Italy's Craft Beer Awakening
Move over Chianti. Take a hike Pinot Grigio. Italian brewers have built a world-class beer scene in recent years, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
By Zak Avery
(This article appears in the Winter 2010/ 2011 issue of The Beer Connoisseur. Support BC by subscribing here.)
If you look at a map of the wine, beer and spirits belts, you’ll see that Italy is almost exclusively designated as a wine country, with only a small region in the north, bordering on Switzerland and Austria, that gains admittance to the beer belt. Relying on this long-held model as a basis to plan your next beer-themed vacation, you might make the mistake of missing Italy altogether – and it would be a grave mistake, because there has been something of a whirlwind revolution happening there.
The global reach of that revolution is partially signaled by the recent opening of a branch of Eataly in New York City, the mammoth food hall imported by the restauranteurs Mario Batali and Joe and Lidia Bastianich that has been much heralded as the arrival of gourmet Italian food in New York. Of course, great Italian food has been in New York for over a century now, so the real news for beer lovers is the brewpub that is part of Eataly NY. Its opening not only has the potential to bring craft beer (Italian, American, or wherever) to a new audience, but it also stamps Italy firmly on the beer map. The boot full of beer is no longer just a novelty glass – it’s also a metaphor for the burgeoning quality beer movement in Italy.
The brewpub at Eataly is being supervised by three of the most exciting craft brewers in the world: Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head), Teo Musso (Le Baladin) and Leonardo Di Vincenzo (Birra del Borgo). (A fourth big-name brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo of Sonoma County’s Russian River Brewing Company, is sadly no longer involved in the project.) Each of the brewers will bring a little of themselves to the mix, although as Musso points out, “The idea of this project is certainly not to lose our individual identities but to celebrate each of our separate characters.” Asked to elaborate on his role, he adds: “My contribution to the project, and the creation of the beers, is to help blend the key characterful flavors of Italy with American beer culture, to try and bring a classic Italian style, and also to help guide the naming and presentation of the three beers so that they very clearly represent Italy.”
Since none of them will be in full-time residence at Eataly, the brewery will be looked after on a day-to-day basis by Brooks Carretta. Carretta is one of Di Vincenzo’s current brewers at the Birra del Borgo brewery in Borgorose, about an hour northeast of Rome, and when he talks about relocating to New York and firing up the brew kettles, his enthusiasm is palpable.
Asked about the beers that will be house staples at the Eataly brewpub, and the Italian influences that may be evident in them, Carretta explains: “Besides our Pale Ale we will also brew a Chestnut Mild Ale, which will bring our knowledge of brewing with chestnuts to the U.S. We will also brew something in the style of a Belgian Wit, spiced with a selection of peppercorns.”
This is an extension of Leonardo Di Vincenzo’s philosophy of using local ingredients to give a sense of place to the beer. “The malt will be American, but we will always try to add an ingredient that speaks about a place,” Di Vincenzo says. “For example, the thyme that we use in the Pale Ale will be thyme from the hills above Borgorose, the same as Sam, Teo and I used in the collaborative brew that we did in Borgorose. The hops will be American – Cascade and Centennial – so it will be a mix of places and ideas.”
When asked if there is any sort of schedule in place for collaborative brews between the three founding brewers, Carretta’s answer reflects the maverick spirits involved: “We don’t really have any plans yet, but knowing the brewers involved you can probably expect any collaboration going on anytime! Our goal is to combine all three of the breweries’ philosophy of making intriguing and creative beers. And of course, just three house beers won’t be enough for these guys, they already have all sorts of ideas popping up.”
In the last five years, the number of craft breweries in Italy has mushroomed, moving from around 40 in 2005 to around ten times that today. Asked how this might have happened, Musso says, “I believe that Italians are naturally very sensitive to craft and quality products, and so our way of rethinking quality craft beer has aroused a great interest from a very big audience.” And if that wasn’t surprising enough, those five years have also seen a slight decline in the consumption of “industrial” beers – the sort of bland, pilsner-style lagers that have long been associated with the country better known for its wine culture. The evidence points toward the beer-lover’s dream – craft beer on the rise, to the detriment of industrial products.
It’s clear from looking at the spread of breweries, bars and beer-centric restaurants in Italy that the majority of action happens in the north, although as with all capital cities, Rome currently leads the way in rounding up the best of beer culture and making it accessible to a wide audience. But that’s not to say that there aren’t exciting and iconic places to make the focus of a pilgrimage. Indeed, part of the fun of being a beer geek is seeking out beer as close to its source as possible.
The majority of the northern Italian beer scene is set within a diamond with four cities at its points: Turin, Milan, Bologna and Genoa. It’s only 100 miles across, east to west, and a little less than that north to south, but it houses some of the cream of Italian craft brewing. This concentration is broadly reflected by the locations of Eataly emporia in Italy; its Turin, Bologna, Milano, Pinerolo and Asti operations are also all in this part of the country.
