Why Italy is going beer crazy
Added: Monday, February 24th 2014
Maurizio Maestrelli reports from Milan
More than 550 companies, thousands of labels, 2,6% of the national beer market (but around 10% in value), an increasing number of medals in the most prestigious international beer competitions, a little but steadily growing export to other countries. Is Italy the “promise land” of craft beer? Well, yes and… no.
For sure, what happened in 1996 when a bunch of heroes decided, without knowing each other, to start producing a different beer from mass market lagers seemed a “no hope” adventure. But in fewer than 20 years the phenomenon literally exploded with new microbreweries or brewpubs opening more or less every week and beerfirms probably opening more or less every day.
Even more, an increasing number of pubs (that became popular in Italy in the middle of the 1980s) are introducing craft beers in their line or in their fridge, more and more distributors are improving their choice of craft beers and craft beer tasting, craft beer events and fairs are multiplying every year.
So it’s easy to say that in Italy there’s a great discussion about craft beer. Made in Italy, of course, but also made in other European countries and in U.S. too. Italian importers have understood that this is the right time to explore, search and introduce small breweries from all over the world into the Italian market. And that’s why you can now find completely new beers even in the usually most conservative channel: the supermarket.
The passion that Italians have for craft beers is really amazing. And the reasons are fascinating. First of all, before the Italian craft beer revolution, the market was sleeping on the common national lagers, some of the big foreign breweries exporting to Italy and a few Belgian historical companies. But at the same time as the rise of the Italian craft beer, the Slow Food culture was developing, there was a deep curiosity towards the world of wine and the re-discovering of the enormous variety of food and different cuisines that we have in Italy. This was the fertile ground that helped the first steps of the microbreweries and their natural, unfiltered and unpasteurised products. Also the teenagers that in the 1980s discovered Belgian and British beers in the first pubs were the first Italian generation able to taste a different beer from generic lagers and they also were the first generation used to travelling abroad. Some studied English in the UK for example and discovered at the same time what a real “real ale” was. This knowledge played a big role 20 years later.
Nowadays, many young Italians travel every year to London to pay a visit to the Great British Beer Festival, at Cantillon Brewery in Brussels Italians are the second most numerous group from a foreign country and the famous Zythos Beer Festival has an Italian language translation. These are all signals that the Italian attitude towards beer has changed a lot and, in my opinion, never will be the same as before the craft beer revolution.
But on the other hand we have to realise that Italy has still the lowest beer consumption per capita in Europe, that we have one of the highest taxation rates on beer production and, finally, that wine is still strong in our consumers’ habits. So is the passion for craft beer just a temporary fashion? I don’t think so. The numbers of Italians crazy for craft beer will increase as the beer culture improves, but there’s still a long road in front of us.
Many micros have to develop a constant quality, some of them will close soon or later, some others will get bigger and much more organised but, above all, Italian consumers have to transform their peculiar curiosity towards the craft beer world into a normal, daily, enjoyable way of life. This is the biggest challenge.
Image above shows that cask British beer finds favour in Italy