All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 3
July 1, 2009 By

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.

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.

When in Rome

The Roman Open Baladin will be just across the river from two other fabulous Italian craft beer establishments in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. One of these beer locals, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’ football pub, is often listed among the top beer destinations in the world. The Ma Che Siete serves beers from all over Europe. Its owners seek out new products, driving to various European breweries and establishing personal rapport with the brewers in order to get their hands on rare and interesting brews.

Right across the street is Bir & Fud, a restaurant that features over fifty Italian breweries. The carefully crafted menu promotes fresh local ingredients as well as beer cuisine. The owners of Bir & Fud, brewer Leonardo diVincenzo and Manuele Colonna (who also co-owns the Ma Che Siete), will be collaborating with Musso on the Roman Open Baladin pub, which will have fifty draught lines, featuring Open, a wide selection of Italian craft beer and imports.

The Italian craft beers featured at Open Baladin, will include a range of co-owner Leonardo DiVincenzo’s brews. His brewery, Birrificio del Borgo, is located just an hour outside Rome in the town Borgorose. (Rome currently has no breweries within city limits, but has at least one on the way.) Del Borgo’s ReAle pale ales have garnered many awards since the brewery opened in 2005. DiVincenzo is a fan of the English beer tradition and all of his beers are very aromatic and balanced.

DiVincenzo’s more unusual beers include a tobacco-flavored beer called Ke To Re Porter and Genziana, flavored with gentian root, which is commonly used locally in digestive liquors. What is interesting to note about this beer is the way the bitterness of the gentian replaces hops in the finish. Another of the local ingredients that Di Vincenzo incorporates in his brewing is chestnut. The local tradition is to roast chestnuts over an open fire. DiVincenzo uses these fire-roasted chestnuts to impart an earthy, slightly smokey character to Birra del Borgo’s otherwise hoppy and lively CastagnAle.

Although there are more than thirty chestnut beers in Italy, each one reflects the specific area in which it was made. Scarampola brewery, in Liguria, for example, has a beer called Nivura, which uses chestnuts that are smoked by a local co-op. Scarampola brewer, Maurizio Ghidetti Flibus also makes Nº8, a witbier brewed with the local chinotto citrus fruit (instead of the usual orange peel). His flagship brew is IPA (Italian pale ale) in which he uses grapefruit peels and juice to accent the flavor of Cascade hops. The result is a lively full-bodied IPA with a distinct grapefruit note.

Housed in a beautiful twelfth century monastery, Scarampola only produces three beers on a large scale for the time being. Ghidetti Flibus spends a long time fine-tuning his recipes and is known for the quality and craftsmanship of his beer. There is also a new line of “Birra dell’ Abazia” beers in the works, which Ghidetti Flibus is dedicating to the Abbey in which he brews.

Marrying Wine and Beer

Brewer Riccardo Franzoni of Montegioco brewery, situated an hour north of Genoa, has found two distinct ways to celebrate his region. He believes in using local ingredients in his beers because he feels that there are no malts or hops that can impart a typically Italian character. His witbier is made using the coriander that is cultivated by his next-door neighbor and he has a golden-colored, subtly flavored peach beer called Quarta Runa, made with local peaches. Franzoni’s strength lies in staying true to the original flavor of the ingredient he wants to feature and building an appropriate beer profile around it.

Franzoni also celebrates regional character by aging his beers in wine barrels in order to capture the essence of locally produced wines. Dolii Raptor (meaning barrel thief), for example, spends six months in Barbera wine barrels, imparting a cherry-like note that melds with Brettanomyces, pineapple, pepper, caramel and vinous notes in this extremely complex beer. Another Montegioco beer that has spent time in Barbera wine barrels is La Mummia. After eighteen months in the barrel, this light-bodied beer has a crisp acidity with lemon and wood notes. Franzoni has produced two versions of the award-winning Mummia, one bottled as-is and the other re-fermented in the bottle.

Barrel-aging is now a growing trend in Italy but the one Italian craft brewery that has always been closely associated with wine barrels is Birrificio Torrechiara, better known by its brand name Panil. The Torrechiara brewery is located right next door to the family winery. Although brewer Renzo Losi originally started brewing in 2000 to break with the family’s winemaking tradition, he soon started integrating wine barrels and yeasts into some of his beers with great results.

Losi is also inspired by Belgian beer: his most recent project was a spontaneously fermented beer called Divina for which he literally left vats of wort outside overnight before transferring them into stainless steel fermenters. The result is an effervescent beer with complex pineapple, lychee, pepper and musty notes and a crisp hoppy finish. All the Torrechiara beers are complex and flavorful and, although it may be the power of suggestion, it does seem that each Panil beer has its own unique vinous note.

