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Creativity and "la dolce vita" – beer paradise Italy

When you think of Italy, the first things that probably come to mind are pizza, pasta and red wine. But Italy has a lot more to offer - also in terms of beer.

Pizza and beer In Italy beer is considered an "easy to drink" product and is often drunk with pizza. But in Italy there is now a large Craft Beer scene (Picture: Miha Rekar, Unsplash)

The Italian beer market


According to the Italian Brewers' Association Assobirra, 17.2 million hl of beer were produced in Italy in 2019. Per capita consumption was 34.6 l (2008: 29.4 l) and has been rising for years. In addition, 7.0 million hl of beer are imported. 36 per cent of consumption is accounted for by the out-of-home market and 64 per cent by the retail trade. The main breweries in Italy by market share are Heineken (32%), Birra Perroni (18.3%), Carlsberg (5.1%) and Birra Castello (5.1%).

The Forst brewery from Alto Adige, together with its Menabrea brewery, which produces an estimated 1.1 million hectolitres per year, is also one of the most important breweries in the country, but it does not belong to Assobirra. AB-InBev does not operate a production plant in Italy and is therefore technically not a producer for the Italian market, but it nevertheless has a market share of 9.4%.

Microbreweries have been experiencing a boom in Italy for some years now. The 841 microbreweries produced a total of 523,000 hl of beer in 2019.
Beer is still considered an "easy to drink" product in the wine country Italy. However, the boom in micro and craft breweries is helping to attract more and more target groups to speciality beers [1, 2].

Italian Craft Beer with tomatoes, lettuce, capers and white breadBeer sommelier Simonmattia Riva is sure that the Italians also have what it takes to become world food pairing champions (Picture: Monica di Loxley, Unsplash)

Italy's beer world


In 1985 the first pub brewery opened in Sorrento, near Naples. Since then, Italy, better known as a wine country, has seen a rapid and extremely interesting development of its beer landscape. 35 years later there are Italian breweries that have achieved international cult status.

Italian beers regularly win many prizes at international competitions. Most recently, even an Italian beer category, Italian Grape Ale, was included in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) - more on this later. In 2015, the young beer nation also presented Simonmattia Riva from Bergamo as the world champion sommelier for beer [3].

"The first generation of Italian beer lovers is now at the age when they can and want to spend more money on (beer) enjoyment," says Riva happily. "And young consumers always want to try something new, so I see further growth potential for beer in Italy and hope for another generation of Italian beer lovers," Riva continues [4].

A bottle of Italian Craft Beer between red autumn leavesMany microbreweries in Italy are inspired by the American or Belgian beer scene, but also bring their own regional specialities to the table (Picture: Monica di Loxley, Unsplash)

Boom in microbreweries


The boom in the microbrewery segment began in the 2000s. While the number of Italian micro and pub breweries was still 90 in 2004, it has now increased to 841. The consumption of speciality beers in Italy has increased by 115 per cent over the last five years.

Well-known representatives are Birra Baladin or Birra del Borgo, each with an annual output of around 25,000 hl. Many of these breweries brew top-fermented Belgian and Anglo-American beer styles, while a few are also based on German bottom-fermented beer styles.

Since every region in Italy is known for its own culinary specialities, it is hardly surprising that there are also many regionally influenced beer creations, such as the "Kamille Blanche" from Abruzzo, the "Enzian Bock" from Livigno or beer with added lentils from Umbria.

Italian brewers are also taking up the sour beer hype coming from the USA. In wine barrels they produce sour beers, which vary completely depending on the region and the type of wine previously used. Thus, Italian creations are joining the already well-known sour beer styles [3].

A can of Italian Grape Ale and a Husky in the backgroundItalian Grape Ale combines the Italian wine tradition with the new beer culture (Picture: Monica Di Loxley, Unsplash)

Italian Grape Ale


Since the Italian soul is generally very experimental and does not rest until its experiments are mature, it is not surprising that a new type of beer has also been born in this country: Italian Grape Ale (IGA).

"The Italian Grape Ale is born out of the tradition of Belgian lambic, but unlike lambic, it is not produced by spontaneous fermentation," explains beer sommelier world champion Simonmattia Riva.

Two small breweries from Sardinia and Piedmont - two regions with a very strong wine-growing tradition - are regarded as the pioneers of Italian Grape Ale. In Sardinia at Birrifico Barley the basis was an Imperial Stout, to which 2 percent red wine was added during the boiling process. In Piedmont at Birrifico Montegioco, the base was a Belgian Blond, to which white winegrapes were added during fermentation.

These two examples show how many facets an Italian Grape Ale can have. "There are many possible variations," explains Riva - red or white grapes, fresh or cooked must, added to the wort or only during fermentation, brewer's yeast or wine yeast or a mixture of both, ageing in a wine barrel and, not to forget, the countless varieties of grapes, each bringing its own aroma.

