A common complaint you hear trotted out by the jaded first generation of craft beer enthusiasts is that modern beer is lacking in originality. Innovation is what took them from the dark ages of homogenous macro-lagers and toward the light of almost infinite diversity on offer today, but for many that torch has seemingly burned low. Modern breweries do their best to cater for a universally accessible palate, leaning into a template that has established market acceptance. Stepping out and working in experimental, uncharted spaces is considered an unnecessary risk that undermines any potential longevity in an industry already fraught with land mines for the less cautious.
None of this seems to bother John Ricciotti - or, if it does, it’s a secondary concern. John is looking simply to give back to an industry he loves with something outside the norm, an unpresumptuous little brewing concern called Su Legno operating from Adelaide's quiet suburb of Glynde. John's career in South Australia's beer industry has seen him on the production floor of Coopers, working the bar at local craft taprooms and then pivoting into his current role with Spark Breweries and Distilleries, providing consultation services to help small operations find their feet in the industry.
Despite John's established and varied history in beer, Su Lego is far from an application of hard-edged business principles. Instead, it is, in John’s own words, very much a labour of love.
“Right now we are focussed on selling beer and getting the brand and beer out there for people to try”, he says. “I made Su Legno to challenge myself and create something that lies outside style guidelines, something that’s small and handcrafted and connected to its drinkers”.
Su Legno translates to ‘on wood’, an Italian phrase pulled from John’s heritage - typically tied to art through its reference to the material as the medium, as in painting ‘su legno’ - and a characteristically simple explanation of the ethos behind his endeavour. Su Legno beers are exclusively barrel-fermented, a practice with historical importance, but rarely used today, even when barrel-ageing is a commonly pedestalled production technique.
Indeed, the Su Legno focus is a long way from most barrel-aged beers; these are no funky, boozy, overwrought affairs - they are simple, accessible, and understated.
“I love sour and mixed culture beer," John says. "But I felt like there’s already brewers doing it much better than I ever could. We wanted to create a beer that is novel and recognised as ‘Su Legno’, not necessarily as a specific style.”
Apart from the untapped potential of being one of very few barrel-fermentation exclusive specialists in Australia, the function of barrel-fermenting is twofold. You simultaneously pick up characteristics of the barrel, as well as neutralising some of the more saturated aspects of the beer - like with barrel ageing, this helps treat the acid profile and transform it into a smooth, vanilla-touched thing of beauty - and because of the turbidity of fermentation these things are accelerated and can become more deeply woven into the character of the beer.
There are also other, less material contributions that barrel fermenting can impart, where the shape of the vessel, as well as the shifting variables of temperature and pressure that can fluctuate during fermentation, can all play into how the beer develops.
“What I love about using barrels is the imprecision compared to cylindroconical - there’s probably a little bit of uncertainty with every batch”, John says. “Getting a great tasting beer was a technical challenge. We are still honing the process at the larger scale but are very happy with the results so far”.
Apart from being a tricky thing to achieve successfully, it requires a lot of time and concentration, which helps to explain why only a couple of Su Legno beers has so far been made available. The first release was called Primo - again John is tapping his roots as a third-generation Italian-Australian.
“I grew up surrounded by homemade food; salami, sauce, wine," John says. "There was always a sense of sharing and enjoyment. So we wanted to incorporate that into our brand”.
Aesthetically, you could be forgiven for taking it for a table wine at first glance, and the beauty is that Primo absolutely fits the same brief - it’s a mellow sipper designed to augment, rather than command the occasion. Following closely in Primo's footsteps was Oro (gold) which was just released, with Nero (black) planned for release sometime next year.
John’s background in homebrewing and professional cooking has fostered respect and enthusiasm for beer of rustic authenticity and Su Legno’s purpose has been forged from this basic principle.
“[Su Legno] was conceived casually, over a period of time and trial and error, but the reception has been really positive," he says. "As it’s a new beer and kind of a new approach, often people are hesitant but once they try the beer they realise how interesting and drinkable it is”.
Given that fermentation was the domain almost exclusively of wooden vessels for a significant period of human history prior to the industrial revolution, Su Legno could be taken as steeped in history. Indeed, tying into the past further is the fact that John’s initial inspiration came from historical photos of Coopers production he observed during his time working there.
He has also drawn influence from local natural wine producers, like Gentle Folk and Jauma, with their low-interference approach that champions the ingredients and natural fermentation processes, along with academic writings from fermentation specialists like Charlie Bamforth.
John works with local cooperage AP John Coopers to source his first use, charred American Oak barrels, a selection partly informed by a fondness for bourbon, with those given due consideration every step of the way.
“All malt and hop selections are made considering the barrel as an ingredient,” explains John.
For those seeking to experience some of Su Legno’s specific brand of magic, options are somewhat limited, even in their home city. A few independent bottle shops and small bars and restaurants are stocking Primo in Adelaide and orders can be made via the website for delivery across Australia, but batch sizes are necessarily restricted, and there are also likely to be batch-to-batch differences.
Despite over two years of development, on a pragmatic and artistic level, John considers ongoing evolution to be a desirable design feature in his process, something again linked back to the wine world - although he is cautious to avoid any connotations of snobbery.
“I’m just super keen to make some classy beer that has a depth of flavour and unique character - but that sounds way too pretentious,” he laughs.
The proof is in the product though, and it's certainly not a stretch to find all that, and more, in a bottle of Su Legno. If you’re lucky enough to acquire one, it will pair well with ebullient conversation with friends and family over long, lazy afternoon lunches - just as John intended.