Villaggio della Birra Siena
Posted by Sean Caulfield (5th December 2014)
If I offered to take you to a beer festival in Tuscany, you’d probably think I’d got the wrong country. If I then took you half an hour south-east from Siena and led you up two kilometres of gravel track to a little farm in the middle of nowhere, you’d probably think I’d got lost. But that is where, every year for the last nine years, brewers from all over Italy (and the world) have come together to celebrate some of Italy and the rest of the world’s very best beer.
Yes, you heard me right, beer. It’s probably not the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Italy, but over the last couple of decades the country’s microbrewing community has grown faster than yeast in a fermentation vat. And, as with all things food and drink related, these Italian brewmasters take their beer very seriously. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also want to have some fun, while sharing their passion with as many people as possible. And that’s exactly what the Festival of Small Breweries a.k.a. Villaggio della Birra Siena (Village of the Beer) is all about.
In spite of attracting brewers from all over the world, the festival is still something of a local secret. I’d been told that beer enthusiasts of all nationalities were very welcome, however, which is why I heroically volunteered to head down there and check it out. Well, someone had to.
The farm where the festival takes place is tucked away in the beautiful Tuscan countryside, just outside the small town of Buonconvento. Parking is in a nearby field and once I got out of my car and headed towards the main farm buildings, it was immediately apparent that something pretty exciting was going on. The main action took place in a large barn, but spilled outside where there were numerous tables under large umbrellas. There festival-goers sat enjoying a selection of the beers on offer, relaxing in the fantastic Italian weather and listening to music from local bands performing on a stage set-up nearby.It was Friday night (the festival went on until Sunday) but there were already hundreds of people there. By the time the festival was done, I’m told several thousand more had made their way around that glorified shed, sampling the expertly brewed wonders it contained. Making my way through the buzzing crowd outside, I entered the barn to find it packed with beer enthusiasts waiting to be served from the rows of pumps set up on the bars lining the walls, or else queuing for something to eat at one of the food stalls serving mouth-watering local fare.
The festival works on a token system with drinks being either one or two tokens, depending on what they are. With some of the finest beers from Italy, Belgium, the UK, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Germany and the USA on offer, I was confident I’d get through more than a few tokens by the end of the night. That said, Villaggio della Birra is very much an event for connoisseurs, not those looking for an excuse to get trollied, so bear that in mind.
The crowd was mostly young (late teens and early twenties) although there were a good few beer-lovers like me who were slightly older. They were also mainly local, although, again, there was a good mix of internationals too, so I didn’t feel out of place. The festival is held in partnership with the Belgian Embassy in Rome, so there was a strong contingent of Belgian beers on offer. Like everything else there though, it’s all microbrewery stuff, so not a Stella Artois or Hoegaarden in sight. It was also nice to see Moor Brewing Company flying the flag for the UK, but it’s the Italian beers I was really there for, so that’s where my tokens mainly went.
The beer was uniformly excellent, with a good variety of different styles on show. Pale ales such as IPA English and Saison seemed popular with the Italians brewers, as were blond ales and porters. There was a tendency towards the more unusual as well, with one microbrewery, Loverbeer, specialising in sour ales, which have a really distinctive flavour and are mostly on the stronger side, hovering around the 8% ABV mark. Pilsners, spiced ales and bocks (German-style strong lager) also made an appearance, nicely showcasing the range of these Italian brewers’ talents. I was particularly pleased to see Tuscany’s own Birrificio L'olmaiathere with some very respectable offerings.
To help soak up all that alcohol, there was a great selection of local food on sale. I couldn’t resist the porchetta (boned, rolled and spit-roasted pig) which is an Italian classic and there was also wild boar stew and, of course, a whole load of excellent local cheeses. You might call this the Italian answer to fast food, and what a clever answer it was.
Although I could only stay for the Friday night, it’s well worth visiting for the whole weekend if you can. There’s free camping, a fantastic, welcoming atmosphere and so many different beers to try, that having several days to spread them out over would be ideal. The festival is well attended by home-brewing groups, beer associations and clubs, so for the true beer aficionado you’ll never be short of someone knowledgeable to chat to. There was also a demonstration of homebrewing from the Carboneria Reggiana Homebrewers’ Association on the Sunday – ideal for anyone looking to try their hand at making beer at home.
For those with children, the festival starts at noon on the Saturday and 10am on the Sunday, meaning you could easily just pop up for the day and let the kids enjoy the music and the great Italian food while you sample just a few of the different beers.
Villaggio della Birra is a growing event not many tourists know about yet but based on my experience, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Brewing in Italy is definitely on the rise, so if you want to find out more about this growing trend, while finding a great way to spend an evening or a weekend, this festival is well worth checking out.The 2014 Festival of Small Breweries took place on the 5th, 6th and 7th of September, so expect next years’ festival to take place at around the same time. And if you fancy making the trip over and need somewhere to stay, why not try one of our great local villas in Siena?