The New Birra Italiana
A new day has dawned for Italian beer, as a unique class of artisans drastically changes the landscape of the country’s brews.
Perched at 1,000 feet above sea level, Bricco di Neive, population 60, overlooks some of the most prized vineyards in Barbaresco. In Piedmontese dialect, bricco or bric refers to the highest peak of a group of hills in the region. For generations, locals, including famed winemaker Bruno Giacosa, have spent their days crafting some of Italy’s finest wines here. While many climb these remote hills to taste the fruits of their labor, this small province also has become a destination for another prize, one that draws crowds of up to 300 on any given Saturday. They come from around the world to drink the beer at the brewery, bar and restaurant CitaBiunda.
This craft beer outpost is responsible for elegant brews like BiancaNeive, a rich wheat beer with pronounced aromas of banana, orange peel and coriander, and SensuAle, a corpulent amber ale with surprisingly complex aromas. They, among others, are the handcrafted products of Marco Marengo, a 32-year-old brewer from nearby Alba, who started CitaBiunda with his childhood friend, Stefano Lombardi, in the center of Neive five years ago.
Today, Marengo produces 35,000 liters per year, and he’s not alone. There are currently more than 430 microbreweries operating in Italy, and this number is expected to reach 500 by the end of the year. Fifteen years ago, annual consumption of artisanal beer was about 4,200 U.S. barrels—today it is 383,475 U.S. barrels, says Teo Musso, owner of the Le Baladin brewery, bar and restaurant empire. Quite a wave, considering the first bottles of craft Italian beer appeared on the market in the mid-1990s.
From Torino to Taormina, “birra artigianale”—unpasteurized and unfiltered beer made on a small scale from quality ingredients—has won the hearts of the food savvy. It is a trend that few saw coming in a notoriously wine-centric culture. But a combination of creative, bold brewers, regulatory freedom and a fan base with a receptive palate has catapulted it into the spotlight of the contemporary Italian food scene.
When Marengo asked the mayor of Bricco di Neive if he could open his brewpub inside a former elementary school, “my request was granted, but on one condition,” Marengo recalls. “That I call it a winery.” This comes as no surprise in a country where wine is a way of life. Until recently, few thought of Italian beer beyond light lagers such as Peroni. But CitaBiunda, which means small blonde in Piedmontese, and other brewers at the vanguard of the craft beer craze have changed the perception of Italian beer with pioneering techniques and an innovative approach to flavor and food pairings. CitaBiunda’s BiancaNeive and SensuAle are produced using yeast from Champagne, which gives them their fruity aromas of peach and apricot, as well as residual sugar, which Marengo balances masterfully with acidity and bitterness.
At Bir’ostu, CitaBiunda’s on-site res-taurant, a four-course tasting menu pairs different brews with local cuisine. Chef Luca Cerato serves panna cotta topped with apples and raisins caramelized in CitaBiunda’s dark ale, M.I.L.F. (Mother Italy, Liberated and Failed). The bitter hops and coffee notes of the toasty brown ale contrast with the sweet cream.
Italian interest in craft beer can be traced to the late 1970s, according to Luca Giaccone, Italy’s foremost beer expert and author of Slow Food’s Guida alle Birre d’Italia. As beers started to arrive from Germany, Belgium and England, Italians became enamored with their novelty and diverse taste. Early enthusiasts began making pilgrimages to the legendary breweries of northern Europe, filling their suitcases with bottles and their minds with inspiration. “What happened next was rapid evolution,” Giaccone says.
Between 1995 and 1996, thanks to legislation that reduced regulations for small-scale beer production, fourteen independent breweries opened across the peninsula within months of each other. Different brewers reflected influence from different countries. Initially, beers produced in Piedmont tended to be Belgian in style, while the pilsners and lagers coming out of Lombardy resembled beers from Germany and the Czech Republic. Hoppy American-style IPAs appealed to Roman brewers.
It is remarkable that a culture so steeped in tradition has emerged as an innovative force in the craft beer world. Teo Musso (above), one of the first, and arguably most famous, brewers, says, “My greatest fortune was being born in a culture not rooted in beer drinking. I had carte blanche to make and serve whatever I wanted.”
Musso got his start in 1986 when he opened his first Le Baladin beer bar in Piozzo, a small town near Barolo. Painted like an old-world circus tent, the atmosphere clashes dramatically with the general attitude of this serious wine region. “When I first opened Le Baladin, most customers ordered beer based on its size, rather than its style, providence or, heaven forbid, by name,” Musso recalls. “I knew I had a long road ahead, but was excited about teaching people that there isn’t just beer, but beers.”
