From leather to paper, fashion to architecture, art to wine, and coffee to beer, Italians are perfectionists in every trade. And while Italy has long been known as a country producing some of the world's best wine, over the last decade a new, less regulated industry has started to brew: craft beer.
Just 15 years ago, microbrews were nearly impossible to find in Italy. Instead, the country's beer reputation was built on major brands such as Peroni, Moretti and Nastro Azzuro. In comparison to their American commercial counterparts like Budweiser, these brews are actually palatable, but ultimately they're still beers made in tremendous quantities for mass consumption.
Perhaps in response to the Italian wine world's heavily governed production laws, more recently artisans have found creative freedom via beer. Currently, Italy's craft beer industry runs far less regulated than, say, Germany where, for the last 500 years, brews have had to abide by a Beer Purity Law. Fewer rules in Italy supports room for brewers, especially in Tuscany and Piedmont, to experiment with local ingredients—like chestnuts, ancient grains, farro, spelt, wild honey, seasonal fruits, wine grapes and Italian spices—that give these beers a decidedly Italian flare.
Perhaps in response to the Italian wine world's heavily governed production laws, more recently, artisans have found creative freedom via beer.
But, Italian craft beer production—which has grown dramatically from simple garage beers modeled after English ales to microbrew empires—differs from region, with variations on style. For example, one may find chestnut-enhanced amber ale at breweries in the center of Italy where the ingredient is rampant. Head south, and citrus is frequently mashed into local IPAs.
The bulk of Italian craft beer production began in 1996 thanks to Piedmont-native Teo Musso and Agostino Arioli, the country's craft beer pioneers and founders of Baladin and Lombardy-born Birrificio Italiano, respectively.
Finding themselves in the same place at the same time, both discovered inspiration in neighboring lands of Belgium and Germany, where they firsthand experienced beers brewed with local ingredients. Following this path, they returned to Italy, and began to flavor their own beers with native ingredients, like heritage grains and wild yeast, setting themselves apart from Italy's brewing standard.
In the case of Baladin, Musso successfully turned a tiny garage brewing operation in his home region’s culture capital of Turin into one of the best distributed, known and consumed Italian craft beers today. Baladin has grown astoundingly to more than 15 artisan beer labels, plus a line of sodas, cider and even hop distillations. In major Italian cities like Milan and Rome one will even find Baladin-branded brewpubs.
Following a similar trajectory, Arioli, who also began as a home brewer, now counts a line of 24 beers that are distributed worldwide, in addition to a pub about an hour north of Milan.
Since Baladin and Birrificio Italiano, craft brewers have been popping up like wild mushrooms in the forest. Italy now boasts hundreds of microbreweries, most of which are concentrated in the north where the brewer pioneers began. And these days, with so many players in the field, creative experimentation goes beyond chestnut and spelt.
... when scheming new brews, producers consider international tastes and trends, like sour ales, IPAs and beers with seasonal fruit in the mash ...
According to several brewers in Florence, their customer base is composed of half local and half foreign consumers. Thusly, when scheming new brews, producers often consider international tastes and trends, like sour ales, IPAs and beers with seasonal fruit in the mash—current hot topics. Lately, microbreweries have also been playing with wine grape skin-derived wild yeast, and they've experimented with aging beers in old wine barrels for layered edge and body. It's quite common to find Italian craft beers unfiltered and double fermented in the bottle, and barley wine has become a favored novelty, traditionally inspired by the British, but given the Italian touch through the addition of indigenous heritage grains.
While beer is certainly enmeshed in Italy's drinking culture, the brew still has ground to cover before it becomes as ubiquitous as wine. However, ask any Italian which beverage is best paired with pizza and he/she will most likely say beer. Below, a handful of great Italian craft beers available in the U.S.
Five Great Italian Craft Beers Sold in the U.S.
Almond '22, Abruzzo, Italy
Almond '22, conceived by Italian-Swedish Jurij Ferri, has had some serious success since it began brewing in 2003. Located in the south central region of Abruzzo, this brewery produces fringe beers, but its focus is on classic British and Belgian styles. Right now, one of the biggest trends in Italian craft beer is barley wine, and Almond '22 is a top producer, expressed through its 8.7 percent ABV Torbata. Expect notes of chestnut honey and toasty, malty caramel (this beer's malt is the same that's used during whisky production), which would pair well with a caramelized onion and gorgonzola pizza.
Another notable beer by Almond '22 is their Pink Pepper Italian Pale Ale brewed with, you guessed it, pink peppercorns.
Birrificio Brùton, Tuscany, Italy
Situated in Lucca, in central Tuscany, Brùton was founded in 2006 by former home brewer Iacopo Lenci. Brùton produces a limited number of beers that highlight Italian grains from heritage varieties, like farro (spelt) grown in nearby Garfagnana, a region that's prized for its heritage cultivation. Brùton is also known for its beers that portray an Italian take on international styles, such as Lilith, an American pale ale. Like many Italian craft brewers, Brùton does not filter or pasteurize its brews. But Lenci does brew with American hops and, in the case of Lilith, the beer gives its personality away at the first whiff thanks to its tropical yet astringent citrus bouquet stamped with a touch of caramel. On the palate this 5.5 percent ABV beer shows a silky medium body plus a balance of bitter and sweet. Try pairing it with a Vosges' Smoke & Stout Caramel Bar.
La Luna Rossa
Birrificio del Ducato, Parma, Italy
With a malty melange of bitter Amarena cherries and earthiness, Birrificio del Ducato appeals to the sour beer enthusiast via La Luna Rossa, its 8 percent ABV barrel-aged Italian ruby-hued sour ale. Italian beer producers have caught on to the American desire for sour ales. Mix that with quality ingredients and a penchant for fermentation, and this Parma-based microbrewery might be giving Belgian lambic brewers a run for their money. The philosophy of Ducato is simple: to make superior quality, innovative, small-batch beers focusing on great ingredients. Pair La Luna with a smoked speck pizza or aged Parmesan cheese. The beer's heightened fruity acidity and complexity achieved from barrel-ageing will complement the cheese's salty, umami edge.
Birra Montegioco, Piedmont, Italy
Birra Montegioco, located in Piedmont at the border of Liguria, is a microbrewery whose primarily export is its line of speciality beers. Birra Montegioco is a top producer of barrel-aged barley wines and sour ales, but the bottle one should seek out is Quarta Runa, brewed with baked local peaches. This 7 percent ABV ale is bright and balanced, with notes of pie spices. Pair it with a ricotta and fig pizza to marry savory and creamy notes.
Perle ai Porci
Birra del Borgo, Rome, Italy
English beer culture inspired many Italian craft beer makers, including Roman-born Birrificio del Borgo. Since inception in 1999, the brewery has evolved from producing standard beer styles to seasonal, creatives brews like Christmas spiced ales, orange-spiked rose wine beer, and this Perle ai Porci, an oyster stout brewed with ... oysters. In fact, Perle ai Porci incorporates 15 kilos of boiled oysters from the English coast for every 500 liters of mash! Partake in an experimental pairing with fresh oysters and enjoy the echoing briny finish, or bridge the 5.5 percent ABV stout with fruit-studded pastries.