Drinking in Italy calls to mind mornings at the café, signore e signori crowding the counter, jockeying for their morning espresso, and afternoons spent over leisurely lunches, accompanied by carafes of house red. But if you’re in Italy and aren’t thinking about craft beer, you’re missing out.
While Italy's mass-produced light lagers are still the country's most popular (don’t judge, the rest of the world has theirs, too) its craft beer scene has flourished in recent years, with nearly 1,000 smaller breweries turning out interesting, inventive, and highly delicious beers.
Katie Parla has charted Italy’s craft beer movement for more than a decade. The Rome-based food and beverage expert, journalist, and educator covers all the best things the eternal city has to offer—from different neighborhoods' distinct food styles and archaeology to the best gelato—on her blog and in her new cookbook Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. (Feel free to be jealous—we are, too.) She’s also the first and only woman in Rome to host Italian craft beer seminars.
We spoke with Parla about wine’s influence on Italian craft beer, some of her favorite brews (and breweries), and the best beers to pair with a few Roman dishes:
You’ve lived in Rome for 13 years now. How has the craft beer scene in Italy changed in that time?
When I moved to Rome in 2003 there were so few craft beer options that it practically didn't exist. Faux Irish pubs were—and continue to be—pretty common, but it wasn't until places like Mastro Titta, Le Bon Bock, and Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà (Macchè for short) began making headway and growing in popularity that anything resembling a craft beer culture started to blossom.
When Macchè opened in Rome's most-saturated nightlife district, Trastevere, it signaled the arrival of a real alternative to the Peroni and mojito-drenched mainstream drinking culture. When Birra del Borgo and Baladin brewing companies started Open Baladin together in a huge space near Campo de' Fiori, it marked the definitive arrival of craft beer onto the Roman drinking scene. Now almost every neighborhood has at least one craft beer shop and many have a craft-oriented pub, as well.
There are currently about 1,000 craft breweries in Italy — what are some of the most interesting?
It's pretty amazing to think about this but there were something like 250 craft breweries in Italy in 2008. Following the boom of 2009 and 2010, when craft beer really began to take off all over Italy, we saw a dramatic growth and today there are close to 1,000 microbreweries in Italy. Some are super small; others like Baladin or Birra del Borgo have significant size and reach. You'll find beers from those two brewers everywhere from supermarket shelves to fine dining beverage pairing lists. Thanks in part to their partnership with Eataly and collaboration with American brewers, they are also the breweries most widely available in the US. I also love these breweries, which are present, at least in some small way, in the US market:
- Extraomnes, from Lombardy
- Montegioco and Loverbeer, from Piedmont
- Birrificio del Ducato, from near Parma
- Barley, from Sardegna
Of these breweries, can you share some of your favorite beers they make? What do you love about them?
I love Baladin's Nora, which is made with Kamut, spices, and myrhh. It's inspired by ancient Egyptian brewing—so it totally appeals to the history buff in me—but it's also really fun to drink with spiced and spicy food. I often pair it with paprika or licorice potato chips at my craft beer tastings at Open Baladin to accentuate the results of pairing beer and food.
Birra del Borgo's Enkir is a collaboration between Birra del Borgo (the Lazio-based brewer), Mulino Marino (a family-run mill based in Piedmont), and Gabriele Bonci (a Rome-based baker) and features Einkorn wheat, an heirloom wheat revived in part by Gabriele Bonci's promotion of the grain and ancient grains in general. It is subtly spiced but balanced with yellow fruit notes. It's wonderfully food friendly, but can be enjoyed on its own.
LoverBeer's Beerbera remains my all time favorite Italian beer. It's fermented with wild yeast from freshly-pressed Barbera grapes and is bursting with tart red fruit flavors and pleasant acidity. The brewer puts out Beerbera with each new wine harvest and each year the beer changes, just as a wine might.
What beers are uniquely Italian?
The most interesting beers in Italy have something to say about their territory or provenance. Heirloom grains, fruits, local roots like gentian, spices, and even clams are used in brewing to impart the flavors and aromas of a distinct place. Because there are so few historic styles of beer in Italy (the strongest tradition is the long-established industrial lager, though it's hardly a native style) brewers aren't bound to any one approach, which means they can get creative and make beer however they want. It's one of the few facets of food or drinks culture here that is, by definition, creative.
Has Italy’s wine culture influenced brewers and the beers they’re making?
Absolutely! Some of the most successful and acclaimed beers in Italy use grape must or pressed grapes. Montegioco's Tibir draws on Timorasso grapes, and of course Beerbera uses Barbera grapes, but the same brewer's D'Uva Beer employs Freisa grapes while Nebiulin is an Italian-style Gueuze brewed with Nebbiolo grapes. There are also plenty of beers that are fermented or aged in oak. And when the craft beer industry first began to take off, many bottles were exclusively 750mL or more, but the wine bottle volume didn't take off in a major way, so now 330mL bottles are more common.
Why are Italian craft beers more expensive here in the US, compared to imports from other countries?
Italian craft beers are more expensive in Italy, too! It's often cheaper to drink vintage Belgian lambics than a simple Italian ale. Excise taxes on beer are four-times what they are in Germany, so you can imagine that burden affects the bottom line of breweries. Labor is relatively expensive here and particularly challenging for small businesses to support. Navigating bureaucracy costs money, while infrastructure isn't always efficient. Those and other factors lead to an expensive final product, which has additional costs added when imported and distributed in the US.
Your cookbook, Tasting Rome, focuses on distinctly Roman foods and recipes—can you pick a few and give us an Italian craft beer pairing for each?
- Pezzetti Fritti (fried zuchinni blossoms) with Birrificio Italiano's Tipopils, an homage to German pilsners by a brewer from Lombardy: It's balanced, bitter, and thirst quenching and gets your palate ready for that next fried bite.
- Plum Crostata with Almond Crust with Barley's BB10 Barleywine: The recipe in my book, contributed by Rome Sustainable Food Project's Sara Levi, pairs well with the wonderfully warm beer, which has notes of dried red fruits and vinous aromas thanks to the use of Cannonau grapes in the brewing process.
- Porchetta di Vito Bernabei with Loverbeer's BeerBrugna: A wild ale from Piedmont made with Damascene plums, it brings a palate-cleansing with a noteworthy acidity that's balanced with tartness and red fruit.
What are some of your favorite Italian craft beers? Are you booking your flight to Italy now? Tell us in the comments below!