In doing research for The Beer Bible, I had to make some very tough decisions about how to use my time and money. There are probably a good dozen countries that deserve to be visited and documented, but I couldn’t visit them all. Ireland, out. (An Irish blogger finally convinced me to skip his home country.) Netherlands, out. Scandinavia, out. I expect to be roasted for those decisions, and I don’t have much defense. And maybe I’ll be roasted for this one, too:

Italy? In.

But on this point I have a multitude of defenses. The best Italian beer is not only world-class, but some of the best beer I’ve ever tasted. But more than that, Italians have, in just 19 short years, developed their own brewing traditions so that it’s possible to talk about “Italian-style” beer. It’s one thing when a country’s breweries develop the skill and knowledge to reproduce quality examples of existing styles. It’s another, far rarer thing when they develop their own styles. So how did they get here, and what are the markers of “Italian-ness?” Here’s a primer.

Three Tracks

In the mid-1990s, Italy was about where the U.S. was 20 years earlier. The only beer presence were the large lager breweries that had been making pilsner-type beers for decades. There was no Italian brewing tradition at all. For the pioneers, being the first meant figuring out all the logistics—a daunting task—but it came with the opportunity to begin from scratch. Part of their challenge would be educating their future customers anyway, so they might as well brew the beers they liked. Bruno Carilli, who founded Toccalmatto in Parma, put it this way: “Our fortune is that we have no tradition. So we are quite free to experiment. Clearly it depends on the brain of each brewer only, the ideas, the creativity. It is obvious that we have only to produce salable beers to survive.”

Into this vacuum stepped two important figures. Agostino Arioli and Teo Musso both started developing a passion for beer in the 1980s. Arioli, technically inclined, was trying to figure out how to homebrew in high school. Because nobody was homebrewing there at the time, he developed connections in Germany through his father for the tools to make his own beer. Following college, he worked for two brewpubs in Germany before returning to Italy to found Birrifio Italiano in 1997. Because of his background and connection to Germany, he focused on lagers.

Teo Musso with vintage bottles from his private stash (Photo by Jeff Alworth)

Musso’s twin passions of music and beer led him to start a pub in his hometown of Piozzo. If Arioli’s propensity was toward the technical, Musso’s was creative. (He looks more like a musician than a brewer.) He opened the pub in 1986, stocking it with beer from around Europe. He was especially drawn to the beers of Belgium, and in the early 90s began traveling and talking to breweries there about the possibility of starting his own. In 1996, he sought the help of Jean-Louis Dits at La Brasserie à Vapeur and welded his own five-hectoliter brewery, starting Baladin.

Thus were born the first two tracks, based on the beers of Germany and Belgium. But, much like breweries in the United States, they didn’t have any particularly fealty to those traditions and immediately started tweaking them. Arioli’s lagers were fermented a bit warmer and are tinged with the fruit of subtle esters. He also appreciated the English practice of dry-hopping and saw no reason not to use it on his pilsner, Tipopils, one of the most influential beers in Italy. Musso, meanwhile, was quick to experiment with culinary ingredients and barrel aging, drawing on the twin Italian inspirations of wine and food.

Toccalmatto’s Bruno Carilli (Photo by Jeff Alworth)

The final track developed out of the burgeoning new-brewery scene in the 2000s and took its cue from the United States—but only to a point. Italian brewers were impressed with the hoppy verve of American ales, but found them unbalanced. Toccalmatto’s Carilli is a proponent of this school, with a number of hop-forward ales (which also borrow some elements of English and Belgian traditions), and he speaks for his country in describing his approach. “A beer with an American taste but European drinkability. Some American IPAs have too much caramel—it is not my taste. I don’t like so much caramel and body.” He uses pilsner malt and late-addition hops along with characterful yeasts that sometimes border on the Belgian.