Also starting to experiment with barrel aging is Giovanni Campari, of Birrificio del Ducato, in the Emiglia Romagna region of Italy. Run by an enthusiastic team of three friends, Del Ducato brewery has garnered international attention since opening in 2007. Campari likes to play with ingredients, styles and techniques and he approaches each new beer as a journey of discovery. The very tasty Sally Brown, for example, is an exploration of malts in which Campari strategically uses 11 different malts and grains. It lies somewhere between a stout and a porter, with a sumptuous mouthfeel and rich chocolate flavor that leads into a roasted finish.

The hops counterpart is A.F.O. (Ale For Obsessed), which makes calculated use of ten different hop varieties. Del Ducato also make a fabulous pilsner-style beer and a very tasty spiced saison called New Morning. The Del Ducato team takes pride in being the first Italian brewery to win a medal at the European Beer Star, for their Verdi Imperial stout, brewed with hot chilis.

Hops Infatuation

A short drive away from Del Ducato brewery is one of Italy’s newer craft breweries, Toccalmatto, open since October of last year. Toccalmatto’s hoppy beers made quite a splash at the Pianeta Birra trade show in Rimini this past February. It is fair to say that the owner, Bruno Carilli, is hops-obsessed. The equipment in the brewery includes a hop-back, which he designed himself. Carilli has also planted a range of hop varietals, which he hopes to use in the Toccalmatto brands once they are ready.

Carilli’s exploration of hops extends beyond bitterness into balance, aroma and flavor, and each of the brewery’s five hoppy beers has its own unique profile. The Re Hop, for example, is a typical citrusy American style pale ale with Cascade hops. Rude Boy, on the other hand, uses Challenger and Fuggles to get what Carilli calls a “rougher,” earthy hop character. There’s more to Toccalmatto than hops, though. Of particular note is Fumè du Sanglier, a rich smokey ale with lingering roasted notes, brewed with malts that the brewer, Andrea Paini, smokes himself. Future plans at the brewery include cask-conditioned and barrel-aged beers.

Italy is also home to a large number of exceptional and unique brewpubs. Just north of Milan, in the small town of Lurango Marinone, is Birrificio Italiano, where Agostino Arioli has been brewing since 1996. Germany-trained Arioli has won a number of awards for his Tipopils and Bi-bock brands. They are both tasty and refreshing although, as Arioli point out, they are not strict interpretations of their respective styles.

Alongside his range of German and English-inspired brews are a number of Arioli’s more fanciful creations. Fleurette, for example, is a refreshing, aromatic ale brewed with violets, roses, honey, rye and elderberry. Then there is the dangerously drinkable Scires, a 7.5 percent oak-aged sour cherry beer. Arioli is currently collaborating with Stefano Cossi from Thornbridge Brewery in England to design a barleywine-style beer, which will be brewed once a year both in Italy and in England, then aged in wine barrels to capture the character of local wines.

Birrificio Italiano’s latest project is called Musa. It is a series of four seasonal beers made using the second runnings from Amber Shock Doppelbock. The summer version is brewed with lemons, the fall one with seasonal fruits (grapes, apples or chestnuts), the winter version with cocoa and the spring one with black locust and elderflower.

Birrificio Italiano brewpub is lively and welcoming. On Mondays, guests can enjoy a night of live jazz while sipping on a pint of the wonderful Cinnamon Bitter Ale, served on a hand pump. Arioli’s brother, Stefano, runs the kitchen. The food is all made from scratch and highlights local ingredients as well as traditional dishes from the Ariolis’ mother’s native Trentino region.

Behind the scenes, Arioli is meticulous in his approach to brewing, with an extensive lab at the brewpub where he tests everything from potential yeast cultures to the physical design and durability of his beer bottles. He is also very active in nurturing the industry, organizing courses for prospective brewers, brewpub owners, and beer judges. He runs a yearly homebrew competition in December, and hosts beer-tasting or food pairing evenings at Birrificio Italiano a few times a year.

As a pioneer in the industry, Arioli has always been very hands-on with beer education because he feels that the best way to convince people to drink craft beer is to help them understand it. Every spring, Birrificio Italiano celebrates Pilsner Pride. This fun and informative weekend includes live music, various beer- tasting seminars and a wide selection of pilsners. For the first time this year, Arioli is proud to announce that Pilsner Pride will be featuring Italian craft pilsners exclusively.

