La Dolce Birra: Italy

When Australians think of Italy, our mind invariably turns to vino as the drink that lubricates the la dolce vita lifestyle.

But, just as foreign regard for Foster’s beer isn’t a true indication of our own ale habits, there are more nuances to Italian drinking culture than Peroni — the only amber fluid that most of us generally associate with Italy.birrificio now crafting an eclectic assortment of beers for enthusiastic and enquiring palates. To give that some perspective, Australia boasts merely 100–150 craft breweries nationwide.

Entering one of Rome’s growing number of craft-beer bars, the extent of this boutique revolution is immediately apparent. Open Baladin Roma is a highly styled and uniquely Italian bar, housed in a converted warehouse with some eclectic 1960s retro-dive vibe thrown in. To get there you pass the many touristy cafes of the Campo de’ Fiori district, bedecked in bunting for national lagers such as Birra Moretti or Peroni (the red-label Peroni, not the blue label Nastro Azzurro that is more widely available on Australian streets).

Navigating a maze of narrow medieval alleys, you could easily walk past its unassuming front door. But step through and you are immediately confronted with a towering wall of more than 100 bottled beers. These bear a bewildering array of decorative labels with names such as Birra del Borgo, Extraomnes and Le Baladin. There are also 40 beers on tap for good measure. These are definitely not the crisp pale lagers most drinkers are still  accustomed to, but rather those brewed for flavour and drinking with food. Unless your Italian is serviceable, or your exotic-beer knowledge extreme, you are about to embark on a lucky-dip flavour journey.

Many are inspired by traditional Belgian ales, or by the highly hopped American craft styles. Even so, the beers express true Italian inventiveness and flair, using ingredients such as chestnut honey, and exotic grains and spices. Some are also aged in wine barrels called barriques. One is brewed with ancient khorasan wheat, with the addition of myrrh and ginger; another is flavoured with coriander and orange zest.

Le Baladin co-owner and patriarch of the Italian craft-beer renaissance, Matterino ‘Teo’ Musso, says his approach to beer reflects Italy’s approach to cuisine and wine. “Italy is the land where food and drink are very important to culture and to the economy. These beers are inspired by other styles but are never a clone. They have their own personality,” says Musso.

Musso is the perfect frontman for the craft-beer movement in a country that loves wine. Born in the agricultural village of Piozzo in the northern province of Cuneo, Musso’s father was a farmer and a wine maker. If you visit this region of Piedmont you’ll find towns like Monforte d’Alba - a landscape carpeted with grape vines, home to the famed Nebbiolo grape.

While his family customarily chose to drink wine with lunch, Musso rebelled (as young men do) and chose beer. Entranced with Belgian beers, he opened a pub in Piozzo called Le Baladin. However, his passion later took him to Belgium where he worked for the local breweries. Taught by the masters, he made the leap into brewing himself, transforming Le Baladin into a brew pub in 1996.

“When I started there were no more than five microbreweries and now there are more than 500 in the country. In fact, it seems that everybody knows craft beers, but in 1996 I was seen as a weird guy. This is the moment for craft Italian beer, but we have to continue working hard to ensure this is not just a momentary fashion.”

Musso’s example has inspired a new generation of Italian brewers, including Leonardo di Vincenzo, who in 2005 founded his brewery, Birra del Borgo in Borgorose, near Rome. Like Musso, he was inspired by the beers of Belgium and started home brewing while at university.

“Italy is traditionally a nation of wine producers with many Italian families creating their own,” Vincenzo says. “This passion for cultivating and making wine has fed into the beer industry; and in fact many brewers, if they don’t come
from a home-brewing background, have a winemaking background.”

While wine is an inspiration, the Italian craft-beer movement is also a reaction
to the staidness of wine. Many brewers say that winemaking inhibits their creativity so they turn to beer. “But it is not only the producer - the consumer has also fuelled this surge,” says Vincenzo. “It is seen as every Italian’s right to be able to eat good produce. Beer is an extension of the Italian diet and culture, so the consumer seeks a product made with high-quality ingredients and in an artigianale (craft) method.”

