Italy, though it is shaped like a boot, is not a natural vessel for beer. Italians drink wine, and the politicians — because they, too, drink wine, but also own fields of grapes that make it – are particularly vicious about the tax rate on breweries. But the biggest hurdle for Italy’s brewers is the simple fact that its drinking culture is inherently tied to food; Italians are not apt to go out to the bar after dinner to have a few pints. Italy consumes the lowest amount of beer per capita of any European nation, and when it has been drunk, it’s as a simple, watery thirst-quencher for field hands.
And yet, here we are in 2017, and it’s a well-known secret in world of international craft brewing: Italy is making some of the best damn beer in the world. In fact, Italian brewers are so savvy about combining the best brewing traditions of Belgium, Britain, Germany and especially the U.S., that it could be said the truest melting pot of craft beer today is not America, but Italia.
“Italians learned about beer from Germans, the British and everybody else,” says Bryan Jansing, author of Italy: Beer Country, an exhaustive telling of the birth of craft beer there in the ’90s all the way to its explosive success in the mid-2010s. “And now they’re taking Italian beer knowledge and exporting it back to those countries.”
That’s amazing, given that craft brewing was almost nonexistent in Italy before 1996. That was the year that two of Italy’s most longstanding and influential brewers, Teo Musso and Agostino Arioli, began making beer. Musso opened Birreria Le Baladin in Piozzo; Arioli, Birrificio Italiano in Lombardy. They faced the same problems the first American craft brewers had years before. In an email, Musso wrote that the idea of craft beer was “completely foreign to the Italian public.”
“Pouring cloudy, warmer and foamy beer almost twenty years ago was a crazy challenge,” Arioli says. “People were used to icy Peroni, poured without any foam.”
Such hurdles persisted into the late 2000s, even as Italian beer took off in America. Giovanni Campari, the brewer at del Ducato, another widely praised brewery, tried to get his beer sold at a high-end food store in Italy after opening his brewery in 2007. “They said, ‘Are you kidding, Italian beer? No — only German or Belgian.'” Only after Campari was able to get the same store’s American outlet to sell his beer would the Italian shop sell it. “You Americans are more open-minded,” he says.
Italian brewers’ sustained assault on Italian consumers has, slowly but surely, had its effect. Today, there are over 1,000 breweries, plus a brewer’s organization, UnionBirrai, and a consumer’s group, MoBi, the National Association of Beer Consumers. To be considered craft, Italian beer must be unfiltered and unpasteurized, and come from a brewery that makes fewer than roughly 170,000 barrels of beer a year. (In the U.S., the craft designation covers anyone brewing under 6 million barrels a year.) Jansing estimates that around 98 percent of breweries in the country are much, much smaller than that. That means there are thousands of tiny, artisanal workshops tucked into cities and towns — mostly concentrated in the north, especially Rome and to a lesser extent Milan — making small-batch brews that are just waiting to be discovered. It’s a wonderland, and it should ring a bell for American drinkers. “It’s like taking a leap back 20 years to craft beer in America when it was just getting started,” says Paul Vismara, who co-wrote Italy: Beer Country.
Of course, Italian beer has the same problems as any country where craft brewing explodes (including America). There are bad IPAs produced just to make money; there are plenty of brewers who don’t know what they’re doing. Its unique problems persist, too: Bureaucracy and extremely high tax rates make profit margins tiny, which is reflected in high sticker prices, especially for the small amount of beer that’s exported to the States. But Italians bring to the brewing table two attributes no other country has: ingredient-centric chefs with an eye for subtle flavor pairings, and a willingness to understand, and then break, the styles and techniques of the great beer-making traditions that came before them — Belgian yeasts, English-style dry hopping, the subtlety of a German pilsner.
“To be honest, I’m always a little bit sick of beer styles,” Arioli says. “I don’t like to [think of it] that way. Beer styles are slowly creating a cage around the beers.”
There is, officially, an Italian style of beer, called the Italian Grape Ale. But that’s not what you should seek out. Arioli makes one of Italy’s most sought-after beers, Birrificio Italiano’s Tipopils, or “pilsner-like,” which adds an unfiltered haze and English-style dry hopping to the German style so that it feels like an extremely American creation. In fact, it was Tipopils that inspired an American hit, Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils.
The fusions can also be more intense — like Brett Peat Daydream, a hybridized creature made of a blend of peated barleywine, a Rauch Marzen partly aged in Scotch barrels, and an American-style Brett ale. In the hands of an American brewers’ hands, that might have the complexity of a slap in the face; in the hands of Campari, the founder of del Ducato, the subtleties of all three pieces shine through. “Beer allows you to play,” says Campari. “But when you play, that doesn’t mean you have to be gimmicky.”
Or Baladin’s Xyauyù, a barleywine that undergoes a process of controlled oxidation, first in steel fermenters and then in large oak barrels, and takes about three years before it is ready in its basic version. “It is my most challenging beer,” Musso says. “It took seven years of trials before I understood how to deal with its oxidation.”
Brewers also hone in on their local ingredients to make traditional styles bravissimo. LoverBeer, located in Marentino, brews a kriek called BeerBrugna, using local plums rather than cherries. At Birrificio Montegioco, head brewer Riccardo Franzosi adds his local volpato peaches to a Belgian-style pale ale and calls it Quarta Runa; it’s only available once a year, when the peaches are ripe.
And then there’s just pure mad-scientism. Renzo Losie, the founder of Birrificio Black Barrels, was one of the first brewers in the world outside of Belgium to brew sour beer. Jansing and Vismara once walked in on him brewing inside a storage unit, with a vacuum hooked up to the storage vessel. He was filtering a beer — his Seconda Luna, a golden ale described by a reviewer on the site RateBeer as “woody herbal balsamic dry goodness” — through rocks. It has a 96 percent rating on the site. “He’s crazy,” Jansing says. “He just looked at me like, ‘It’s beer. It’ll be fine.'”