Over the next decade, Musso traveled to Belgium in search of bottles to add to his 250-plus beer list, studying with brewmasters when he could. He invested in the necessary equipment and began brewing at Le Baladin. In 1996, the bar became an official brewpub, selling Musso’s first batch: Issac, a cloudy, citrusy and satisfying blanche, and Super, an amber Trappist-style ale with notes of almond and dried fruit.
Driven by imagination, Musso continued to experiment, releasing a couple new beers every year. In 2004, he outgrew his brew room at Le Baladin and moved production to a larger, more energy-efficient brewery just outside of town. At 48, in a tattered t-shirt, sporting large silver rings, a casually draped scarf, and salt-and-pepper stubble, he has 19 Baladin labels to his name and seven beer bars and restaurants, including New York City’s Birreria, which he co-owns with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, and Open Baladin, Rome’s most popular pub.
More recently, he purchased 24 acres in Piedmont and rented 150 acres in Basilicata in order to grow his own barley and hops, allowing him to make one of the first beers crafted entirely from Italian ingredients. Named Birra Nazionale, he wants production to reach a million liters within five years.
“Teo’s impact on the craft beer scene in Italy is indisputable,” says Marengo, who worked at Le Baladin for five years before opening CitaBiunda. “He was the first to get his beer on restaurant menus and into the glasses of wine drinkers.” Musso says his mission is two-fold: give artisanal beer the dignity that it deserves and change the way beer is consumed. By bottling a portion of his production in large, wine-shaped 750ml bottles, he persuaded appearance-obsessed Italians to put down their vino and try something new.
Birra artigianale is now available on many of Italy’s top tables, including 3-star Michelin restaurant La Francescana, in Modena. “I added Quarta Runa from Montegioco to our list because it represents the best of Italian craft beer,” says the restaurant’s sommelier Beppe Palmieri. Made with peaches from Volpedo, it is a “dynamic, territorial product that is extremely food-friendly,” he says. Palmieri often pairs it with chef Massimo Bottura’s fresh fillet of cod with a sauce of capers, olives and oregano, or roast suckling pig in a balsamic vinegar sauce. “After a long tasting menu, the sweetness and freshness of this beer can be a welcome alternative to a full-bodied red wine,” he explains.
Quarta Runa is the brainchild of Riccardo Franzosi, brewmaster and owner of Montegioco brewery in Montegioco, near the border of Piedmont and Lombardy. Franzosi first made beer in his basement. He experimented with adding special Italian varieties of fruit to the fermenting beer, and the distinctive results caught the attention of beer critics. In 2006, he left his family’s construction business to produce beer full time, and today Montegioco produces 18 different styles.
Italy’s birra artigianale is recognized among artisans around the world for it food-friendly attributes, and is increasingly spotted on menus in American restaurants. At Spiaggia in Chicago, chef Tony Mantuano makes gelato using Verdi Imperial Stout from Birrificio del Ducato, and serves it as part of his Birramisu dessert. “When I arrived at Spiaggia two years ago, I was shocked by how much Italian beer we go through at the restaurant,” says sommelier and beverage director Jason Carlen. “Customers are always eager to try something new, and I find that compared to many American craft beers, which can tend to taste a lot alike, the new beers coming out of Italy are infused with Italian flair. Each one tastes different from the next.”
The small scale production of artisanal brewers, however, results in relatively high costs, which explains why 25oz bottles of Italian craft brew can cost between $25 and $60 at restaurants in American cities—as much as the price of a bottle of wine.
“What I tell people who complain about the prices is, you’re paying for some of the best beers on the planet,” says Allen Arthur, of New York City’s Birreria. The roof-top restaurant at Eataly draws large crowds for its bottled and house-made Italian craft beer. “In my opinion, some of these beers really are the best. I can’t think of any best bottles of wine on the planet that go for $25.”
What Italian brewers might lack in tradition and generations of experience, they make up for in creativity and character. “What is tradition if not successful invention?” jokes Giovanni Campari, the brewer behind Birrificio del Ducato, whose Verdi Imperial Stout was the first Italian craft brew to win a gold medal in its category at the European Beer Star in 2008.
Fascinated by fermentation, Campari played around with yogurt and sourdough starters while studying Food Science and Technology at the University of Parma. He eventually graduated to beer and spent six months under the tutelage of Agostino Arioli, brewmaster at Birrificio Italiano, one of Italy’s older craft breweries (founded in 1996) in Lurago Marinone, halfway between Milan and Lake Como.
