Struggling Stateside, the Craft Beer Bar Is Alive and Well in Italy

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I have a confession to make. No, it’s not about my complicity in the beer-and-candy pairing media farce of yesteryear. Nothing nearly as soul-searching. But: I spent much of last week in northern Italy drinking — gasp — wine.

What?! No! How could I?! But it’s true: having been invited with my VinePair colleagues to Verona as a panelist at Vinitaly’s 2022 Wine2Wine Exhibition, your humble Hop Take columnist briefly turned his back on beer. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. When at a wine conference in the Italian region that produces the most wine by volume in the entire country… well, what did you expect me to do, dear reader?

Still, that’s not to say I left beer completely in the lurch. Before, during, and after our panel — a skeptical look at the intersection of non-fungible tokens and the wine business — I made time to drink a few Italian beers, too. I’m pleased to report they were mostly delicious, and mostly lagers, in keeping with northern Italy’s famous fealty to the Tipopils-style pilsners popularized by Milan’s Birrificio Italiano.

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I’m even happier to report that the craft beer bar, an increasingly rare bird in these United States thanks to changing tastes, rising rents, and the sheer proliferation of taproom-equipped breweries across the land, is alive and well in northern Italy. I was able to stop in at a pair of bottle shops there (Santa Maria Craft Pub in Verona, and Bere Buona Birra in Milan) and speak to their respective co-owners about the business of retailing beer to the Italian drinking public, and the country’s craft beer industry in general.

“We’re maybe not at the same level [as the United States] but we’re reaching it,” Filippo Garavaglia, owner of Bere Buona Birra and a 12-year veteran of the industry, tells me as I sip a fresh-hopped Alder pilsner outside his bustling bar in the Milanese evening.

His energy, his bartender Lily’s energy, the well-heeled and congenial clientele’s energy — it was enough to make this cynical columnist nostalgic for the golden age of American craft beer, when tap takeovers and large-format bottles still thrilled, and independent pubs earnestly (and lucratively) introduced a generation of thirsty disciples to palate-expanding wares from everywhere. Those salad days are gone in the U.S. for now, and maybe forever. But Italy’s craft brewing industry trails its American analog by roughly a decade, guesses Santa Maria co-owner Riccardo Orlandi, who has been part of the craft beer scene for the past four years. The beer bar flourishes apace. The goal, Orlandi tells Hop Take over piccolo session IPAs at the cozy, modern shop he opened two years ago just a few marble-paved blocks from Verona’s main square, is “teaching people that there’s a higher level” to beer.

Feeling nostalgic yet?

My conversations with Garavaglia and Orlandi offered a brief but illuminating window into a craft beer market that takes its cues as much from Italian culinary history and present economic reality as it does from the American industry that launched the “revolution” a few decades ago. The beers were tremendous, and the vibes, immaculate. Here’s what I learned about Italy’s craft brewing business on last week’s wine trip.

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On “beyond beer”

Riccardo Orlandi (SMCP): Hard seltzer is difficult here. We distribute hard kombucha, I know that in California that’s really huge. People are getting used to it, but really slowly, and I don’t think it will become a huge thing. We have 15 taps, so we try to dedicate one to cider. But it’s not so popular in Verona, I think we might be the only place that serves cider.

Filippo Garavaglia (BBB): They tried to introduce hard seltzer here. It was quite a failure. We’re still behind on other beverages you’ve got, like ciders and mead; those are still very [emergent] here.

On popular styles

RO: People are slowly getting into different beers. They’re more conservative. They say, “OK, I drink helles, but I really don’t like IPAs.” But they’re curious, so when they start with helles lager, they can next try our session IPA, then an IPA. It’s a progression. But helles is the most popular because it’s the easiest beer.

FG: The last thing [Italian brewers] tried was dip-hopping, but I don’t think it will take hold. When the New England-style IPA trend started, I tried some imported stuff, some traded stuff from the U.S. But at first, there was no idea [among Italian brewers] what New England-style IPA was. There were people putting flour, putting all kinds of stuff in there, to get murky beers. The guy from Alchemist, thought of as a godfather of this whole thing, still says their beer should clear up in the fridge. Now, New England IPAs are hazy all of the time. I think it’s just a trend. Now there’s basically no new beer to be discovered. Historical styles are done, adjuncts are done, barrel aging is done. Now we just have to improve this stuff.

On American influence

RO: I think the craft beer revolution started in California, and as with a lot of other “hype” things, it came from America, then moved slowly down through northern Europe. When we began, we had inspiration from Stone Brewing from California, BrewDog from Scotland, Mikkeller, To Øl, and others.

FG: The only effect [from the American market] is in the small niche of real beer geeks. Those guys tend to trade American beers, but the whole consumption of alcohol beverages in the U.S. is not so fundamental for us. I think there’s not so much influence on the Italian drinker from the U.S. [drinking trends] at the moment. But the last fad we had was pastry stouts. So [brewers] still get inspired a lot by you guys. There’s still inspiration. Lots of the brewers in Italy got inspired about how to brew beer, about how to manage your business, about how to expand. Lots of the time, that was quite a risky maneuver. That’s the thing: Here, we are less risky than you guys.

