Italian beer: a new sparkle

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Italian craft brewers are creating a thriving scene in a country regarded as a beer backwater
Traditionally, if you were looking for good beer in Italy, there was only one thing you could drink: wine. The country is dominated by two huge bland lager brands, Peroni and Moretti, and even its dark rossa beers offer little excitement.

In the last decade, however, there has been a huge change. Craft beer has taken off in a big way. Italy now has 360 microbreweries and, from nothing, real beer has come to account for 2% of total Italian beer sales.

Particularly up north, it is now relatively easy to find good beer. Visiting Genoa in September, I arrived to find the Super Birra festival taking place on the waterfront. In Venice, Milan and around Lake Como, a minority of the better bars and wine shops now carry interesting local creations, while hardcore hop-heads can hunt out brewpubs such as Milan’s Birrificio Lambrate and the Eataly food stores, which serve beers from Italy’s foremost craft breweries including Le Baladin and Birra del Borgo. Likewise, Rome now has several first-rate beer bars and bottle shops.

Many of these beers are now widely available in Britain, too. You’ll find them in Manchester’s Port Street Beer House, Calls Landing in Leeds, London’s Draft Houses and Cask Pub & Kitchen, as well as several Italian restaurants. Nonna’s, in Sheffield, just held an Italian artisan beer evening and even Italian chain Zizzi is involved. It now stocks Amarcord’s La Gradisca (?4) a crisp, lightly cloudy, slightly grainy beer that hovers in that hinterland between lager and very pale ale.

This is some turnaround considering that in the mid-1990s there was almost no craft beer brewed commercially in Italy. Pioneers Birrificio Lambrate, Birrificio Italiano and Le Baladin’s influential owner Matterino “Teo” Musso only started brewing in 1996. Now, a new microbrewery opens every few weeks; 140 were founded between 2008 and 2010.

Davide Bertinotti, secretary of Movimento Birrario Italiano (MoBI), a consumer organisation similar to CAMRA, says that there are many reasons why craft beer has taken off:

“[It] originally started in 1995, when the Italian parliament passed a bill that made homebrewing legal and simplified some procedures for brewpubs. The explosion came from many factors: a shift from high alcohol – wine – to lower alcohol but flavourful drink consumption, and a new awareness of avoiding drinking and driving; searching for healthy and genuine food and drinks; and the fact that, in Italy, we do not have a beer tradition. What’s new is also fashionable!”

While many of the better Italian beers – del Borgo’s ReAle and its Trentatre Ambrata, or Morgana – are big, fruity, heavily-hopped beers in the American style, Italian brewers also pride themselves on bold experimentation. Using unusual local ingredients, such as chestnuts or the heritage durum wheat Senatore Cappelli to give beers a specific Italian twist, is commonplace. La Superba flavours its Genova “lager” with Ligurian basil – all powerful pine and resin notes, it is best described as “challenging”.

There is also plenty of cross pollination occurring between beer and established wine production techniques. At Le Baladin, Italian beer’s mad professor, Teo Musso (known, among other things for playing music to his beers, claiming it helps his yeasts grow) experiments with ageing beer in old wooden wine barriques, when he isn’t adding whisky yeasts, liquorice or smoked Lapsang Souchong to his (sometimes oxidised) beers.

The one downside to all this creativity is that the beers produced are notoriously expensive. Brewers, Baladin included, have certainly pushed the idea that beer is a high-end alternative to wine, packaging it in 75cl bottles and getting it into restaurants. “Baladin bottles are sold at €12 in beer shops, but you can find them in restaurants at €15-18 per bottle,” says Bertinotti.

Still, the enthusiasm for Italian beers continues to build. The owner of Port Street Beer House, Jonny Heyes, reports trying “some cracking Italian beers” at this year’s Great British Beer Festival from the Revelation Cat, Elav and Extraomnes breweries. But what are your favourite Italian beers, and which other unexpected countries are currently home to exciting craft brewing scenes?