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Home | Features | Italy's brewing Renaissance

Italy's brewing Renaissance

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Giovanni Campari: part of the new wave of brewers

Craft brewers add variety, excitement in tired beer market

Italy was not a country one visited for its beer 20 years ago. Then as now the country boasted considerable cultural and culinary charms yet beer would not have been on travellers’ checklists.

How times have changed: today the craft beer movement is flourishing. With openings almost weekly, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of breweries in the country, but consumer website microbirrifici.org currently lists 551 – and this is from a standing start in the mid-1990s.

This incredible growth in all things craft can’t be ascribed to any particular impetus. There is no beer duty reduction for smaller producers to spur entrants, as has been the case in the United Kingdom. It is a story, rather, of passion and an eager new audience, although financial opportunities presented by the economic downturn are at least responsible for some of the newer arrivals.

In the early 1990 beer in Italy was largely a two-tiered affair. Bars mostly sold pilsners designed to quench thirsts. Supermarkets sold much the same products but were also lined with strong, syrupy beers, often imported.

Today there’s much greater variety. A scan of the 24 categories judged at this year's Birra dell'Anno (Beer of the Year) contest reveals Kolsch-style beers, IPAs, weizens and Abbey ales. You still won't find such beers in every bar in Italy but there are now at least a number of 'go to' venues for craft beer in most cities.

The pioneers of the craft brewing movement were Agostino Arioli and Teo Musso. Arioli founded Birrificio Italiano, north of Milan, in 1996; Musso added a brewery to his Le Baladin bar, south of Turin, in the same year. Success for both Arioli and Musso was by no means instant but both eventually prospered by being their own men and letting the world witness their passion for beer. 

Arioli recalls how difficult it was in the early days until people eventually understood what he was trying to do and began to call for his beers by name rather than just by colour or quantity.

“In 1996, craft beer, hazy, served warmer, with much more foam, was crazy,” he says. “After two years we were close to bankrupt, but finally they started coming in asking no more for ‘Una bionda’ or ‘una biretta’ but for Tipopils or Bibock.”

Perhaps unwittingly, Arioli and Musso tapped into a ready audience for craft beer, an inquisitive nation eager to taste and learn. It is no coincidence that Italy is the home of the Slow Food movement. 

“Italians are extremely curious about food and beverages. They like tasting new things,” says Arioli. “The Slow Food movement pushed people in the direction of awareness about what they drink and eat. They now want a closer relationship with the people who produce the goods. They want stories and emotions. Craft beer is all this.”

As such, Italian craft products are able to command a premium. Drinkers pay around €5 for a glass (40 cl) of 'artisan' beer in a pub or bar, about one euro more than they do for the same measure of Nastro Azzurro. A 750 ml bottle in a shop or restaurant runs to €11 or more. 

Social media was also a boon. The online beer community may have been in its infancy but it provided something not available before – a place where beer fans throughout Italy could share thoughts and information. Suddenly, there was a buzz about beer.

Many of the pioneering microbreweries were founded by home brewers and many entering the industry today still come from this sector. But it wasn’t easy then scaling up. Small-scale equipment had to be specially made, or imported, and ingredients were hard to come by in the quantities required by a microbrewery. The entrance of companies such as EcoBrewtech based near Treviso; Impiantinox, close to Vicenza; and Braumaster at Feltre, north of Venice that offered off-the-peg machinery and materials revolutionised the scene for later arrivals. 

Enter the second wave

With the number of microbreweries increasing, it didn't take long for their own industry association, Unionbirrai, to take shape. Taking its lead from the Brewers Association in the USA, Unionbirrai opened its arms to professional brewers and amateurs as well as consumers. A programme of courses, talks and tastings brought beer to even more drinkers' lips. 

The amateurs later broke away to form their own body, Movimento Birrario Italiano (MoBI). As a result there are now two bodies talking about small breweries and their products, which can only have helped the seemingly inexorable rise of craft beer and supported the arrival of a second generation of microbrewer.