The pubs and breweries of Musso and Vincenzo are now part of a new Roman empire. It stretches across 12 bars, beer cafes and restaurants, including Birreria - Musso’s New York City joint-venture with Vincenzo and US brewer Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head fame. Beyond Rome, many cities boast their own breweries or brew bars. Even Italy’s fashion centre, Milan, has a thriving beer scene. Birrificio Lambrate, named after the Lambrate neighbourhood where it is located, is a small, crowded and chaotic bar selling its own beers brewed on the premises. It is filled with a mixed crowd and, in the early evening during aperitivo, all surfaces are covered in plates of delectable stuzzichini (Italian tapas-style dishes) of meats, olives and pasta. It’s so busy that it can be almost impossible to order a beer over the bar.

Whether the beer inspires the culture or is a reflection of it, there is a joy wrapped up in the beer scene of Italy that is an expression of more than just the effects of simply imbibing. It’s a feeling and approach that has inspired Australians John and Kerrie Latta. With a grand sense of adventure and love of all things Italian, they moved with their daughters from Sydney to Barolo five years ago with an intention to stay three months.

Living in Barolo, they knew about the wine and food, but their eyes were opened when a friend took them to Musso’s pub. They discovered that when Italians are involved, ‘going for a beer’ is unlike anything they had encountered in Australia. “For Italians, eating and drinking is a celebration and this is reflected in the beer they produce. It’s about the ingredients, the taste and aromas; the way of sharing a bottle between friends; and having a beer that complements the food, not just for drinking or to satiate a thirst.”

Already managing a couple of tourist properties and conducting food, wine and cycling tours of the region, the couple became smitten with Italian beer. They now import many varieties to Australia through their business, Birra Italiana.

“When we left Australia, boutique beer was a relatively new thing. In the past five years things have definitely changed,” Kerrie says. “Each time we return to Oz we find new Australian and international beers on the shelf. The bottle shops are changing, but more exciting is the interest for craft beer in the restaurant industry. We have many top restaurants that are wanting to write a beer list to match their wine list and offer a great choice to the dining public.”

As crowded as the beer shelves are getting, Kerrie says Italian craft beer is still distinctive. “Italian beers have no particular trait. They take inspirations from a range of styles - predominately Belgian. But their use of quality and often quirky ingredients makes beer drinking an experience.” 

The Toast of the town 

What to try during your Italian sojourn.

Baladin Xyauyú
Offering 14 per cent alcohol and with no head or carbonation, it tastes more like sherry due to its deliberate oxidation. Is it a beer? You bet. Excellent after a meal with chocolate.

Baladin Isaac
A more traditional beer styled along the lines of a Belgian wit (think Hoegaarden), Isaac is spiced with coriander and orange peel. Ideal as an aperitif, Isaac also pairs well with fish and light dishes.

Birra del Borgo My Antonia
An Imperial (strong) Pilsner, My Antonia is a beer made in collaboration with US brewer Sam Calagione. It offers a delicate balance of honey notes from the malt and peppery ones from the hops.

Birra del Borgo Re Ale
A pale ale with American-style hops aroma (think Little Creatures), Re Ale has a solid malt body and citrus (grapefruit and orange)
hop character. Carbonation is low on the palate.

Birrificio del Ducato Winterlude
A Belgian-style Tripel named after a Bob Dylan song, this complex winter warmer has aromas of pineapple, peach and apricot. It matches perfectly with camembert.

When in Rome

In the capital and want to grab a beer? Here’s where.

Open Baladin Rome
This cool and relaxed temple to the modern Roman beer gods offers a huge selection of brews accompanied by Italian versions of international pub food.

Bir & Fud
Cross the Tiber to the Trastevere district to find this gem. It’s a restaurant that looks like a beer bar, and it does both well. Crowded and fun, it’s open for dinner every night.

Brasserie 4:20
This is another bar owned by a brewer, the Revelation Cat Brewery. It has 47 taps to choose from, featuring the best Italians as well as the best from the rest of the world. Hops and malts are also used in their food — try the hopburger.

Words by Matt Kirkegaard - Published in Voyeur March 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 3 million
Area 1,285.3 km2
Time Zone GMT +2
Languages Italian
Currency Euro (EUR €)
Electricity 230v 50Hz
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