Italy is wine country. Vino is available everywhere. Shops labeled ‘Enoteca’ specialize in offering customers a wide selection of wines. So visitors to Italy might be surprised, while perusing the bottles at a local enoteca, to stumble upon a few elegant and distinctive 750ml bottle labeled birra (beer). In fact, over the past five years, the craft beer movement in Italy has grown rapidly and local beers are starting to take their place alongside the best wines in the country.
Since the mid-nineties, a handful of Italian craft brewers have transferred the passion for food flavor and quality to beer.
A love of good food may be the impulse driving Italy’s new exploration of beer. The country celebrates good food: it has brought us the Slow Food movement, and houses the European Food Safety Agency, which advises the European Union on food legislation. Since the mid-nineties, a handful of Italian craft brewers have transferred this passion for food flavor and quality to beer. The beer styles they produce range from authentic English pale ales all the way to barrel-aged or spontaneously fermented beers and everything in between. This variety and individualism is a reflection of the Italian food culture, which has always been regionally driven.
The same dish, when prepared in two neighboring towns, will often vary greatly in ingredients and spices. Wines from different areas reflect the local terroir, using grapes that are typical of the locale. Similarly, Italian craft brewers are creating beers that take into account their local culture, foods and terroir, as well as their own brewing philosophy. They draw their inspiration from different traditions, some having trained in Belgium and others in Germany or England. But they combine their training and their preferred styles with local ingredients or materials in unique ways. The end result is a brewing culture that is rich and varied, encompassing a wide range of flavorful and distinctive brands.
One of the early pioneers of the current craft beer movement is Teo Musso, whose Baladin brand is arguably the most recognized name in Italian craft beer. Musso’s approach in the early days of Baladin brewery was to present beer as an alternative to wine in the context of fine dining, with the beers packaged in custom-designed, branded 750ml bottles. The beers themselves are also very bold. Many of Musso’s early beers were Belgian-inspired and included saison, witbier and Belgian strong ales. He also likes to experiment with new styles, like the intriguing Egyptian-inspired Nora brewed with myrrh and ginger, or the delicious sherry-like 13 percent Xyauyù.
Baladin beers are available all over Italy, and quite a few are exported to the United States. Visitors to Piozzo, where Baladin brewery and pub are situated, will discover a wide range of special reserve Baladin beers, highlighting how much Musso enjoys experimenting with aging as well as using different yeasts. Baladin’s motto is “Gusto in Evoluzione,” meaning evolving flavor or taste and, over the years, Musso’s innovations have kept the line fresh and intriguing.
One of Musso’s most delightful projects is Casa Baladin, also in the town of Piozzo, just across the piazza from Baladin pub. Casa Baladin is a beer restaurant, with rooms for overnight stays. It was decorated by Musso’s team, and each room has its own whimsical character. There is a Turkish bath, a tearoom and, most importantly, a dining area where multiple-course dinners are served nightly alongside complementary beers. Whenever he’s in town, Musso himself likes to serve the dinner, presenting the various beers and answering questions. A number of the Baladin beers are designed with fine dining in mind and they really shine alongside the variety of tasty dishes that the Casa Baladin team proposes. Casa Baladin is a beer-lover’s dream, and a necessary stop on any Italian beer tour.
Musso’s latest venture is called Open Baladin. The idea behind Open Baladin is to release an “open source” beer that “belonged to everyone” by publishing the full recipe and brewing instructions online. The beer itself, also called Open, is a full-flavored, hoppy, drinkable pale ale. Musso has decided to reinforce the open source concept by sponsoring a homebrew competition, in partnership with the newly formed MOBI Italian beer movement, for which all entries will be based on the Open recipe.
Unlike the majority of Baladin’s previous brews, Open is geared more towards pub culture than fine dining. To emphasize this, in April Musso opened a new pub called Open Baladin in Santa Vittoria D’Alba, twenty minutes outside Piozzo. The pub has six draught lines, which include Open as well as a rotating selection of Italian craft beers. Another Open Baladin pub is slated to open in Rome this coming September.