I get the question “What’s it really like to live in Italy?” all the time.
It’s one I love to answer, though not all listeners want to hear what I want to share. Most just want me to say my life is a sensual, wine-drenched feast and the post offices are bad and the banks are worse but otherwise life is amazing.
It’s true, the post offices and banks are terrible, but a few other things aren’t so hot either: The youth unemployment rate hovers around 43%, wages for young people are low (the average income for those 30 and under is €850 net per month), opportunities for Italians, regardless of age, are limited by a stagnant economy, bureaucratic obstacles, and nepotism.
With stats like that, the only thing that’s amazing is that any sector is thriving at all, particularly one geared towards the young and fiscally challenged. In spite of it all, the Italian craft beer industry has managed to flourish, growing at an impressive pace over the past decade.
In an interview by Regan Stephens for Food52 earlier this week, I talked about how Italy's beer growth started out slowly in the mid-1990s when a handful of breweries—Birrificio Italiano and Baladin among them—were founded in northern Italy. Beer found a foothold, albeit a small one, in a culture in which wine consumption was declining. But what I didn't mention was how the creativity and innovation in the movement towards beer inspired my own life path.
A dozen years later, Italy was home to hundreds of craft breweries offering uniquely Italian flavors and embracing a spirit of creativity that is nothing short of inspiring. It was around that time—2008 to 2009—that I became enthralled by craft beer. I had plenty of time to devote to it (remember those grim employment statistics? Nearly all my Rome-based friends packed up and moved to northern Europe or back to their home villages for work or free housing, respectively) and frankly, I was lonely and bit hopeless and eager to immerse myself in a vast new topic.
At first sip, I was totally captivated by many of the beers I described to Regan, like the sour ales of Piedmont’s LoverBeer. The brewery’s wine-based vintage sours draw on indigenous grapes like Freisa, Nebbiolo, Barbera for flavor, structure, and, in some cases, wild yeast. The Classics geek in me loved archeo-beers like Baladin’s Egypt-inspired Nora and Borgo’s Etrusca, while Birrificico Italiano’s fruit-based Cassissona, which drinks like a Lambrusco, excited my wine-loving side.
During those years of crisis, and up to today, Italian craft beer has been more than just a delicious beverage. It’s a glimpse of hope and an assurance that creativity and innovation can thrive in the most unlikely places.
To see more of my beer recommendations—and food pairings!—head here.
What are some of your favorite Italian beers? Tell us in the comments below!