Giovanni Campari of Birrificio del Ducato is typical of the newer influx. His passion for the product is undeniable, something that has carried him, and others, through the minefield of starting a brewery in Italy.

“I started home brewing in 2004 during my studies at the University of Parma where I graduated in Food Science and Technology,” he explains. “When I met the right people to start this adventure, I realized that the bell was ringing for me. We made a lot of debts with banks, and of course we put every cent we have into our business.”

Campari adds that bureaucracy was and still is a problem. “It was very difficult. In Italy we’re oppressed by thousands of laws and it’s very hard to satisfy all the standards required. We are severely controlled by our customs agency which means a lot of extra work – employees, paperwork – and hundreds of thousands of Euros paid in the first six years in alcohol taxes.”

An additional barrier for Italy's brewers to overcome has been the dominance of wine, but they've cleared this hurdle in style. To nudge their way into shops and restaurants, they initially took on the national drink at its own game, packaging beer in elegant, shapely bottles with smart labels. These underlined the quality of the product inside and also ensured a premium price could be charged.

As beer culture has taken hold, particularly among younger people, many breweries have moved on and found new targets. Companies such as Brew Fist, in production since 2010 just outside Piacenza; and Elav, also opened in 2010, near Bergamo are eschewing elegant bottles and sophistication in favour of youthful colour and cartoon graphics.

Nevertheless, the Italian beer market is under pressure. The national trade association, AssoBirra, reports that per capita consumption in 2011 was 29.0 litres, a drop from 31.1 litres per capita enjoyed as recently as 2007.

Production has only marginally fallen during this period, from 13.5 to 13.4 million hectolitres. The slowdown in the domestic market has been offset by exports, which have risen from 1.1 to 2.1mhl. More than 60% of this goes to the United Kingdom and nine per cent to the USA. Some craft veterans such as Le Baladin and Birrificio Italiano have been exporting for years, although never in huge quantities. Other award-winning breweries such as Campari's Ducato; Toccalmatto, near Fidenza; and Birra del Borgo, east of Rome are now also exporting.

The domestic per capita decline is coming from the industrial side of the beer market. AssoBirra figures further reveal that between 2007 and 2011 the eight large breweries that are members of the organisation saw their domestic beer volumes fall from 13.6 to 12.5mhl. Non-member breweries and microbreweries witnessed a rise from 280,000 to 500,000hl. Their market share now stands at 2.8 per cent.

That there should be a downturn in overall beer sales is not surprising given the economic trough in which Italy finds itself. But it seems as if there are some who are turning the situation to their advantage and, consequently, helping to drive the microbrewery expansion.

“In Italy there aren't many markets growing,” says Tony Manzi, spokesman for Unionbirrai. “Craft beer is one of the fastest growing and lots of people are targeting this market to survive the crisis.” 

Manzi adds that there have been winemakers venturing into beer production and pubs installing breweries to counter the cost of increasing beer prices. Farmers have also been enticed to brew from their own crops, inspired by a tax break for those who make goods out of their own produce.

Additionally, there are still large swathes of Italy yet to fully experience the craft beer boom. Brewing activity remains centred in the north, extending down to Rome. Further south, economic activity has always been slower and the take up in brewing mirrors this. Of the 551 microbreweries identified by microbirrifici.org, just 106 lie in the regions below Lazio and Abbruzzo (roughly the mid-point of Italy) with 39 of those on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

Economic shrewdness aside, according to Agostino Arioli there remains a purer reason for many people to still want to join the brewing community. “Passion to do something creative,” he says. “Production, not speculation or services to people. Young people like this and they hope to find satisfaction that the normal work market does not guarantee.”

And there it is: the allure of craftsmanship. For a nation famed for leather goods, stylish automobiles and, of course, the finest in fashion, in the final analysis it may be that craft beer simply feels at home in the Italian market.

Jeff Evans, a professional beer writer for more than 20 years, is editor of www.insidebeer.com

 


 

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