Move Over Vino...

Peroni Peroni

Italy may not come to mind when you think of "top producing beer countries..." at least not yet. Although Italy is located in the wine belt of Europe, which is south of the beer belt, beer is not new to Italy. In fact, Italy's two most well known breweries date back to the mid 1800's. The Peroni Brewery, or Birra Peroni, was founded in Lombardia in 1846 and has been based in Rome since 1864, and the Birra Moretti was founded in 1859 in Udine. Unfortunately, those two beers seemed to be the only two that people automatically thought of when talking about Italian beers and in the beer world they just weren't that exciting. So, although Italian beers have been around for about a century and a half, they have not gained the notoriety that other countries' beers have. While beer has traditionally been served in the pizzerias, only recently has it sprung up in other types of establishments. However, things are turning around for Italian beers, especially in the craft beer scene.

Most people credit Teo Musso for jump starting the Italian craft beer market when he opened Le Baladin Brewing Company, which opened in 1986 and served over 200 international beers, but did not begin brewing its own beers until 10 years later. Musso's interest in beer really began as a result of a teenage feud with his father, who preferred that he drank wine. Musso's love of beer began after he spent several summer holidays studying in Monte Carlo, where he was exposed to flavors and aromas that were new and exciting to him.

Since Le Baladin established itself as a craft brewer in 1996, hundreds of brewers have jumped on the bandwagon. Today there are nearly six hundred microbreweries throughout the entire country and that number seems to grow weekly. The beginning of the craft brew market in Italy can be credited mainly to a genuine love and dedication to the product, along with a hunger for different and intriguing products and flavors. It was an opportunity for true craftsmanship.

Two factors that aided in the thrilling and rapid growth of the market, were the fact that there were no regional traditions pertaining to the product and there were very few government regulations. These two things allowed the brewers to really use their own creativity, as well as take advantage of the local and seasonal ingredients to make truly unique beers. In the early years of craft brewing in Italy, most of the brewers produced beers that were heavily influenced by the leading beer producing nations, but as the culture evolved they were able to create beers that were truly unique to Italy. They began utilizing the local ingredients such as chestnuts, local grains and even herbs such as basil and sage, along with fruits and vegetables distinct to their respective regions.

There is one tradition, however, that has definitely influenced many of the brewers and their beers-wine. Just looking at the bottles, you'll notice first the shape and size (often 75cl) are closer to that of wine bottles than of a typical beer bottle, and then the creativity of the labels. This was another trend that can be traced back to the early days of Musso's Le Baladin beer bottles. The labels definitely catch the eye and are more artistic than the average beer bottle. In addition to the bottling & labeling of the beers, the brewers also used the ingredients and equipment used for making wine, and even collaborated with local vineyards which made for interesting partnerships.

Though the craft brew scene made its debut mainly in the north, with the influence of nearby beer belt countries such as Belgium, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, it has slowly been migrating down to the southern regions, including Sicily. With the spread of the breweries throughout the entire country, the beer is also gaining recognition throughout the world. Craft beers are being served in some of Italy's most renowned restaurants, as well as being distributed to countries all over the world. Italy has always had a very strong place on the map for food and wine, fashion, music and the arts. It can now add beer to the list.

Swide Magazine asked Lorenzo Dabove, beer expert and another one of the "founders" of the Italian craft beer movement, to list the top ten Italian craft beers. If you asked fifty people to make this list you would probably get fifty completely different lists, but in his opinion the top ten Italian craft beers are as follows:

1.BB10 from Barley Brewery in Sardinia-a natural winy beer with warm and sumptuous aromas of caramel, cocoa, prune, morello cherry and strawberry grapes and a taste which is rich with caramel, chocolate, liquorice, prune and quince as well as sweet dried fruit like figs and sultanas.

2.BeerBera from Loverbeer in Piedmont- fresh, vinous and fruity aromas, qualities that are confirmed on the palate and which reveal a close link between the world of the spontaneously fermented beers and wines. Succeeds in delivering a beer that is courageous, and above all easy to drink, despite the high alcohol content, thanks to its appropriate "watery" body.

3.Farrotta from Almond 22 in Abruzzo- brewed with organic Acacia honey coming from the mountains in Abruzzo and a high percentage of spelt. The colour is golden and the head is white and creamy. Fruity herbal gooseberry and honey aroma with strawy, grassy, and grapefruit notes. Very fresh and harmonic, Farrotta has a dry-mild, soft texture and is mid-bodied, vivid, balanced, and harmonic. A delicate, subtle, and highly drinkable ale.

4.La Mummia from Montegioco Brewery in Piedmont-pale yellow in the glass, clear with golden reflections; offers a vinous nose, citrus (lime, grapefruit), of wildflowers, along with woody notes that remind us of the time in the barrel. The taste is very fresh, sour, but also complex, we find the notes of citrus, accompanied by honey and white fruits. A very elegant beer, refined, with an unexpected savory note on the finish. Soft, very long, but also fresh, similar to a young lambic beer.

5.Nora from Le Baladin in Piedmont-she refers to the ancient history of nomads and pyramids of spices and Khorasan Kamut that in the Egyptian language meaning "soul of the earth." Its warm colour, orange amber, is covered with an abundant foam that releases notes of oriental aromas, ginger and citrus.

6.Oppale from Via dei Birrai in Veneto-highly hopped top-fermented beer, bottle conditioned. White, compact, fine and persistent head; light colour with coppery glints, sometimes there is a yeast cloud; fine perlage. Notes of caramel and toffee with herbaceous sensations and fruity hints of ripe pineapple. Well-balanced between a caramel flavour and a pronounced bitter finish. A full-bodied beer.

7.ReAle from Birra del Borgo in Lazio-inspired by traditional India pale ales, best known for their generous hopping, ReAle is customised with American aroma hops. In the glass it's amber, the predominating notes are citrusy (grapefruit and orange) and peppery. The carbonation is low, keeping the beer true to its style; the body is medium with a long finish. Has an intense and persisting bitter ending.

8.Tipopils from Italian Brewery in Como-opening scent of citrus and grassy hops with notes of fresh yeast and then immediately coming from the malt aromas myeloma and cereal along with a floral chamomile and dandelion. Abundant foam, fine and compact, very persistent. In the mouth a fleeting touch of sweetness quickly gives way to a bitter widespread that teases the olfactory sensibility.

9.Via Emilia from Birrificio del Ducato in Emilia Romania-beer of low fermentation, golden yellow colour is characterised by floral and herbaceous aromas (Tettnang hops flower of the variety Tettnang, selected during the harvest in Germany), reminiscent of acacia honey and a pronounced bitterness. Balanced and elegant, simple and satisfying.

10.Zest from Extraomnes in Lombardy-with a compact, rugged, candid and persistent foam. Golden with green vibrations. Intense nose, bursting, almost aggressive, with a distinct fruity ripe white nectarine, gooseberry and lychee nearly cover a delicate spiciness. The drinking is refreshing thanks to its light body and the absence of residual sugar. A dry, sharp and prolonged finish.

So the next time you head to Italy, instead of making a list of the all the wineries you need to visit, perhaps you'll consider making it a craft brewery tour instead. This is an exciting time in the Italian craft beer scene and getting to experience it would be truly remarkable. If a trip to Italy is not in your foreseeable future, don't fret because you can acquire some of the best Italian craft beers right here in the U.S.