Words and photos by Bruce McMichael
Millions of people enjoy a glass of beer with their pizza slices, flipping open a bottle unthinking about the ritual. But too often the beer is an industrial product that fails to pair with the subtleties of the food. Simply made with hops, malt and water, such beer is gradually seeping onto the tables. However, in Italy (like in other countries) several craft and microbreweries are working to improve drinkers’ choices and have been quietly developing supply chains that support Italian ingredients, says Teo Musso, the pioneer of the craft beer movement in Italy in the mid-1990s, founder of Baladin (brewery and hospitality group) and chairman of the Italian Beer Consortium (IBC).
There is no lack of interest amongst such smaller, independent craft brewers and awareness was already fairly high among producers looking to use Italian ingredients – indeed, consortia were created for sharing barley processing, to manage expensive and complex malting facilities. Which is where Teo and the IBC fit in. The Consortium is a group of craft breweries, processers and national farmers association Coldiretti – the latter offering a direct link to the growers.
Just one in three beers consumed in Italy are Made in Italy, and even fewer are brewed with locally grown ingredients, something that needed to change. “The first steps being made are to give Consortium members the opportunity to buy Italian barley malt and support the production of hops,” says Teo. “At the same time, we’re working on communicating our stories to consumers via a new brand”, he adds. Consumers can then choose craft beers made with Italian ingredients and stay clear of fake craft beers. Hence the new logo that is increasingly seen on craft beer bottles, reassuring customers that 51% of a bottle’s content is sourced from the Italian agricultural supply chain. The distinctive brand Artigianale da Filiera Agricola Italiana (craft beer made with Italian agricultural produce), was launched at the end of January 2020. Its new logo has been designed and will be stamped on labels for bottles whose contents have at least 51% sourced from the Italian agricultural supply chain.
IBC, was set up on 2019 and already represents 11% of the craft beer produced in Italy and over 40% of Italian barley malt production. The group aims to clean up the craft beer supply chain and get Italian brewers better access to world-class ingredients, grown in the country. “First of all, I would like to stress that the Consortium has not been created just for farm breweries, but for all those craft breweries that decide to use mostly Italian ingredients for their beers,” says Teo. The campaign is particularly aimed on increasing the volume of hops grown, with only around 60 hectares currently dedicated to the crop with around 100 producers involved. Baladin now grows some its own hops close to the famous wine areas of Barolo and Barbaresco in central Piemonte, and Lombardy’s Birrificio Italiano.
Today, many brewers use grape must and use wine barrels to add flavours while the popular 75cl bottle aims to get drinkers to link its higher quality with the concept of Made in Italy brand. Using heritage grains and wild yeast, can set brewers apart from industrial beer producers. Flavours such as chestnuts, spelt, wild honey, seasonal fruits, wine grapes and Italian spices can all be found in Italian craft beers. “It’s early days to know how the market will react, but we are confident that end consumers – especially in Italy, but in other countries too – will appreciate the value of a 100% Italian product,” says Teo.
By the close of 2020, in order to protect the rights of consumers, the Consortium is hoping to gain a quality certification for the brand, awarded by a certifying body. Longer term, the group will invest in research activity to support, understand and catalogue Italian genetics of barley and improve the cultivation of hops. Indeed, Teo has been quoted as saying that the ambition is have the concept terroir as vital to beer as it is to wine and to move towards the concept that Italian beer offers far more taste and story telling than the industrial products that dominate supermarkets shelves and home fridges.
So where does the Italianess of the beer come from? “It begins from the land of origin of the ingredients and from skills of our Italian master brewers. But that is not enough,” says Teo. Searching for a distinctive, defining style is key to letting the outside world understand what we, as Italian craft brewers are trying to achieve, he says. For example, Italian Grape Ales – recognized by the Beer Judge Certification Program (a reference for the most important awards) as one of the identified beer styles – is a perfect example.
Breweries such as Baladin are continually experimenting and often age beers in old wine barrels to create new profiles and tastes. Many Italian craft beers are unfiltered and double fermented in the bottle, and barley wine (a British-style strong ale of between 6-11% ABV) using indigenous heritage grains is increasingly popular. However, “I don’t think that (the IBC branding) is enough”, says Teo. “But it identifies a very specific production choice that not all Italian breweries follow. In the future, being able to use ingredients that are identified as distinctively Italian – be it barley or hops – will certainly help, and it is the combination of the agricultural products used to make a beer that will determine its true Italianess.