The Culinary Approach

Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano

It took me awhile to nail down what connected the three tracks of Italian brewing, but I think it comes down to the food. Beer is never taken on its own terms, but thought of as one element in a gastronomic experience. It is so embedded that as I traveled around the country, I kept getting blank stares when I asked about it. Of course the beer has to harmonize with food. It’s too obvious to acknowledge. I had to unpack this whole dynamic before I saw the light of recognition dawn in Agostino Arioli’s eyes. He regularly travels to the U.S., and has seen how beer is treated here—divorced from the considerations of food. He had seen brewers fail to appreciate this connection.

Ah, yes, he said. “In Italy we grow up where you can spend hours and hours on Saturday and Sunday discussing sauce—the spaghetti sauce or anything we are eating for lunch. The whole family and the relatives and parents and so on and we can discuss food for a long time. This is better; last time was worse. It’s overcooked, or it’s too rare. Really, we talk about food a lot. We really care about food. So this probably automatically require us to brew beers that can fit with our sense of what is pleasant, what is balanced.”

Teo Musso drew the connection to wine, which has long occupied the favored role at the dinner table. “To me there is a very straight link between the beer and the wine.” It was one reason he began aging his beers in wine barrels. “What is important is that they stay between eight months to one year in a barrique where there was wine. Part of the soul of the wine moves to the beer; that makes the difference from the normal barley wine to this beer.”

The Beers to Know

The result of this culinary approach are beers that are extremely balanced. Unlike the American tradition, where intensity is prized, the Italians favor harmony. Hoppy beers are not too hoppy; sour ales never too sour. Arioli’s simple lagers, on the other hand, are not too simple—he tries to add “complexity and elegance.” Beers shouldn’t be so strong as to overwhelm food, but neither are they made too simply, to be drunk alone, by the liter in a pub. That’s the Italian way.

Giampaolo Sangiorgi (left), working the bar at the Lambrate pub in Milan. (Photo by Jeff Alworth)

If you have a chance to visit Northern Italy (the richest vein runs from Milan to Turin), look for these beers. They’ll paint a great picture of the potential of this young tradition.

– Italiano Tipopils. Arioli’s masterpiece (and Matt Brynildson’s inspiration for Firestone Walker’s Pivo Pils) is a creamy, rich pils with a gentle honey note, a soft graininess, and generous spicy hopping.

– Baladin Nazionale. Musso has been working to bring barley and hops to Italy, and Nazionale is the result of 100% Italian-grown ingredients. It’s also a great, unebellished example of the Musso approach: lots of yeast character, rustic malts, and lemony hops.

– LoverBeer BeerBera. Valter Loverier took the influence of wine a step further—he inoculates the beer by adding Barbera d’Alba grapes, fermenting BeerBera only with the yeasts on their skins. It produces a wonderfully gentle tartness saturated with flavors of Satsuma and wild berries.

– Toccalmatto Re Hop. The name means “king hop,” and is one of several pales and IPAs Bruno Carilli makes. Some have hints of bergamot, others of lemon. Re Hop is citrusy but leans toward mint. It’s delicate and sessionable.

– Lambrate Gaina. Another founding brewery that has developed a proclivity for hops. My favorite beer, a pale ale, is so fruity I asked what they had added. Nothing: they achieved the flavor of strawberry and apricot through the alchemy of hops and yeast. Yet it is dry and incredibly refreshing.

– Montegioco Quarta Runa. Barrel-aged sours are increasingly common, and this one uses whole peaches. It is lightly acidic, aromatic as a peach orchard, and limned with a lightly bitter amaretto that comes from the pits.

– Ducato Luna Rossa. A more assertive barrel-aged sour, the “red moon” gets its color from Morello and Amarena cherries and is blended to produce a dry, vinous beer reminiscent of oude krieks in Belgium.

– Como Malthus Birolla. Beers made with chestnut flour are an indigenous development. For centuries Italians have ground chestnuts and used them in baking, so it makes sense breweries would follow the bakers’ lead. You mainly detect the chestnut in Birolla’s creamy density, but the brewery uses roasted chestnut flour, which offers a hint of smokiness.

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Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.