Italy is well known as one of the premiere countries producing wine, but has seen a boom in craft beer over the past 15 years. The same strictures that have helped maintain Italy as a great wine country have also stifled a lot of creativity in the market, which has shifted focus towards beer. Beer production is mostly unregulated there, with the major producers like Peroni and Moretti having a comfortable hold, but not regulating out smaller breweries. Thanks to this lax regulation, there’s been a lot of incredible innovation and beer coming out of the country that has started to gain notice in the United States.
It’s not hard to credit Teo Musso from Birrifico Le Baladin and Agostino Arioli from Birrifico Italiano with helping form the Italian craft beer scene. Both of them starting in the mid 90’s, they helped forge an Italian identity with their beer. Looking to stand apart from Germany’s purity laws and rigor and create separation, they started to focus heavily on local ingredients that gave their beers a decidedly regional flavor. From chestnut featuring in a lot of central Italian breweries, citrus heavily in the south, and northern Italy having a strong heritage grain flair, Italy has embraced their local flavor. Teo and Agostino have both turned their small microbreweries into much larger productions, gaining international acclaim for their beers.
Due to the rather youthful state of Italian beer outside of mass produced lager (which is still fairly decent considering the scale), there is no definitive Italian style. There has been a lot of experimentation on tradition by the newer craft brewers. Due to Italy’s rich wine heritage, there have been quite a few wine/beer hybrids coming out, one of my favorites being L’Equilibrista from Birra del Borgo, a Chianti/beer hybrid that utilizes yeast found on Chianti skins, co-fermented with the Sangiovese must, and then finished with a champagne yeast strain that bursts with effervescence figgy wine character. Del Borgo also produces a style not many other breweries touch, but is an odd favorite of mine, oyster stout. Perle ai Porci utilizes 15kg of oysters for every 500L of wort and a small addition of bean clams that add a rich salinity and body, borrowing from a more northern European tradition of stout. LoverBeer produces BeerBrugna, a sour ale with local plums, LeBaladin makes a beer called Terre with barley grown in their own grain fields and utilizes local black rice and then aged in second use wine barrels, Birrifico Grado Plato makes a fantastic amber ale called Strada S. Felice that uses Piemontese chestnuts, and that is just a fraction of the beer that uses local ingredients to produce flavors unlike anything else in the world.
If you ever find yourself in Italy, don’t think of it only as a great food and wine destination. There’s also a lot of really great beer to be had, and you’d be remiss to sleep on it. For the time being, you’ll just have to be like the rest of us and try and scrounge around your local bottle shop and find the hidden Italian gems.