’m a diehard wine drinker who hadn’t been particularly moved by Italy’s booming craft beer movement, at least not until this year’s summer-long heat wave. North-to-south, Italy has been suffocating since mid-June.
Suddenly, craft beer has climbed up my list of interests. When I last hosted a beer tasting, a bunch of enthusiasts rightly challenged what I knew about brews given my wine inclinations. A perfectionist, I stubbornly dug into books and pubs.
Despite Italy’s ingrained wine culture, ignoring the rise of the craft beer industry also means setting aside a key aspect of the country’s food and beverage scene. Beer production has been on an upswing since a 1990s renaissance that began in north Italy and produced a handful of home beer-makers. Today, there are some 600 producers sprinkled throughout the country. There are home-brewers and microbreweries, with styles inspired by classic German, Belgian, British and U.S. beers. The number of Italian-born brews is also increasing. Italian brewers may not have a long and alluring brewing history but they do have creativity and imagination, generating beers with an unmistakably Italian character.
No conversation about Italian craft beer is complete without Teo Musso, the illustrious Italian brewer of Birra Baladin and the man who almost single-handedly kick-started the Italian artisan beer movement. In 1986, Musso put together a list more than 200 of his favorite European brews to serve at Le Baladin in Piozzo, Piedmont. Ten years and a few trips to Belgium later, Musso turned Baladin into a brewpub that experimented with classic styles and ingeniously added local ingredients including chestnuts, spices, cereals and grains (“what grows together goes together,” goes the old adage). Musso developed food friendly brews in much the same way as vintners create wines based on food pairings.
Now, Italy’s array of IPAs, lagers and stouts are flanked by less conventional brews. Earthy and tart, fruity and funky, there are beers for every taste. So welcome to new, beer-friendly Italy. Here are some of my favorites.
— Almond 22 Pink IPA (Pink Pepper Italian Pale Ale) • Crisp and slightly bitter, this brew is light, flavorful, and made with pink peppercorns. It has delicate spicy notes coupled with pink grapefruit, rose and grassy aromas. Have it with fried zucchini and eggplant or roast pork. 6% ABV; €5 for 37cl.
— Baladin Nora • Amber in color, the Egyptian “Ale Nora” is one of Baladin’s spiced beers. Made with Kamut (oriental wheat), it offers gorgeous notes of ginger, citrus, honey and caramel. Resin from Ethiopia (and few hops) round out the flavor. It goes well with couscous and all spicy cuisine. 6.8% ABV; €10 for 75cl.
— Barley BB10 • An Imperial Stout is winy. Not surprising since the brewer uses must (a.k.a. wort) from the Sardinian grape variety Cannonau. It smells like cocoa, prune and black cherries and tastes like caramel, chocolate and dried figs. Drink it with bollito misto alla Piemontese or a dessert like ricotta and cherry cake. 10 %ABV; €18 for 75cl.
— Birra del Borgo Enkir • The ancient grain Einkorn, thought to be the oldest form of cultivated wheat, is the standout ingredient in this beer. A Saison-style beer (low in alcohol), it’s made with indigenous ingredients, has a light body and a dry finish. Enkir smells spicy, with hints of resin and yellow peaches. It’s ideal with a faro (spelt) salad or delicate cheeses. 6.1%ABV; €10 for 75cl.
— Birrificio Italiano Tipopils • Tipopils is a German-style pilsner. This subtly bitter lager has hints of honey, citrus and herbs, with a malty, graham cracker taste ahead of a black pepper finish. Ideal with baked brie and/or prosciutto. 5.2% ABV; €9 for 75cl.