Craft Beer And Homebrewing In Italy

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Italy continues to be known more as an interesting beer country and a home to many popular microbreweries. Less known maybe is the fact that Italy is also home to a flourishing homebrewing community. The sudden growth of Italy's craft beer industry, and it's homebrewing community, was unheard of 20 years ago. Back then I had the chance to be part of the homebrew and craft beer movement. Since the late 1990's, at the very beginning, I had helped to start homebrewing in Italy.
Back in the early 1990's both craft beer and homebrewing were unknown concepts in Italy. Quality beer was not completely unknown, thanks to a few good Belgian and UK imports. There were only a couple of pioneering microbreweries then, which only sold their beer locally, without gaining a substantial following. Homebrewing was not legal, or more precisely, its legal status was not clear. There were some people brewing at home, just like myself, who started brewing in 1984 using pre-hopped extract that were bought during trips abroad.
For my homebrewing I used liquid baker's malt extract, hops, some specialty grains, and adjuncts that were found in health food stores. As I discovered later, I was not alone in using the baker's extract option. I think actually there could have been maybe a few dozen people brewing at home then, but no one knew each other.

Huge attendance in Turin at Openfest, a festival of Italian craft beers
Things began to change quite fast actually in the second half of the 1990's. On October 26, 1995, what is now National Homebrew Day in Italy, homebrewing became legal, without any limitation on quantity as long as you didn't sell the beer. The legalization itself had little direct impact as there were very few people brewing at the time. Generally these early homebrewers did not know, or much care about, the legal status of homebrewing. For example, I myself only discovered that my hobby was no longer illegal 5 or 6 years after the fact. In any case the legalization meant that the only existing homebrew shop at the time, Mr. Malt which is still the best known shop today, could now freely market its products. The terms beer and brewing could now be used when selling homebrew products, instead of selling them as ingredients for herb infusions.
But perhaps the most important factor was the rise of the internet. It was in the late 1990's that the web gained widespread use in Italy. The first pioneering websites and online stores being established meant that curious Italian homebrewers, or at least those with some English language skills, could improve their methods by browsing US homebrew websites. Even more importantly they could now connect with fellow Italian homebrewers, while discovering they were not alone in this hobby. The ability to communicate, exchange experiences, recipes and learn from each other had been born. By the end of 1997 I launched my beer and home brewing site, complete with an extract brewing guide, that by today's standards may seem rudimentary. But nonetheless the website prompted a lot of new home brewers to start.
I ended up spending a lot of my time corresponding by email with many other homebrewers. After a few months one of my email brewing friends and I had the idea of starting a Usenet newsgroup about beer, it.hobby.birra, which came online in July 1998. That was the real kick off! Many beer drinkers discovered that it was now possible to brew at home. The it.hobby.birra newsgroup enabled them to learn from the few that were already brewing, trying new techniques, exchanging recipes and improving their skills. Those with some English language knowledge transferred American homebrewing techniques to the others, a few started trying all grain brewing, discovering that it was not so difficult.

Checking starch conversion during a homebrew course
After a while the more expert brewers decided that instead of writing again and again the tips and instructions to the newcomers, it was better to write down the FAQ (frequently asked questions) for the group. The result was a brewing manual quite deep and complete, so much so that even after all these years it was, and still is, read and consulted by home brewers and pro-brewers.
In the same years another important movement was also starting. A few independent microbreweries, mostly brewpubs, were born. At the same time the homebrewing movement, although tightly connected to craft brewing, was also evolving separately. Many of these new craft breweries opened briefly and then closed, 4 or 5 of these pioneering microbreweries are still thriving and are highly regarded after 18 years. Names like Baladin, Birrificio Italiano, and Lambrate have become well know even internationally. Every pro-brewer has their own origin story, one was a homebrewer, another learned his skill abroad, and so on. So in the same early years, late 1990's and early 2000's, while homebrewing was starting to explode, the same was happening for the craft beer movement. Less than 2 years later the number of craft breweries jumped to 40 and then 100 shortly thereafter. Most were brewpubs with very few bottles available in the market, Presently the situation is the opposite, the great majority being craft breweries without a brewpub.
The homebrewing community was becoming more and more lively, with the first real life home brew meetings being held. The first such one had just a bunch of people meeting in a country home during the cold Piedmont winter. But then we had the great idea to meet at brewpubs, the homebrewers being very curious about these new "strange and mysterious craft breweries". So in the summer of 1999 we met in Piozzo at Baladin, tasting craft beers for the first time while letting the professional brewers taste our homebrews. That was the beginning of the mutual influences between the homebrew and craft beer movements.