Moving west to east, the first brewery is Birrificio Le Baladin, located in the tiny village of Piozzo. Musso, the founder of Le Baladin, has become something of a mystical touchstone for the whole of the Italian craft beer movement, brewing beers that defy convention, categorization and common sense. If that seems like hyperbole, then pay a visit to their bar in Piozzo and try any one of their beers, such as Nora, flavored with myrrh and ginger; Open, an IPA with an open-source recipe (the idea was to see who could brew the best version from the same recipe); or, if you’re really lucky, Xyauyù, an oxidized barleywine that manages to combine a monumental intensity with an unusual elegance. North to Turin, you can also find the Grado Plato brewpub, just south of the city in the town of Chieri, and in Turin itself, the Birrificio Torino is certainly worth a look.
Heading north into the beer belt proper, you come to two of the oldest craft breweries in Italy. Most northerly, heading toward Lake Como, in the small town of Lurago Marinone, is the celebrated brewpub of Agostini Arioli at Birrificio Italiano. Although it produces a wide range of beers, from a pilsner to an amber bock to fruit beers and beyond, Birrifico Italiano is perhaps best known for Tipopils. An unfiltered pilsner, it seems to divide purists. There are those who argue that a pilsner should never be cloudy, and there are those who accept that this is one of the most spritzy, exciting and freshest-tasting pilsner-style beers on the planet. Either way, draft Tipopils is an essential of any visit to the area. (Despite having drunk Tipopils many times, I still vaguely regret not bailing out of a family holiday on the French Riviera a couple of years ago and driving to Lurago Marinone for a pint of this hazy ambrosia – hey, it’s only a four-hour drive.)
South to Milan brings you to the home of Birrificio Lambrate, one of the first generation of brewpubs in Italy. Set in an unassuming neighborhood, the wood-paneled bar betrays its northern European roots, feeling somewhere between a German bierstube and an English pub. The Germanic influences show through in the beers, too, although with enough modern influence to ensure that there is something for everyone. They also have an early evening “aperitivo” hour, but trade in the Campari for a glass of their appetite-exciting Ligera, a beer that somehow combines the qualities of a snappy continental lager, a British bitter and an American pale ale. Not bad for the grand old man of Italian craft brewing.
Birrificio Torrechiara, south of Parma, is perhaps better known by the “Panil” moniker that has gained it fame, principally for its range of wine barrel-aged and wild-fermented beers. Panil Bariqueé Sour is perhaps the brewery’s most celebrated beer. I sampled it on draft on a recent visit, and if sours are your thing, this should be added to your “must-do” list in very big letters (and possibly underlined a couple of times for good measure). Northwest of Parma, Birrificio del Ducato produces a more conventional range of beers, with its most celebrated being Choccarubia, a dark beer made with cocoa and carob.
BICU (derived from “Birra e Cucina,” or “Beer and Food”) is a small chain of brewpubs. The Genoa branch is notable for being situated right on the harborside, in an old cotton warehouse. The beers are unfiltered and all seem to be a slightly twisted takes on northern European brewing traditions. The brewpub also serves a range of beer-based cocktails, should you wish to ruin its perfectly good beer. North of Genoa, Birra Busalla is reputed to be the first Italian brewery to produce a chestnut beer. The original Birra Busalla was founded over 100 years ago, although the brewery hasn’t been brewing continuously for that whole time – in fact, the brewery was closed from 1929 to 1999, which if nothing else demonstrates the triumph of optimism over tough odds.
One might reasonably expect any country’s capital city to reflect recent cultural changes, and so it is with Rome and beer. Rome has seen an explosion of world-class beer bars and restaurants in recent years, and the four mentioned here are a just a weathervane of how the scene has developed.
In the Campo de’ Fiori district, Bar Open Baladin is a shrine to the Italian craft beer scene. The large, high-ceilinged main bar is dominated by a wall displaying bottles from the cream of Italian craft brewing. Set out on glass-lit shelves, the bottles themselves are presented as art, bordering on religious iconography. That sensation is heightened by the chest-high bar and the bartenders’ slightly elevated serving position – as you go to the altar of Italian craft brewing and order a beer, the barman leans forward and you almost feel as though you are receiving a benediction. All this style would be nothing without some substance to back it up, and thankfully Bar Open Baladin delivers. As well as a huge bottle menu there are 30-plus draft taps and a handful of English cask ale handpumps. Alongside the extensive Italian range, expect to find British and Belgian specialties (Birra del Borgo, Baladin, Panil/Torrechiara, Cantillon, BrewDog). Out back there is a smaller bar and upstairs a couple of smaller rooms with comfortably slouchy seating.
