The View from the Middle (of Italy)

Photo Credits: Lucia Fiordi

by Stephen Beaumont 

I have been quietly fascinated by the Italian craft beer scene ever since I was invited to help judge the inaugural Birra dell’Anno competition in Milan in 2006. Back then, with the industry still in its relative infancy, breweries numbered in the dozens rather than today’s hundreds and flawed beers were hardly uncommon sightings at the judging tables.

A dozen years later, beer in Italy could hardly be more different. The then-nascent national beer style, chestnut beer, has been quietly moved to the margins and replaced by the far more interesting Italian grape ale, and breweries have flourished from their once predominantly northern heartland to all across the country, counting now in excess of one thousand, by some estimates.

And with the breweries, of course, have come the festivals.

The big one, which I profile in my new book, Will Travel for Beer, is the Beer Attraction, connected to the aforementioned Birra dell’Anno competition and now taking place in the somewhat weary seaside resort and trade show town of Rimini. The other, which it was my good fortune to attend in early September of this year, is the Villagio della Birra.

I had been hearing about the Villagio for years before finally attending, and as is sometimes the case for events that have been built up over time, I feared a disappointment born of raised expectations. I needn’t have worried, but before I explain that further, a bit about Italian beer in general.

During what was previously my most recent visit to Italy three years ago, I encountered a great number of American-wannabe beers – pale ales, single and double IPAs and assorted other brews cast in the U.S. craft beer mould. Reviewing the scene again a year later, compiling beer reviews for Best Beers with my local beer expert informant, Maurizio Maestrelli, we concluded that while U.S. beer trends still had their adherents on both sides of the brew kettle, Italian craft beer was increasingly following its own path. Grapes and wine barrels figured much more prominently than they once had, and even where fruit or wood were not involved, brewers were beginning to give a very Italian culinary twist to styles like golden ale and Belgian style wheat, even pumpkin beer!

(One of my favourite reviews from Best Beers was penned by Maurizio, “A very Italian take on a pumpkin ale, this adds almonds and three kinds of pepper to the pumpkin for a complex bouquet of dried fruits, spices and pumpkin in the background.” That’s Orange Poison from Birraficio Pontino, folks.)

Meanwhile, back at the Villagio we find a festival born of the desire to bring Belgian brewers to the heart of Tuscany and feature them alongside Italian brewers, now evolved to include breweries from Scandinavia, Iberia, the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere, even the United States, although Scratch Brewing’s beers were unfortunately delayed in transit. (No Canadians, alas, or at least none yet.) The common thread in most if not almost all of the assembled brewers was a commitment to indigenous ingredients or styles, from the ‘Full Circle Beer Project’ of Spain’s Lo Vilot, where all ingredients are grown on their farm, to the use of northern French hops in the IPA of la Brasserie du Pays Flamand and the foraged birch and pine used in Cold Hawaii, an unhopped pilsner from Denmark’s Thisted Bryghus. The other thread: every brewery booth I visited was pouring at least one very impressive beer, usually two or three, if not more.

The former fact, for me, struck at the heart of what this festival has traditionally been all about, namely the meeting of brewing cultures – originally Italian and Belgian, now more widely spread – and the exchange of inspiration and ideas. Which is likely why several Italians attending the Villagio referred to it as the most important beer festival in Italy, and in some ways the catalyst for much of the change Italian beer has experienced over the past several years.

As for that second point, well, that’s why it may also be the best beer festival you’ve never heard of – until now, at least!

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Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

Twitter: @BeaumontDrinks