Home brewed beer judging at homebrew competition
That meeting was another important starting point, one year later it become a more organized tasting event. Then in December of 1999 at Birrificio Italiano and then in the summer of 2000 at Baladin, it evolved into the first true Italian Homebrew competitions. By the way we still conduct these homebrew meetings and beer competitions at Baladin, which are still now in 2015 one of the main homebrewing events in Italy. Another obvious interaction especially in later years was the number of homebrewers going pro.
During the first decade of the millennium craft beer and homebrewing experienced the same steady, although maybe less explosive growth. At least two homebrew competitions were held each year and homebrewers were improving the quality of their beers. They had expanded their skills on advanced topics ranging from hop growing to barrel aging and quite a few were becoming professional brewers. The Italian craft beer industry increased to nearly 500 breweries, with a slight decline in brewpubs and an increase in package breweries. The first craft beer festival was held in 2004 and the same event is still being held in 2015. During the following years these kinds of events were quite successful and growing from only a handful a year to many. A few of these festivals feature international craft beer, but most focus on the draft products of local microbreweries.
Important for the promotion of both homebrew and craft brewing were some key people, above all Lorenzo Dabove a.k.a. Kuaska. A world renown beer expert who helped make Italian craft beer known internationally, he has always supported and helped the homebrewer community. I must also mention Unionbirrai the microbreweries association, which was born at the very beginning of the craft beer movement and is still active. Though it never could collect more than 20% of the existing breweries, many of the best craft breweries had always been part of Unionbirrai. The association has always been a resource for the craft beer movement and opened its doors to homebrewers and to consumers of quality beers. It was seen as a good idea to join the two threads of the beer renaissance, especially when this movement was still young.
The last years, since the end of the first decade, have seen quite a few changes. A bit unexpectedly, when you were expecting this growth to slow down a bit, the opposite happened. The rate of new craft brewery openings jumped up, the number has doubled again reaching almost 1000, including closures. The total number of active craft breweries is now around 850. For years "beer experts" are prophesying that it is just an economic bubble that will soon explode, but it never does. What is even more surprising is that this is happening during a phase of economic regression in Italy, and in spite of the proverbial difficulty for start-ups in Italy due to bureaucracy. The cause of this acceleration? Maybe a reflection of what is happening also in other countries, like the UK and in Scandinavia, but it has to be noted that the Italian Beer Renaissance has predated this European trend.

Home brewed beer judging at homebrew competition
Now in Italy the number of breweries per inhabitant is double than in US, with small regions featuring more micros than some US States. Brewpubs are now a minority with many of the new breweries opened by brewfirms and accounting for a good share of the whole number of breweries. Actually the brewfirm phenomenon is not seen as a good thing by many here in Italy, as it is in Belgium for example). But while it is true that a few are just commercial enterprises that just want to put their name on beer made by others, some others are operating well and many are just waiting to buy their own equipment as soon as they can afford it. Breweries are experimenting with dozens, hundreds of different styles, ranging from classical to new ones.
Only a few years ago not many beer lovers had ever tasted a Gose, now there is more Gose brewed in a region of Italy than in Leipzig, it is almost becoming a common style! Lately after the "the hoppier the better" craze the trendiest breweries are experimenting with barrel aging, sour and wild brews. Not to speak of new Italian styles, actually our country has become known as a country of "fantasy" brewers. Employing unusual ingredients from their own land, sometimes with great success and sometimes less, in the new "grape and malt" beers BJCP recognized style.