On the importance of independence

RO: The craft beer breweries here want to stay independent for ethical reasons, to be respected. So the point is to earn as much as you like, be as big as you want, but independent. Our philosophy is to have relationships with the really independent breweries. A year ago we did one week of serving Firestone Walker. It’s a good brewery, but it’s really big. And also Mikkeller, they have huge distribution. So we decided we were out of our depth. Our main point is to sell beers with good quality from independent breweries — small breweries, or maybe big breweries, but always with independence.

I think that in Italy, there was a craft brewing revolution. Maybe now we’re living the results of the revolution. In Verona, maybe only five, six, seven years ago. Verona is not like Italy. I think we’re the last in Italy to get craft beer, and I think Italy is the last in Europe maybe.

FG: This is not the point of view of the whole craft beer scene. There is still this idea of craft beer as a “revolutionary” product, of being against something. But I think that is just marketing, it’s more a way to present the product. Now you even see BrewDog, they’re not as “revolutionary” as they were before. Now they’re getting bigger and bigger. We used to sell a lot of Punk IPA, a lot of Punk IPA. But now, I think even the product itself has changed.

If [craft breweries] want to make more industrial-like products, but still remain independent to be considered craft beer, that’s okay. The thing I don’t like is the whole “crafty” beers, those industrial products that are sold as craft beer. Of course that’s what [macrobrewers] have to do; it’s their market and they have to fight us. But we don’t have to like it. We don’t have to sell it!

On Italian craft beer’s biggest challenges

RO: When I started [getting into craft beer], I saw a lot of independent breweries that were growing up really fast. Nowadays, we are kind of saturated. So the breweries that started 10, 12, 15 years ago are still really popular and respected. A lot of breweries started in the last five years maybe, and it’s really difficult. They have to be smart, to care about the aesthetic of the brand. A lot of breweries care about the beer, and just not the marketing side. The beer has to be good, but the marketing could help a little bit. One of the problems for the small breweries: They’ll have a really good session IPA and the next batch is not consistent. I think that they’re starting to have good-quality production, normal standard production.

FG: The quality of beer here is extremely good. Not the [mid-level] brewers, but when we are talking about the top 100, 150 Italian brewers, we are at the international level. Now the game is quality standardization. I’m not talking about making beer just like everyone else. But standardizing the procedure, having more quality control, having been more constant in what you brew. Lots of breweries that are very good breweries here still have the problem of huge differences between one batch and another. The consistency is the most important part of the beer market if you want to improve.

Now the issues are also social and economic. Because of the [Covid-19] crisis, prices are skyrocketing for everything, every raw material. Beer in Italy is not cheap. Craft beer in Italy has always been quite expensive. Having a narrative, something to tell, is going to be harder and harder, because not having new styles, not having new beers — we’d basically have to ferment nails [at this point] to get new styles! — means we have to create a new narrative, to present a product in a new way. Just saying we are craft brewers is not something you can say any more. Being “craft” doesn’t mean nothing, but it means less than it used to.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Quick, which country exports the most beer in the world? It’s not China or the United States but Mexico. Mexican breweries (the largest of which are owned by multinational firms like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Constellation Brands, and Heineken) shipped about $5 billion worth of cerveza in 2021 — no surprise given the sustained success of Corona et al. But after a sweltering summer when over half of the country’s municipalities faced droughts exacerbated by climate change, critics, including the country’s president, are once again taking aim at the lucrative water-rights concessions that the brewers depend on to operate. Heineken was sufficiently rattled to donate a well worth $1 million back to the city of Monterrey, and temporarily ran tankers to quench a thirsting populace from its privatized aquifer. So reporteth The New York Times, giving American readers a southerly window into the water wars that are surely in store for stateside suppliers soon enough.

📈 Ups…

How (and why) Lawson’s Finest Liquids has been recycling maple sap waste into world-class beers for years… Next time someone asks why Starbucks workers are unionizing, just send them this… Congrats to the 50 breweries that make their states’ highest-rated IPAs… New tax-equivalency study seems to favor beer lobby (or does it?)… New Glarus Brewing Co. is building a CO2 reclamation plant… Wyo.’s formerly hot Melvin Brewing finds in-state buyer in Roadhouse Brewing

📉 …and downs

Non-alcoholic beer is booming, but quality control is all over the placeQatari royals are balking at Budweiser’s 2022 World Cup promos, demanding 11th-hour adjustments… Booze-based ballot measures got a cold reception from Colo. voters… “Not all beer is vegan” is a pretty ominous headline Liquor heavyweights continue to eye beer’s share, as Pernod Ricard buys its first canning line… Chief exec of new Athletic Brewing Co. investor Keurig Dr Pepper steps down over conduct violationsBeer inflation was up 6 percent last month, biggest jump since Bill Clinton got elected president