and the beer gets transferred to sit maturing for four weeks.
“During this time, the flavours develop and refine,” explains Thedy. “It’s the big difference between us and other brewers. Normally, it’s only left for three or four days.”
The four-week wait is very important, not just to the lager’s flavour, but also to its “head retention.” It’s a point of pride for Thedy that a glass of Menabrea will keep its head for at least half an hour, with bubbles surging up to the top like a glass of Champagne.
When it comes to making cheese, the Bonino family are similar sticklers for detail. Milk for Botalla cheese is sourced from two different types of local cow, Pizzetta Rossa and Bruna Alpina.
“They’re smaller than ordinary cows,” explains Alessandra Vigliani, the company’s export manager, who’s leading me on a tour of the cheese cellars. “A commercial cow produces about 50 litres a day, but our cows only produce 15. But they live longer and the quality of the milk is really high.”
They check every litre that comes to them before they even start making cheese with it, and then every cheese that is made—around 80,000 on this site—is checked daily, and turned at least once a week.
“We have to be very organised,” Vigliani shrugs. “You have to really love your job.”
A strong nasal constitution helps, too. Unlike the brewery over the road, which smells ferment-y in a hoppy kind of way, the Botalla cheese cellars smell ferment-y in a burped-up-baby-milk kind of way—round and ever so slightly sickly somehow.
It’s potent, particularly in the cellar holding the cheeses left to sit for 120 days or more.
What had been the imaginings of two friendly Italians over a pint obviously still seemed like a good one in the cold light of day. Thedy and the Boninos dedicated two years to working out how to bring their beer and cheese together into one magnificent round of cheesey beery goodness.
“At the beginning, they put the beer in with the milk during the cheesemaking process, so that the beer was inside the cheese,” explains Vigliani. “But at the end of the ageing process, it wasn’t very good. It didn’t really taste like cheese.”
So they began again, this time making the cheese first, and then instead of washing the round with a salt wash, giving the cheese a soak in Menabrea. To ensure the cheese has the proper beer flavour, each round is then coated in hot spent grains leftover from the brewing process.
“We cross the street, bring them over, and cover the cheese with them several times as they age,” says Vigliani.
Just see it as a very niche version of asking your neighbour for a cup of sugar.
The cheese sits for 60 days, stewing in its own beery juices, getting riper and riper. Then it’s ready to go.
This version was the one that made the cut, Italy’s first ever beer cheese, named Sbirro.
“You get the aroma of the beer, but you can feel and taste the milkiness in the cheese,” says Vigliani.
Of course, there’s more to Sbirro than dunking a lump of cheese in beer and seeing what happens. That would be the act of a drunken fool, not the artisans these two families are. Sadly the recipe is a closely guarded secret.
But tasting this cheese, a glass of Menabrea in hand (head still standing strong), I feel inspired by the magic that can happen when you’re nice to your neighbours. Even if all you’re doing is getting a little bit pissed together.