Orange Blossoms and Ginger

In Milan proper is another of Italy’s early brewpubs: Birrificio Lambrate, which opened its doors in 1997. The draught selection at the pub includes a wide range of fresh beers that are clearly brewed with the session drinker in mind, including Ghisa, a complex, dark ale with strong smoky notes from the use of Bamberg malts. Lambrate also makes seasonal bottled products, for example the 2008 Brighella Christmas beer, brewed with orange blossoms and ginger and the rich Bricòla strong ale, both of which are warming, complex and dangerously drinkable.

The atmosphere at Birrificio Lambrate is laid-back and welcoming. The food can best be described as Italian-style pub grub, including healthy servings of seasonal grilled vegetables alongside freshly prepared meat and potato dishes, of which a selection is usually cooked in beer. Lambrate is always packed in the evening, but no matter the crowd, bartenders are meticulous in their pour and will take their time to make sure that each beer is served with care.

Also painstaking with service is Bi-Du brewpub, where they combine a German glass-rinsing system that includes a foam-protecting agent with a Belgian head cutter to achieve their ideal pour. Bi-Du is in the town of Rodero and the brewer, Beppe Vento, is known for his whimsical beers. The Bi-Du line includes two regular brews: Rodersch Kölsch and ArtigianAle, a hybrid between an English bitter and a strong ale.

There are also fifteen seasonal beers that Vento will offer at different times. These include Confine, a warming chocolate-flavored porter, as well as Gelsobira, a tart hoppy ale brewed with Sicilian mulberry. Perhaps the most unusual Bi-Du beer is SALTinMALTO, brewed with Hawaiian black lava salt. The salt is definitely present in the finish, but works really well with the overall flavour of this Gose-inspired ale.

Situated at the foot of the Alps, near the French border, Troll is another Italian brewpub producing a few unusual beers. One of Troll’s most talked about beers is Shangrila, a dubbel brewed with Himalayan spices. They also serve a lavender-flavored pilsner called Dorina. Both of these beers succeed in striking a harmonious balance between the flavor of the beer and the added spices. The Troll beer lineup also includes Belgian, English and American-inspired brews.

The menu at Troll is meat-based, with a grill in the middle of the pub. The owner, Alberto, collaborates with a cheese maker in the neighboring village of Palanfre’ to produce Troll beer-washed cheeses as well as a spectacular ricotta to which they add the same spices that are used in the Shangrila. In the winter, Alberto sometimes serves a mulled version of his 9 percent Palanfrina chestnut beer, to which he adds clove, cinnamon and spices. Although it is a bit off the beaten track, Troll is well worth the drive.

School for Brewing

Two hours away from Troll, in the City of Neive, is Birrificio Citabiunda brewpub, housed in a former school. Citabiunda has a great menu that reflects local cuisine. The beer lineup includes a wide range of citrus and spiced beers. Brewer Marco Marengo has a knack for subtly combining various ingredients to capture a specific flavor or “idea.” His Mary, for example, is a 4.5 percent beer inspired by Belgian blondes, but brewed with the addition of chamomile, anise and juniper berries. The result is a rich and complex ale with spice and gooseberry-like notes.

Marengo’s line of beers includes an interesting array of citrus beers. SensuAle is rich grapefruit beer with citrus and vinous notes, brewed using champagne yeast. Then there is the wit-inspired Bianca Neive, a refreshing beer brewed with orange peels, and Serpica, a bold lime and ginger beer. It is interesting to note that hops are virtually undetectable in the Citabiunda beers.

An hour north of Neive, in Chieri, is another of Italy’s best-known brewpubs: Grado Plato. The menu at Grado Plato features 20 snail dishes, including some very tasty homemade snail-stuffed ravioli. Brewer Sergio Ormea has also gotten a lot of attention for his rich and chewy cocoa-infused Chocarrubica, made with so many raw ingredients that it is mashed twice (instead of the usual once).

Ormea’s newest beer, Nanorò, was brewed to raise funds for a brick-building project in Chieri’s sister city of Nanoro in Burkina Faso. Ormea describes it as a fantasy of what an African beer might taste like, brewed using grains that are typical of the Nanoro region, among other things. The result is a fragrant, earthy beer with a touch of smoke. Although Ormea’s line of Grado Plato beers include a wide range of flavors, he doesn’t like to use wild and unusual spices. Instead, Ormea prefers to work with traditional beer ingredients in order to create his range of remarkable and complex beers.

The young craft beer movement in Italy is in full swing, with over 245 craft breweries in the country and new ones opening every day. The variety of styles, influences and flavors that these brewers offer defy description or categorization, but this diversity and experimentation is the strength of the movement and has resulted in a phenomenal array of beers. The only common traits that Italian craft brewers share are passion, individuality and attention to detail, all of which are contributing to making Italy an exciting craft beer destination.