This is the first of a two part article all about Italian artisan beer or 'birra artigianale'.
The last few years has a seen a genuine boom in the production of artisan beer in Italy. There is not an Italian region without a 'microbirrificio' or small brewery.
We've counted at least 450 with Piemonte, Lombardia and Emilia boasting the highest number while Umbria, Calabria and Molise trail in numbers, but certainly not on quality.
But first a history lesson.
Italy boasts an age-old brewing tradition, although until modern times beer was produced in small quantities for a few aficionados, mostly in northern Italy, given that, in addition to malt and hops, two other essential ingredients are needed: clean air and cold temperatures.
In the second half of the 19th century a vast and well-organized brewing industry established itself based on artificial cooling and on the new technology for producing pale, bottom fermented beer.
The earliest breweries opened thanks to the initiative of foreign businessmen (Dreher, Wührer, Paskowski, Metzger, Von Wünster, etc.), soon followed by Italian merchants, active mostly in the ice trade, who considered beer as a natural complement to their activities.
Several major breweries were thus established: Peroni in 1845, founded in Vigevano by Francesco Peroni (and soon relocated to Rome, where, in 1905, the “Società Ghiaccio e Birra Peroni” was established, see image above); the following year Menabrea opened in Biella; Forst in 1857 in Lagundo (Bolzano); and in 1859 “Fabbrica di Birra e Ghiaccio Moretti”, in Udine. The end of the century saw the beginning of a development that has come to the present day.
In the past few decades the growth of the Italian market stirred the interest of the world’s leading brewing groups (Heineken, SABMiller, InBev, Carlsberg), favoring the entry of foreign capital, with acquisitions that concerned sizeable (or majority) blocks of shares of several companies.
These investments contributed to the further development and rationalization of production, ensuring continuity to the legacy or prestigious brands and greatly improving productivity.
Along with the large brewing companies, recent years have seen the proliferation of microbreweries, which stand out for their “Italian-style” versions of several beer styles that have been enjoyed throughout the world for centuries.
According to Assobirra, the Association of Brewing and Malt Industries, almost 144,000 people work in the beer industry in Italy. Including the production of industrial brands Italy now makes more liters of beer than Hungary, Austria and even Ireland.
In terms of drinking beer, Italy is still at the bottom of the European table, but comparing the consumption of spirits, wine and beer by Italians makes interesting reading. In 1980 the numbers of liters drunk per head was 4.5 (spirits), 104.0 (wine) - 12.8 (beer). 2010 saw this ration change to 0.3 - 39.0 - 28.6.
Heineken is by far the most popular beer in Italy (although a Belgian journalist friend of ours questions the word beer attached to the Dutch brand!), but we are interested in artisan beer and where to find it.
So we set off to the newly opened Rome Eataly to see for ourselves at the wonderful La Fabbrica di Birra section.
ESSENTIAL ITALY ARTISAN BEER LINKS
A collection of links, all in Italian, but feature links to all the micro breweries in Italy.