Ale in a world of wine: the Italian craft beer scene

Ale in a world of wine: the Italian craft beer scene

by Jacopo Mazzeo 27 November 2015

Jacopo Mazzeo talks us through the Italian breweries and beers that are starting to pop up in specialist shops across the UK.

Jacopo Mazzeo is a freelance beer writer and sommelier with a passion for gastronomy.

Jacopo Mazzeo is a freelance beer writer and sommelier with a passion for gastronomy; he is also a British Guild of Beer Writers member and an international judge. Since 2003 he has been travelling and beer hunting around Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Brazil, Finland, Spain, France, just to name a few, and is always looking forward to the next trip. When he is not travelling, he is busy tutoring beer tastings and organising events across Southern England and London.

Craft beer is a worldwide phenomenon – you can find locally brewed ales or lagers pretty much anywhere. Italy is no exception; if you think Italian beer is all about Peroni, then think again. The Mediterranean peninsula now has more than 800 breweries, and the number keeps growing by around fifty every year. It all started back in 1996, when a bunch of enlightened brewers opened premises almost simultaneously in different northern Italian locations. The most important ones were Baladin Brewery in Piedmont and Birrificio Italiano in Lombardy, inspired by the Belgian and the German brewing traditions respectively. I remember the first time I tasted Birrificio Italiano’s flagship beer, a lager that they call Tipopils (which roughly translates into ‘Kind of pils’) and had an epiphany. Once you try anything like that, there is no going back – you raise your standards and few other lagers will ever be able to please your palate in the same way.

It goes without saying that Italy was, and still is, a wine country. To appeal to a nation of wine drinkers is not an easy task – early brewers and beer enthusiasts were well aware of this. Yet despite the difficulties, they succeeded by creating a valid alternative to wine of equal quality. Nonetheless, the influence of wine culture is undeniable and, in fact, is probably one of the elements that make the Italian beer scene so fascinating and different from others.

Grapes and glasses

As of yet, the only acknowledged Italian beer style is called ‘Grape Ale’. The Beer Judge Certification Programme says that ‘it represents a communion between beer and wine promoted by the large local availability of different varieties of grapes across the country. It can be an expression of territory, biodiversity and the creativity of the brewer’. In short, it is a sort of fruit beer, where wine must is added to the wort at the fermentation stage.

But there’s much more that makes the Italian beer scene unique than grape ale. Back in 2004, Baladin’s head brewer Teo Musso and Italian beer guru Lorenzo Dabove (who also goes by the name Kuaska) jointly designed a wine-like goblet meant for beer-tasting. It was called Teku – an acronym of Teo and Kuaska – and produced by German company Rastall. The glass quickly became popular in pubs and bars, thus transcending its original tasting purpose. People were clearly keen to approach beer by enjoying it in relatively small quantities and take time to fully appreciate its flavours. Even today, 100ml or 150ml measures are much more common than full pints at festivals. After all, a small taster rather comes in handy when you face a mind-boggling variety of beer styles.

Teku glass
Teku glasses are now widely used to taste beer across Europe
Teo Musso
Teo Musso of Baladin Brewery is a pioneer of the Italian craft beer scene

A perfect match

Smaller measures also helped beer become more accepted at the dining table. Italy is a beer country inspired by literally all brewing traditions, which when combined with the staggering diversity of Italian gastronomy results in endless pairing possibilities. Italian brewers also love to create special beers by using locally sourced ingredients. These may be fruits, for instance, such as peaches or apricots, which are added to the wort like grape ale. Some other ingredients are used in place of malted barley, such as chestnuts or spelt, and unusual spices, tobacco or coffee, just to name a few, are used as well. Many of these experiments reveal the brewers’ incredible creativity; aside from the influence of wine, Italian brewers and beer aficionados benefit from a drive that is really unique.

Just like early Italian brewers, some intrepid pioneers are slowly, yet successfully, bringing Italian craft beer onto British soil. By now, beers from breweries like Elav, Opperbacco, Birrificio del Ducato, Baladin, Brewfist, Toccalmatto or Birra del Borgo are starting to become more common in specialist shops. If you’ve never heard of them, just keep a watchful eye; you’ll soon get a chance to try some and certainly won’t regret it.