Another interesting example of an IGA is Equilibrista from the Birra del Borgo: 40 percent must from the Tuscan Sangiovese grape and 60 percent seasonal seasoning ferment with a champagne yeast and are classically processed with the Méthode champenoise. Birra del Borgo is now a 100% subsidiary of AB-InBev.

La Fortezza brewery presents its Dirty Purple with up to 16 percent fermenting must from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo to add seasonal wort. The beer is then divided for ageing into 50 percent steel tanks, 25 percent French red wine oak barrels and 25 percent American white wine oak barrels. Once the maturing process is complete, the brewery blends the three batches [3, 4].

A bottle of Italian Craft Beer with sea water on a harbor wall with sailing ships in the backgroundBeer with seawater – Italian brewers are very keen to experiment (Picture: Monica di Loxley, Unsplash)

Italian beer tax slows down the boom


Brewers who like to experiment and integrate the Italian wine tradition into the beer culture, countless microbreweries that create regional specialities, open-minded consumers who like to try new things - actually ideal conditions for a flourishing beer market.

A completely excessive beer tax policy alone is slowing down the current boom and is causing a great deal of resentment in brewing circles. Italian breweries pay 3.00 EUR per hectolitre and degree Plato, which is much more than German breweries pay 0.787 EUR per hectolitre and degree Plato.

Only breweries with an annual output of less than 10,000 hl pay a 40% reduced rate. According to economic calculations, a reduction of the tax would create many thousands of new jobs and further increase the diversity of the Italian beer supply [3].

A lying beer bottle with a grain ear on the crown cork and malt grains on the tableItalian malt promises tax benefits and a marketing effect (Picture: Monica di Loxley, Unsplash)

Raw materials made in Italy


More and more Italian brewers are changing over to operating as agricultural companies because of the high tax burden. The magic word is "birrificio agricolo" and promises attractive tax advantages, explains Stefan Grauvogl, owner of Arte Bier and organiser of the beer sommelier courses in Italy. This legal form, however, requires that at least 50 percent of the raw materials must come from the company's own cultivation and must be processed on the farm itself.

This explains why malting barley is now being grown again in Italy. "Our own raw materials are not cheaper - especially if they then have to be malted in Germany - and we are not afraid of supply bottlenecks," reports Grauvogl. "In addition to the tax advantages, it is also important to use the marketing effect 'from the stalk to the glass' and to cultivate old varieties of grain. In the meantime Italy is even becoming a hop-growing region …

Thus, in collaboration with the University of Parma, a hop garden was recently created to cultivate the national hop Gianni. But there are also greater efforts in various regions, such as the agricultural company Luppulo & Co. under the initiative and direction of beer sommelier Guido Garzia Civico Petrilli. It cultivates, with an increasing tendency, a total of 21 hectares of hop varieties such as Cascade, Chinook, Perle or Nugget in Emilia Romagna and other regions. "The US hop varieties Cascade and Chinook give the best results on Italian soils", says Grauvogl.

According to Grauvogl, the further processing or refinement of both cereals and hops poses a problem. Demand for malting plants is increasing because cereals in Italy must be malting if farms are to benefit from the tax relief. For this reason there are now breweries with an attached malting plant. In addition to a number of new malting plants, there are now also seven drying centres, two bagging centres, two pellet centres for hops and seven hop picking machines in Italy to harvest the 28,000 hop plants. Laboratory accreditation is also underway.

The best example of the use and processing of almost 100 per cent domestic raw materials is the Mastri Birrai Umbri brewery near Perugia, which produces everything from the field to the finished beer under one company group [3, 5].

For beer sommelier Riva, the Italians have the chance to become "world champions in food pairing", thanks to their strong wine tradition and the always high value of food pairing, also when it comes to beer. Riva sees this as a way to attract more new customers to Italian beer [4].

A look at the results of the European Beer Star 2020, which was awarded on 11 November 2020 as part of the BrauBeviale Special Edition, shows just how high the Italian brewers' standards are: In the medal table, Italy once again took third place with 9x gold, 10x silver and 8x bronze. So you can look forward to many more exciting beer creations from the land of "la dolce vita".

Sources:

  1. Assobirra Annual Report 2019 
  2. Martin Rederlechner, Febo Leondini: „Exportmarkt Italien – Markenbildung lohnt sich“, BRAUWELT Nr. 4-5, 2020, S. 92-94.
  3. Markus Fohr: „Giro d’Italia – eine „Bierreise in den Süden“ Etappe 1: Der italienische Biermarkt im Überblick“, BRAUWELT Nr. 1-2, 2020, S. 29-31.
  4. Simonmattia Riva: „Ein Überblick über Italiens Craft Brauereien“, lecture at BrauBeviale Special Edition – „Italian Affairs“ presented by Arte Bier, 2020.
  5. Stefan Grauvogl: „Rohstoffe 100 % Made in Italy“, lecture at BrauBeviale Special Edition – „Italian Affairs“ presented by Arte Bier, 2020.
  6. European Beer Star 2020