A New Brew with Ancient Roots
Linden Street’s Kel Owen spills the secrets behind a new beer crafted especially for Lafayette’s Pizza Antica.
Photo by Eliza Lamson
For all you lovers of beer and rustic Italian food out there, here’s some news you might like to hear. As we mentioned in last week’s We Love the Nightlife, Pizza Antica has a new beer on the menu, a country-style ale called Birra Antica, that has been masterfully crafted by the brewers at Linden Street Brewery. All this week (April 15–21), visitors to Pizza Antica can try this new brew for $6, and receive a complimentary taralli (the Italian word for gourmet pretzel).
We caught up with Linden Street’s Kel Owen, the man behind the malt, to talk Birra Antica, fennel in your suds, and why comparing beer to black licorice may not be a bad thing.
How did you go about creating a beer for Pizza Antica?
At Linden Street Brewery, anytime we work directly with a client, like when we worked with Bar Tartine, we try and bring something to the table that’s not the norm. So, by understanding what Pizza Antica does—its more rustic, Italian style food—we wanted to bring something that matched. Basically, my boss challenged me to figure out something that would be outside the box but still fit into the vein of what they’re doing with they’re food.
What kind of considerations did you have to keep in mind?
If you’re making more rustic food—fennel sausage, things like that—you need to incorporate those flavors in the beer and balance it all out. So, what I started thinking was, what would you have been drinking on the Roman trail prior to hops? They would have used a bunch of things as preservatives—black peppercorn, cumin, fennel—things that stave off bacteria growth but that also act as a big flavor influence. If you meld those right, you can get the perceived sweetness from the fennel, the smokiness from the cumin, the heat from the pepper corn—those all give it a more rustic edge.
What else went into crafting the beer?
We use dark malt that’s wheat malt and roasted—similar to what would have been the case in the past. So, it’s a more rustic style beer. But it’s meant to pair with the wood-fired ovens and the much more old-school style food that’s being made here. Then, for the alcohol range, it has to not be too small that people are kind of reticent to drink it, but not too big that it’s over the top. It’s just about that balancing act of finding something that captures all those little notes and really works with the food.
What’s your favorite pairing?
I’ve had a lot of good stuff tonight—the calzone was amazing—but my favorite pairing was the beer with the Castelvetrano olives. A bite of one of those with the beer—it was just like dark beers and pickles for us at the brewery. It’s just that little bit of flavor that rounds out the cumin and fennel with the brininess of the olive. It’s something that puts a smile on your face.
What’s your favorite thing about Birra Antica?
For me, it’s being able to get the dryness right. In the grand scheme of things, this beer is exceptionally dry. It’s as dry as most white wines, most of which have a general sweetness. The fennel creates a nice perceived sweetness, though. But it’s sort of like eating black licorice; you think you taste sweetness but it’s really not that sweet. It’s the balancing act again.
The dryness creates great balance between the beer and the wood-fire oven dishes and pasta. The food here is the big thing; the beer has to be something that goes hand in hand with it. I had to ask myself, “How can I make sure that no matter what Pizza Antica makes, the beer goes with it?” This is the kind of beer where you can drink two with dinner all the way through—you can have it with every dish.
What was the most exciting part of the process?
I’m excited about it because it’s always nice for me to have an idea and watch it come to fruition. To see the application; see the other people who are directly affected by it. This whole idea of seeing it grow—as a brewer its one of those moments where you think, “Great! I didn’t screw this one up.”
Linden Street Brewery: 95 Linden St., Oakland, (510) 251-8898, lindenbeer.com; Pizza Antica: 3600 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0500, pizzaantica.com.