Let’s say my father-in-law is not a beer guy — when it comes to drinking for pleasure, we’re talking wine. But like most people here, he regularly drinks beer with meals, the same way that people in other European countries down mineral water: at every lunch and every dinner, there is one bottle of medium- or low-strength pale lager from Platan, his local brewery, on the table. This makes his beer consumption just about average for a citizen of the Czech Republic: just about one half-liter a day, just about every day of the year. But if it’s a question of his preferred beverage, it’s vino, generally Moravian, generally white, and generally very good.
But that still doesn’t explain the Mussolini beer.
In fact, almost nothing explains the Mussolini beer, only that some friends of his came back from Italy and the Mussolini beer showed up shortly afterwards. About a month before, my wife and I had gone to Italy to research a story on the Italian craft brewing scene, and we brought back several great Italian brews, the kind of rare ales and lagers that obsessive beer heads around the world lose sleep and twitch over before they finally get to tick their names off lengthy lists. Panil Barriquée. The outrageously good Oppale from 32 via dei Birrei. Three bottles of Montegioco. The full line of Birrificio Grado Plato. Don’t even get me started on Baladin.
Some of those beers I shared with my father-in-law in a sort of defense-by-way-of-goodwill gesture, as if to say, “Yes, I do write about beer, but the stuff I’m writing about is not quite the same as your lunchtime substitute for Perrier.” In fact I believe my father-in-law actually enjoyed some of these brews, and I suppose word got out to his friends that beers from Italy were not that bad. He seemed especially impressed by Grado Plato’s rich Chocarrubica, a chocolate-and-carob-flavored stout with a prodigious amount of oats, which makes it very lush and full in the mouth. (Dare I say it is winelike?)
So after sampling a few Italian bottles with me, the mere mention of which would cause tremors and a quick Pavlovian response from any real beer fan, my father-in-law got an Italian bottle of his own as a gift. I felt my eyebrows rise up when he first mentioned it. I wanted to try Baladin’s Xyauyù again, or maybe one of the brews from Troll, or anything — absolutely anything — from Milan’s great Lambrate brewpub, a place that I still remember with a long sigh and the image of heaven placed on earth.
Instead, I saw Il Duce.
La Birra del Duce, it said on the side of the label, along with the image of Benito making what was either a girlish wave or a fascist salute. In the right corner was a Roman fasces. At the top — where a normal label would say something like “Produced with the finest barley malt, fragrant hops and pure spring water” — were the words Dio, Patria, Famiglia, which I read as God, Homeland and Family.
So much for Baladin and Lambrate. Instead, I was facing a gimmick which would obviously be a waste of time. But I got out my notebook anyway.
(Does anyone really need a review of Mussolini’s beer? If you absolutely have to know, it’s surprisingly okay, other than the disappointingly loose head and fizzy carbonation, with a decent aroma of hops and a lightly bitter finish. It’s definitely not great, though for a basic lager you could do far worse.)
Uncomfortable wasn’t the half of how I felt. This was a beer, it seemed, whose entire point of being was — at best — to play upon novelty or — at worst — to exploit fascist sympathies. It was impossible not to think of how much fascism had hurt this country, to say nothing of my father-in-law’s own family, and how stupid it was to sell a brew that made light of those tragedies. I had my problems with the beer itself — it was drinkable but uncharismatic; at one point I thought I got a cooked-corn whiff of dimethyl sulfide, though that could have just been my distaste for the God, Homeland and Family slogan — and the back of the label showed that the same company produced fascist wines as well, meaning that I wasn’t holding the product of a brewery so much as that of a marketing group.
But maybe I take these things — and beer — too seriously.
My father-in-law poured his own glass, which he sniffed and glanced at before taking a sip. His expression seemed to suggest that he didn’t understand what the big deal was with all these Italian beers, and why anyone really cared.
“It’s fine,” he said, putting the glass down and turning back to his dinner. He offered a small shrug. “It’s something to drink with a meal.”
On the label, Il Duce waved girlishly to his friends just beyond the frame.