Judging craft beer at Birra dell'Anno Competition
A similar explosive growth has been experienced by craft beer pubs, most devoted to showcase Italian beers but many also featuring some of the best and sometimes rarest international craft products. The beer shop used to be an unusual concept years ago, now in Rome alone there are 50 maybe 70, who knows. Beer festivals and beer events have multiplied to the point that every week now there would be something interesting to attend, often more than one festival in the same day. Just as an example of a festival that nobody would have dreamed of only a few years ago, this year I attended a Sour Beer Festival featuring 140 sour beers, 70 at a time from Italy and abroad.
Homebrewing experienced the same acceleration here along with the general increase of attention regarding "craft" beer in general, both drinking and brewing! So with the growth of the movement, a few people on the staff of Unionbirrai including myself, thought that it would be better if the professional brewers and home brewers could operate independently within their own specific roles. So after leaving UB a couple of years later we then founded MoBI, the Italian National Homebrewing and Beer Consumers associations. In addition to holding tasting courses for the general public, MoBI organizes regular all grain hands on homebrewing courses. We also took the lead in organizing homebrew competitions, now several during the year, in cooperation with brewpubs and local homebrew clubs.
In 2011 we had the idea of connecting the 8 or 10 main competitions into an Italian Championship, like a Formula One Championship. The winner's and finalist's points, from each competition would be used to pick an overall winner at the end of the year. The first three get to brew their own beer in a full size microbrewery, one of the biggest actually, which then becomes commercially available with their name on the label. Although homebrewing is all about cooperation, sharing ideas, beer, and drinking in good company. When it comes to competition, and above all the Championship, homebrewers become, well, quite competitive. The judges sometimes have a hard job trying not to upset some of them! ;-)
Another important activity of MoBI has been the editorial one, the first comprehensive Italian Homebrew manual that I wrote with friend Davide Bertinotti in 2008. We in MoBI had the idea of buying the rights and translating the most important US beer and homebrewing books starting with Ray Daniels' - Designing Great Beers and Mosher's - Tasting Beer, and later on the "Belgian Beer Trilogy" and so on. In this way a good deal of important brewing literature has become available to the Italian homebrewers and professional craft brewers, who otherwise could not manage the English language.

Un Po di Birra, craft beers while cruising on river Po!
I do think that besides the growing numbers of home brewers the homebrew has also grown in quality. Judging from what I taste during homebrew events and competitions, or just from home brewing friends. Now the last trend also for homebrewers is about barrel aging and wild beers, without forgetting a good session ale every now and then. ;-)
Everything's all right then, is Italy the new beer heaven? Well, maybe not yet, despite the growth there are still aspects where we can improve. The quality of craft beer is not always exactly top notch. There are and there have always been during these years, many different kinds of people going into the market. Some are just there for the hopes of making money without any sincere interest or passion. Some have very little knowledge about their product, some of them do not survive for long and others may have some success due to good marketing, but not for the quality of their beers. Others are sincerely passionate about good beer but believe it is enough to brew a good batch at home and maybe someday win a homebrew contest.
Many will be able to survive all the same but the quality of their beer, at least at the beginning, may be quite not up to standard. Still there are many new breweries opened by people that are both passionate and technically prepared, or at least humble enough to be willing to study or hire a professional freelance brewer. Their beer proves that they are doing well. So despite some problems I believe quality is no worse than in other countries, I think the UK and Belgium face similar problems and have improved over the years. Even if Italy had just 10% of brewers making good beers that means we have nearly 100 good breweries to choose from, in comparison with a just a dozen a few years ago.

