American craft beer has boomed over the last decade, with double-digit growth posted in the past four years alone. Artisanal selections are increasingly available at retailers, bars and restaurants as beer drinkers, both veterans and converts, have been turned on to the idea of drinking better beer and supporting small, local independent breweries. Slowly but surely this concept is making its way across the ocean to seduce a nation that is accustomed to the finer things in life: Italy.
Long disregarded and often overlooked for the country’s ubiquitous wine offerings, the Italian craft beer scene has been slowly gaining momentum over the past few years. Once dominated by the products of their own big boys (most notably Peroni and Moretti), there are now more than 100 microbreweries and counting. Just check out the Unionbirrai (Italian Brewers Association) Web site (unionbirrai.it) for a list of associated breweries and brewpubs to confirm just how much has been going on while we were obsessed with our own domestic beer culture.
Thanks to the rising demand from quality beverage devotees, Italian birra artigianale is starting to make serious strides into the American consciousness with increased force and greater market presence. “Things are running very fast,” says Jurij Ferri of Pescara-based Birrificio Almond ‘22, “and people are showing great interest.”
“Five years ago there were only a quarter of the breweries actually active and the consumers didn’t know anything about craft beers,” adds Giovanni Campari, brewmaster at Birrificio del Ducato in Emilia-Romagna. “Now we can say we’re in the log phase of the market; many microbreweries open every month and the demand is rising quite fast.”
“For several years… a few very small and high-quality breweries ruled the little Italian craft beer market,” agrees Iacopo Lenci, brewmaster at Birrificio Brùton in Lucca. “In [the past] five years a good amount of new breweries were born, looking no more to a local and small distribution but trying to expand our borders to the national and international markets. All together we put the ‘Italian way’ to the attention of the global consumers.
“It has changed a lot,” says Leonardo di Vincenzo, brewmaster at Birra del Borgo and collaborator in Eataly’s New York rooftop brewery project, La Birreria, along with fellow brewmasters Teo Musso of Birrificio Baladin and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. “Beer normally, especially from the gourmet and restaurant world, was considered only a fizzy yellow drink. Working on the promotion of quality beers, especially in the wine world, [through] wine sommeliers in restaurants, was one of the keys for the emerging Italian beer culture.”
Even in Piemonte, a region known for producing some of the world’s greatest wines, people are starting to pay attention to the new breed of birra. “Traditionally in Italy there is a wine culture,” says brewmaster Sergio Ormea of Birrificio Grado Plato. “It is a big satisfaction to see famous sommeliers proposing beer in combination with foods in restaurants… thanks to our little craft world, beer has entered midlevel and high-end restaurants and has proudly earned [a place] in a world before only reserved to the wine.”
“I think that the Italian way for brewing craft beer is most similar to the American way,” says Ormea. “We are individualist; we don’t like prohibition… we are imaginative and dynamic.”
There are certainly parallels between what’s happening now in Italy and what was going on in the U.S. over a decade ago, but that should not lead one to conclude that their experience is just an emulation of the American craft beer movement.
“The American culture has given the idea of the great freedom the American brewers have,” di Vincenzo explains, “and obviously the way of using hops, but the beers are different. I think they are the expression of two different cultures and also gastronomic culture.”
The crucial difference is that Italian brewmasters are frequently inspired by food aromas and flavors—they design their beers to match specific culinary concepts and profiles, and not the other way around. One of the greatest sources of Italy’s brewing identity is the use of local ingredients to create new and uniquely Italian beers. Specialized honey, wine must, indigenous fruits and herbs (even wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe) are among the ingredients that add a special sense of place to these brews. Brùton uses totally organic IGP spelt from Garfagnana (the area just behind the brewery); Birrificio del Ducato uses melissa (lemon balm) leaves from Campari’s aunt’s country house in its Nuova Mattina saison; and Grado Plato uses Val Mongia chestnuts in its Strada S. Felice and black oat cultivated in Chieri for its Chocarrubica, just to name a few.
If some of these ingredients are unfamiliar, Ferri urges Americans to be open-minded and to expect “good and original ales, new styles and great elegance” in their Italian craft tasting endeavors.
“We are no longer walking blind in the craft beers world, we know how to experiment and where to go,” Lenci points out. “The Italian taste is balanced and gentle in all our typical products but at the same time easily recognizable and characterized. And we have a skill: the attitude to marry beers and food.”
Birra del Borgo Brewmaster: Leonardo di Vincenzo; Region: Lazio birradelborgo.it
Birrificio Almond ‘22 Brewmaster: Jurij Ferri; Region: Abruzzo birraalmond.com
Birrificio Baladin Brewmaster: Teo Musso; Region: Piedmont baladin.it
Birrificio Brùton Brewmaster: Iacopo Lenci; Region: Tuscany bruton.it
Birrificio del Ducato Brewmaster: Giovanni Campari; Region: Emilia-Romagna www.birrificiodelducato.it
Birrificio Grado Plato Brewmaster: Sergio Ormea; Region: Piedmont gradoplato.it
To read about the collaboration between Italian and American craft brewers, click here.