Campari also ages his beer in wood—an ancient Belgian technique that is making a comeback among craft brewers worldwide. His L’Ultima Luna (Last Moon) is a barley wine aged in oak barriques that were previously filled with Amarone della Valpolicella. Applying a technique used to make Sherry, Campari fills the barrels two-thirds of the way, allowing the beer to oxidize slowly over a minimum of 18 months. During this time, it absorbs notes of red fruit and tannins left behind by the Amarone, while developing an extreme, Madeira-like character from the oxidation. The result is a copper-colored beer that could be drunk in place of grappa as the ultimate nightcap.
Valter Loverier, of LoverBeer brewery, was one of the first brewers in Italy to experiment with aging and fermenting his beers in wood. Based outside Turin, he admits his brewing methods are influenced by Italy’s winemaking tradition. To make BeerBera, he adds the freshly pressed skins of Barbera grapes to large oak barrels of beer mash. The wild yeasts from the grapes trigger fermentation—a technique commonly used by natural winemakers—giving the beer slightly tart yet fruity notes. The result is a sparkling red beer that is fresh and light; perfect as an aperitivo or on a hot day.
“Compared to winemakers, brewers have to keep multiple ingredients under control in order to achieve balance,” Loverier explains. For his BeerBrugna, he uses the strain of yeast used in Belgian Kriek, a type of Lambic fermented with morello cherries. He blends the brew with an ancient variety of plum, susine ramassin, for the second fermentation. After aging in wooden barriques for about a year, the beer becomes dry and slightly sour with a touch of plum. Loverier considers this the best beer he produces.
While a majority of microbreweries and beer-centric restaurants are in northern Italy, Rome has become Italy’s craft beer capital, attracting the best of the culture, putting it on display and making it accessible to a wide audience. Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, or “What Are You Here For,” has fueled Italy’s beer culture for the past two decades and is a destination for craft beer lovers. “Rome is the most dynamic craft beer market in Europe,” Franzosi says. “Brewers from all over Europe want their beers in Rome. It has become a launching pad for worldwide distribution.”
But Macche, as locals call it, is not the only craft beer bar in Rome. The city’s largest temple is Open Baladin, located on a cobblestone alley behind Rome’s Campo dei Fiori. Erected by Teo Musso and Leondaro di Vicenzo of Birrificio del Borgo, Open Baladin has forty Italian craft beers on draft at all times, and another hundred bottles lining the wall behind the bar.
Raising the Bar
The availability of artisanal Italian beer in the U.S. is expanding, thanks to beverage menus like the one at Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago. Beverage director Jason Carlen shares some of his favorite bottles that are readily available here.
Birrificio Italiano, Fleurette This light, airy pilsner (3.8% alcohol) is reminiscent of a Hefeweizen, with pronounced notes of honey, elderberry and black pepper. It’s not your standard pilsner, Carlen says. “The hops and barley common in our pilsners aren’t native to Como, in Lombardy, where this brewer is. They use indigenous things like elderberry and chinotto to flavor their beers.”
Birra del Borgo, ReAle Extra Carlen recommends this India pale ale (6.2% alcohol) for fans of traditional American-style IPAs. “Of these five beers, it’s the hoppiest and has the most bitterness,” he says. Made in Borgorose, Lazio, it’s notably dry, lively in the mouth, with pronounced notes of honey and grapefruit.
Piccolo Birrificio, Sesonette Saison Fans of Belgian-style saison will notice this one is much lighter, less rich, yet still creamy, Carlen says. Hailing from Apricale, Liguria, it was traditionally a farmer’s beer, served during harvest. It is low in alcohol (6%) and carries spicy notes of chinotto, juniper and coriander, with a touch of bitterness at the end.
Birrificio Montegioco, Demon Hunter Dark Ale Intense with a complex, robust palate, this strong dark ale (8.5% alcohol) made in Montegioco, Piedmont, has a great mix of caramel, lean coffee and tawny port notes, with a long finish.
Grado Plato, Chocarrubica Stout This rich oatmeal stout (7% alcohol) hails from Chieri, Piedmont, and is made with Venezuelan cocoa beans and Sicilian carob, Carlen says. It’s made of 30% oats and several malts, and while its coffee and chocolate notes are undeniable, a pleasing bitterness keeps it from becoming saccharine.
Photography by David Yoder
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