Craft beer festival in Rome Italy
But probably the main problem is with prices. Despite the growth in number of small breweries their combined market share is still tiny. Almost all are quite small with the average production of an Italian micro being less than 500 bbl a year. That means the brewery cannot benefit from the economics of scaling up, and their production costs are quite high. The result is that craft beer by micros is expensive and a bottle would cost you the same, or often even more than a good Belgian craft beer, despite the cost of import and transport from Belgium to Italy. The cost difference between a craft beer and and industrial one, Italian or international, is quite acceptable in the pubs, especially on draught. I don't know if it is because the publican is satisfied with a lesser margin on the craft products, or because draught industrial beer is expensive. If a pint is 25% more expensive who cares when it is of better quality.
The difference is huge for bottled beer in stores here, the price of a micro brewed beer is often 5 or 6 times the average industrial beer price. The difference is difficult to accept for a typical beer drinker to buy and drink it regularly! So craft beer is doing well in pubs and less well in restaurants, I think for some cultural reasons as wine is still a more traditional drink in Italy. Craft beer is still a niche product and not an everyday or every week beverage. I do think that the high prices are not entirely due to production costs, high taxes and bureaucracy but also for a lack of competition. The brewers maybe satisfied to view their beers as special products, for special occasions and do not try to compete on prices to enlarge the market. This suspicion comes also by viewing some Italian beer costing less abroad than it does here in Italy!
Homebrewing is doing well but also in this case there is room for improvement. For example years ago I hoped that in the near future regular homebrew clubs meetings in Italy would be widespread, yet they are still rare. We also lack a well a defined program for beer judge training, like the BJCP program in the US, and maybe better cooperation between associations at both national and local levels.
So, things maybe could be even better for craft and home brewing in Italy, but one thing is for sure, it is an exciting time to be in Italy if you love good beer!
Ciao, Massimo! Greetings from Vicenza! If you are ever up this way, there are several of us homebrewers who would love to drink a few litri with you and talk all things homebrew in Italia! Cin cin!
Non lo sapevo che c'era molto altro che Nastro Azzuro.
Sento piu illuminato. Grazie!
A well timed article. I'm in Rome right now and I'll be checking out the craft brews here.
Last year I spent three weeks in Tuscany/Umbria/Le Marche and had some excellent craft brews there.
Great article.
Let me tell you, in Manhattan (New York City) there are no good micro breweries. There may be a couple in Brooklyn, but they aren't convenient for me to get to. The New York City area is way under served with respect to micro breweries / brew pubs.
Massimo, Superb article! Thank you for sharing your time and efforts, and letting us know what is happening in Italy. If nothing else, the home brewing crowd around the world is fueled by love of good beer, passion, and the almost obsessive need to learn and make better beer. Best of luck to you!
Cool, I like it there. It was just a couple of years ago that I realised how much cask ale I could get in Milano. Plus many regional micros are very good. I enjoyed Nabbirra in Cosenza and Baladin in Rome as well.
I loved Italy when I visited, reat food, great wine, great people. But I missed 3 things: My Dog, Cheeseburgers, and Beer. All I could find was hiney and Moretti. They loved the stuff that I brewed and brought over. Maybe see some homebrew at an agritourismo next time.
Cin Cin
Bravo Max. I enjoyed your article very much. Thanks for taking the time to write it and thanks sharing the history of the Italian brewing scene. Hope to see you up in the Vicenza area sometime for some brews and discussion. Ciao
Nice write up on what's happening in the Italian beer scene. Interesting that I finally sold a copy of my first home brewing book over there recently. Good to hear that the home brewing bug is growing there too!
Thanks for your appreciation!
I just forgot to mention at least two essential sites:
THE updated database of all italian microbreweries
The site of italian HB and beer consumer association mentioned in the article.
(though there are many more...)
Nice max this festival was the great night.thanks for share good articles and this homepage.Great....:)
Great article! Exciting that homebrew and craft brewing is expanding around the globe. I think the potential, especially with the internet is huge. And that is good news for beer lovers everywhere. Thanks again for the article.
This is a little later than the article, but 3 weeks after it was posted I was in Rome on a port visit and we stumbled upon Scholar's Irish Pub. It was kind of nice to be in a pub in Rome, on Christmas and drinking Punk IPA from Brew Dog! Cheers!