The Rome of picture postcards, with laundry stretched high above winding cobbled streets, is to be found in Trastevere. A great place to wander and (repeatedly) lose your way, it’s also home to a couple of gems for the thirsty and hungry visitor. A restaurant rather than a bar, Bir E Fud is a must-visit location for it’s wood-fired pizzas alone. Throw in an appetizer of arancini (fried rice balls) and a jar of their signature wood-smoked tomatoes and it becomes a no-brainer. The beer here is bottle-led, again (rightly) focused on the best of Italian craft brewing, with occasional guest listings for European, American and Scandinavian icons (Moor, Port Brewing, Mikkeller).
Although getting lost in Trastevere is a rite of passage for the visitor, Bir E Fud is handily located just across the street from another great watering hole. During the afternoons, Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa’ is unobtrusive to the point of being hard to find. By mid-evening, the throng of happy drinkers mobbing this hole-in-the-wall bar makes the task slightly easier. Ma Che… (the name translates as “What Are You Doing Here?”) is an absurdly tiny wood-paneled bar, with a spit-and-sawdust feel to it – that’s a good thing in this case, as the mainly Europe-led beer selection is presented in an unpretentious way. Here, it’s a given that a bar should serve great beer, otherwise (as the name says), what are you doing here? The list is almost exclusively European, with the draft selection being relatively small – “only” a dozen or so – but very well chosen (De Molen, Beck Brau, Birrificio Italiano).
It’s a long wander south through Trastevere to get to Brasserie 4:20, but it’s worth the walk for two reasons. One is to get to a great beer bar, and the other is the chance to pass through one of the old gates in the original city walls. Sadly, the last 10 minutes of the walk are along an unlovely boulevard, lined with stores selling cut-price furniture and auto trim, but it gives a nice sense of transition from the ancient civilization within the city walls to the barbaric wilderness without. And anyway, Brasserie 4:20 is a place that you want to arrive at hungry and thirsty.
If Bar Open represents the Italian craft scene, and Bir E Fud is the pizza and beer spot, and Ma Che… is just a neighborhood bar that happens to sell a great range of beers, then Brasserie 4:20 is the one that casts its eye farther afield and looks for the best of the best on a global scale. Alex Liberati, the owner of Brasserie 4:20 and Revelation Cat brewery, explains his concept: “It’s always been about sourcing the hardest beers to find and presenting them in the best of conditions. I think the only reason why Brasserie 4:20 has evolved the way it has is my passion for beer and my constant traveling. It’s about variety and completeness. I understand that maybe a foreigner has more interest to try Italian beers, but I see Brasserie 4:20 more inserted in a ‘citizen of the world’ context.” Citizen of the world indeed, as the mix of Italian, American and European beers shows (Pizza Port, Thornbridge, Dark Star).
For a day of beer trekking outside the capital, head northeast an hour from Rome to Birra del Borgo, where you’ll find their new brewery a little way outside of the sleepy cobbled village of Borgorose. The small original brewery is in the village itself, looking out over fields and foothills. The old brewery is still used for test brews and limited volume one-offs. At the moment, the brewery is happy to show people around, but visits are strictly by prior arrangement only, so contact the brewery in advance through its Web site. Di Vincenzo hopes to open a bar in the tiny village, an impressively humble ambition for someone whose beers are about to be world famous.
There’s no escaping the fact that the beer scene in Italy is still emergent, concentrated in a few locations and still in the hands of a relatively small number of key players. But if the tenfold increase in the number of craft breweries in the last five years is indicative of things to come, with the rise in craft breweries and brewpub culture, Italy may yet become the European equivalent of California.
IF YOU GO...
Planning a trip to Italy? Make sure you check out these beer landmarks:
Le Baladin (www.birreria.com)
Birrificio Grado Plato
Birrificio del Ducato
Revelation Cat (www.revelationcat.it)
Birra del Borgo
BARS, BREWPUBS & RESTAURANTS
Casa Baladin: Piazza V Luglio 15, Piozzo (www.casabaladin.it)
Birrificio Torino: via Parma 30, Turin (www.birrificiotorino.com)
Birrificio Italiano: via Castello 51, Lurago Marinone
Birrificio Lambrate: via Adelchi 5, Milan (www.birrificiolambrate.com)
BICU: Porto Antico, Magazzini del Cotone, Genoa; plus other locations (www.bicu.it)
Birra Busalla: Localita’ Birra 3, Busalla (www.birrabusalla.it)
Bar Open Baladin: via Degli Spiecchi 5, Campo de’ Fiori, Rome (www.openbaladin.com)
Bir E Fud: via Benedetta 23, Trastevere, Rome
Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa’: via Benedetta 25, Trastevere, Rome (www.football-pub.com/en)
Brasserie 4:20: 82, via Portense, Trastevere, Rome
The key text for information about the beer, brewing and brewpub scene in Italy is the final chapter of “EurHop!” which is compiled by Lorenzo Dabove (a.k.a. Kuaska). At the time of this writing, it is available in Italian only, but translating the relevant parts of it will sharpen up your beer-related Italian.