New Jersey Brewers Help Create
Calabria's First Brewery

by Jack Curtin
August-September 2005

Spilinga, a small town on the west coast of Italy about 250 miles south of Naples, is a place from which, on a clear day, you can look across the Strait of Messina and see the island of Sicily right in front of you, says Franceso (Frank) Barritta. And it is there, in their hometown, that he and his brother Pasquale (Pat) will open the first brewery in the Calabria region this May, thanks to the help of two New Jersey brewers.

"We knew nothing about beer, just to drink it, that's all," Barritta admits, "but beer is beginning to become in style in Italy. The breweries which are already here are doing pretty good and people are beginning to understand that beers are not just Peroni or Budweiser, to learn of different tastes and styles. There is nothing like this in all of Calabria and we thought it was something we could do. When we went to the United States, we had great luck to meet Gretchen and Tom. If it wasn't for them, I don't think we could do this."

"Gretchen and Tom" are Gretchen Schmidhausler, brewer at Basil T's Restaurant & Italian Grill in Red Bank, NJ and Tom Baker, founder of Heavyweight Brewing Company in Ocean County, NJ. The brothers, who have family in New Jersey and have visited on and off over the years, were directed to Schmidhausler by California's Pub Brewing Systems (her award-winning beers are made in a 7-barrel Pub Systems brewhouse). "I showed them what I could," recalls Schmidhausler, "but this a very small brewery and there wasn't room for as much hands-on experience as they needed. I introduced them to Tom and they 'defected' to Heavyweight. They'd still stop in and help when I needed-Frank brewed with me shortly before he went back to Italy in January-but it was at Tom's place where they really learned to brew."

Baker says he had his doubts at first, but "once they were here, Frank and Pat were as helpful as I could have hoped for. They spent a day or two a week with me for almost two years, on brewing days, doing whatever I asked of them. Understand, they had no background at all. They were never homebrewers, had seen only one two actual breweries. They'd bought and read all the right books, but they were about as blank a slate as you can have."

Ultimately, Baker helped the brothers do various pilot brews, one of which was a Helles lager (pause here for readers familiar with Heavyweight's big bold beers to unboggle their minds) which Schmidhausler later brewed in a full 7-barrel batch. "We named it Prime Amore and put it on as a Basil T seasonal," she says. "It went over pretty well and sold just about the way all our seasonals do."

Last summer, Baker began helping the Barrittas find a brewery and discovered a virtually unused 15-barrel pub system at Main Street Brewing in Worchester, Mass. "It's an Irish pub where they'd always intended to begin brewing and never got to it," Baker says. "We approached them at just the right time, because they needed the brewery space for a live music area, so it was a good price." In September, he helped decommission, package and ship the brewery home, accompanied by Pat (Frank stayed until January). Baker also sent along various recipes and some of his computer programs.

As of mid-March, the brothers had done all the work necessary to convert the building they found in December to their needs and were waiting completion of electrical and plumbing work before moving in the equipment. "It will be called Cunegonda Brewery, in honor of our deceased brother," says Frank. "For others it is just a name, but for us it has special meaning. Everyone here is very curious, they've never seen a brewery before. We have many local restaurants, including my sister's Pizzeria a Capo Vaticano, near Tropea, who are anxious to have our beer available for the tourist season. Our first beer will be the one we brewed in the U.S., although we will give it a different name."

Baker and his wife Peggy Zwerver plan to be in Calabria this summer (Schmidhausler hopes to visit in the Fall) to help with the first brew and the official launching of the Cunegonda Brewery, thus beginning a new era in a little Italian seacoast town from which you can see Sicily on a clear day.

Copyright (c) 2005 Jack Curtin

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