An audience with The Pope of Franconian beer in Rome

A friend once remarked that meeting Manuele Colonna was harder to come by than an audience with the Pope. I figured I could increase my chances by going to Rome since that’s where the Pope resides, right? Conveniently,  Manuele also calls it home. It was about time for a return to the Eternal City anyway as it had been 44 years for this once sophomoric 19-year old who had found the sprawling metropolis and Uzi-toting Polizei daunting in 1978. The rest of Europe had seemed so, well clean and safe to my newly opened American eyes.

Rome had aged well

Besides, I had been promising to take my wife, who had never been, since her 40th birthday but had been thwarted by COVID. I wouldn’t necessarily seek out beer on such a trip but an appointment with the Pope has to be kept and I’m talking about the author of Birra in Franconia and the acknowledged grand purveyor of the idea of such beer in Italy, the inimitable Manuele Colonna. The problem was, the Pope was going to be in Franconia when I was in Rome. Schlechtes Timing, oder? To be perfectly honest, I had been so persistent that I’d managed to meet him a couple of times on his forays into my new homeland, my having left the US for Germany in 2010. He’s an amicably charismatic guy who is understandably popular and just happens to be hard to track down physically. He’s generally driving around the Franconian countryside to small rural breweries in search of what he calls “the real taste of Franconia.” I’m usually on foot or using local buses doing the same and though tortoises may catch hares in fables, it’s no easy task in real life.

our first beers together

He felt bad about his not being around to show us his hometown but he more than made up for it during our planning stages, not only suggesting places to enjoy “the real Rome food,” but also nixing my first choices in accommodation as “too dangerous, a homeless person got killed there.” We wound up staying in the neighborhood where his famed Ma che siete venuti a fa beer bar has been a Trastevere cornerstone since 2001. He even made a first night reservation for us at L’Elementare, a noted pizzeria down the street and told me that all his recommendations would need me to do the same. Unsurprisingly, he was right. Rome had become very popular in my 44 year absence.

Trastevere pleasures

The very first stop after checking into our room was the ground breaking pub which introduced Franconian beer to his fellow Romans. One sip of Bamberg’s legendary Mahr’s Ungepundetes, the first such beer he offered, and he had his countrymen’s ears. It had been the first Franconian beer he’d fallen in love with in 2002. Prior to that he’d been at the forefront of the Italian Craft Beer scene.

 the early pioneer Manuele

Though not physically present, he managed to welcome us to Ma Che just the same in the form of La Baronessa della Birra, Martina Marchi, who said Manuele had let them know a beer writer was coming in and to give him his first beer on the house. The Instagram Beerfluencer had been working in the Italian Craft Beer scene since pulling beer at The Baron, a pub in her hometown of Correggio before being scooped up by the obviously not blind Ma Che publican. She explained she “loved to tell anecdotes and stories behind every beer.” She’s found working at the renowned pub “a great opportunity for growth” as Manuele also organizes company trips to Franconia, where she gets to “meet the people and fully understand the spirit of each beer.” This she passes onto the “passionate clientele at the counter,” her biggest satisfaction of being in the business. When people love what they do, passion inhabits both sides of the bar.

 La Baronessa della Birra: Martina Machi

The exterior of Ma che siete venuti a fà screams Roma in all its chaotic beauty and sitting out front with a beer should top throwing a coin over your shoulder at famous fountains or Spanish steps sitting on your list of things to do in town. The interior is an eclectic mix of football and brewery memorabilia. Though this is a hip Craft Beer Bar, make no mistake about it, it’s also a sports bar. In Rome, that means football but more on that when Manuele returns. The crowning touch for us was the music, a perfect mix of old and new. Not too loud, not obtrusive, entirely atmospheric.

 Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà is must

This place could serve Peroni and and be a great bar but with the maestro pulling the beery strings, I will always find myself yearning for such a place in Munich, where his only competition would be Hop Dog. He has not only a handful of thoughtfully chosen Franconian lagers but also a few Belgians and for us the toppers were two Italian brewed hand-pulled ales by Hilltop. We mostly stuck to them and my wife rarely strayed from their Gallacher Stout. The bar staff are knowledgeable not only about beer but also more importantly know how to pour it. Every beer came out looking perfect and not overly fizzy. The Franconian beer was sometimes better than when I’ve had it at the source because of this.

a truly fine eclectic beer menu

To illustrate that Manuele is not about self-promotion, without my solicitation, he suggested a handful of other beer bars in town. He knows that the more places like his, the more people in the end who will be drinking great beer. We liked his place so much we almost didn’t venture to them but were glad we made the effort to check out both Treefolk’s Public House and Luppolo Station. The former had a large array of well-made Italian-brewed ales that were all hand-pulled and approximated an English pub a lot better than anything we’d experienced in the US or Germany. The latter was just so homey with a series of charming rooms. Besides, who doesn’t love Luppolo?

random shots from Treefolk’s Public House & Luppolo station

After a few great days of exhaustive sightseeing and amazing meals in Rome, it appeared that the Pope was returning. We’d wondered why we hadn’t seen him on our visit to the Vatican. As chance would have it, Manuele was going to be home our last night in town. We made plans to meet, where else, at Ma Che. There was only one catch; the city’s two rival football clubs, SS Lazio and AS Roma were squaring off. Obviously, the pub would be mobbed, the street heaving. That wasn’t the problem. You see, Manuele, like any real Roman, not only loves football but has chosen a side in this rivalry and this was a very big deal. To say he was distracted during our “interview” would be an understandable given. Manuele is an effusive speaker. His mind rushes ahead, words erupting often in staccato fashion. One thing I love about Facebook is it automatically translates for you. Since I have a lot of German friends I’m used to it and its limitations within the language but English is a Germanic language so surely easier for software to do. Since “meeting” Manuele online, I have a good amount of Italian friends. The language is very flowery and seems to weave like a Coltrane sax solo at times. I just figured it was an inability of automation to really get it right until I sat down with him a few times and realized that he’s just so passionate about the things he’s talking about that mere words can’t quite come to terms with the emotions he’s feeling. It could just be that English is inadequate to express it but I like my gut feeling better.

 scenes from Ma Che

He explained that Ma Che was his first bar and that’s he’d only been a “beer drinker” before that. Craft Beer had lit a small fire in him but it was Franconian beer which fanned the flames. After his Mahr’s “U” revelation, his epiphany came when tasting countryside beers Hölzlein Vollbier and Hoh Lager in situ. Bringing them to Italy became a driving force and was aided by famed master brewer Andreas Gänstaller. Acceptance at his pub was immediate and grew quickly. This led to the Franken Bierfest, at first a week long event featuring six or seven Bockbiers held at his bar in 2012. It was around this time that he wrote the seminal Italian book on the topic, Birra in Franconia.

the birth of two great babies

Three years later and it had grown to 10,000 people at Villa Torlonia, featuring around 50 small family breweries. That was 2015 but it was 2022 and the big match was on every TV in every bar and restaurant on Via Benedetta. Hell, probably every TV in Rome. We sat at the Stammtisch outside Ma Che, Manuele positioned to face me but look at the images on the screen of players scurrying around the pitch in the pub across the street. He’s not one to not look a person in the eye when he talks but his mind was on the match. I didn’t even need to turn my head. I could feel the pulse if anything happened, fans heralding approval or dismay. I hadn’t asked Manuele who his team was but when it ended, I knew they’d lost. It was SS Lazio. As AS Roma fans celebrated, I saw a more subdued Manuele than I’d ever witnessed. The name of the bar, Ma che siete venuti a fà, happens to be a football chant in Rome and means “but what did you come to do,” and no team or person comes to lose. Least of all Manuele Colonna. He’s passionate about the things he loves, be it his daughter, his beer or his team. Though he may appear light to the casual observer, none of this is a game to him. In British English, they call it a match. In the States, we say game. I always thought it was a matter of semantics but maybe the word game isn’t serious enough when it comes to football. At least not in Rome, when rivals square off and thanks to Manuele, Franconian beer flows.

Franken Bierfest Roma & amici

Don’t go to Rome without visiting:

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà
Via Benedetta 25
00153 Roma, Italy

Heading to Bamberg, don’t leave home without The Pocket Guide to Bamberg’s Best Beer.

If you enjoy Franconian beer at Ma che siete venuti a fà, you might want to go to the source on a guided beer hike in Franconia with Beerwanderers.

 

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