Italy has long been
the friend of both food fanciers and wine worshippers. Yet despite
this, it is also a country that is viewed with suspicion by the
beer-guzzling masses beyond its borders. Beer, you see, is the
world’s most popular alcoholic drink, and it stirs strong rivalries
among many of the biggest brewing nations. England is famous for its
bitter, Ireland its stout, Germany its pilsner, Belgium its blonde
beers, Australia its lager and America its innovative microbrews.
These countries-and many more-claim to brew the best beers
around, each boasting styles, ingredients, trends and tastes they
believe no others can match.
What about Italy? Despite
consuming as much in the way of alcoholic drinks as the likes of
Poland, little of what is consumed in Italy is beer. In fact, if you
measure per capita international beer consumption, Italy ranks behind
Cyprus, Gabon, Uganda and Sri Lanka.
However, although it might
seem easy for an outsider to dismiss Italy as a serious beer player,
according to recent research from drinks industry experts Canadean,
Italy is one of only a handful of countries in Europe where sales of
beer are likely to grow, not decline, over the coming years.
This could be the case for
a number of reasons. Firstly, beer is increasingly being seen as the
‘trendier’ tipple of choice for younger drinkers. Second, Italian
craft beer is having something of a renaissance, with Tuscan brewers
leading the way.
Craft beer, unlike
commercial beer, is produced on a much smaller scale, using finer
ingredients. Tuscan craft beer is also often quite different in style
from the plain straw-coloured lagers brewed in the south of the
country. Take Bruton of Lucca. Opened in 2006 as a music-orientated
brewpub, this craft brewery has grown impressively in recent years.
Its big-bottle, big-flavoured take on microbrewed American and
traditional Belgian styles has proved to be a massive hit. Part of
Bruton’s ethos is that Italians, with their reputation for
appreciating fine food, are as well equipped as any to taste good
This notion that Italians
are particularly adept at judging good beer is certainly something
that deserves closer inspection. While the consumption of beer might
be greater elsewhere in Europe, much of what is consumed tends to be
rather basic. Yes, best-selling Italian beers like Birra Moretti and
Peroni lack real gourmet quality, but when you look at what
accompanies them on the shelves you can better understand this famed
Italian palette: even the most basic stockists and supermarkets in
Tuscany carry a selection of rare niche beers from abroad. These can
range from cult American brewer Flying Dog, with its big hop-heavy
ales, to high-quality Bavarian classics such as the wonderfully
cloudy Franziskaner wheat beer. In fact, just recently, with German
beer sales slipping, Walter Koenig of the Bavarian Brewers Coalition
moved to dampen fears of a slump in the industry by suggesting that
increased export to Italy could compensate for the dip.
This interest in
high-quality beer as opposed to less-appealing alternatives is
extremely reassuring for Tuscany’s fledgling microbreweries, many
of which need to charge more per bottle to cover high production
costs and expensive ingredients. In a recent trip to North America to
promote Bruton, founder Iacopo Lenci stated that the number of Tuscan
breweries has risen from 4 in 2006 to over 50 today, proof that there
is a strong regional market for good beer.
While many of these 50
breweries are extremely small-scale brewpubs and tiny local
microbreweries, a couple of other sizeable ventures are beginning to
have the same sort of impact as Bruton and should soon be widely
available across the region.
I Due Mastri of Prato is
one such brewery. It specialises in taking traditional British beer
styles and adding a quirky Italian twist. Glencoe, its interpretation
of a Scottish Highland ale, is excellent and challenging. But better
still, it demonstrates Italians’ willingness to experiment in
Feel like wetting
your whistle with some unique brews? Go
to Prato’s annual beer festival from December 3 to 5! Take an open
mind and an open palate to taste lesser-known local brews and unique
overseas examples. See www.eccellenzabirra.it for more details.