For generations of Italians, beer existed to wash down pizza. End of story. You had a choice of light or dark, chiara or scura, no brewery name attached. The light was tasteless industrial lager, while the dark, at least every time I ordered it, was esaurita—run out.
How times have changed. On a recent pub crawl in Rome, I tried oyster stout, smoked IPA, assorted sour beers, ale steeped in Andalusian orange rind, beer with myrrh substituting for hops, lambics aged in wine and whiskey barrels, farmhouse ales made with kiwi or farro, hybrids of cofermented beer mash and wine must, even Etruscan beer.
Welcome to the brave new world of Italian craft brewing. As enthusiastic and energized as young love, this movement has gathered steam with remarkable speed. The start date is precise: 1996, when a change in Italian beer laws opened the way for three pioneering microbreweries in Piedmont and Lombardy: Baladin, Birrificio Lambrate, and Birrificio Italiano. By 2007, the number had climbed to 70. Today it’s over 650, with breweries not just in the cool northern climes, where giant stalwarts like Moretti and Forst set up shop a century earlier, but in every nook and cranny of Italy.
For beer lovers wanting to explore this terra incognita, all roads lead to Rome. This is where 70-plus bars and bottle shops cater specifically to craft beer, where beer festivals and presentations happen every week, and where you’ll meet a network of beer enthusiasts who are eager to spread the love.
That’s where I head for my crash course in birra artiginale. What follows are my three favorite beer meccas. Follow this zigzag route down the Tiber, and you too will never again think “great Italian beer” is an oxymoron.
No one could imagine why Teo Musso, son of a farmer, would want to open a brewpub, let alone one in Piedmont wine country. But that “crazy” impulse proved prescient. Inspired by travels to Belgium, Musso transformed his crêperie into Italy’s first brewpub. He called it Baladin, meaning jester or minstrel—one of Musso’s nicknames. But this was no joke. Today Baladin is Italy’s most widely exported craft beer, and Musso’s pub in the obscure village of Piozzo now has branches in Turin, Cuneo, Cinzano, and Saluzzo, plus a mega-sized operation in Rome, which, according to its staff, is probably the largest craft-beer gastropub in Italy, if not Europe. Every Rome beer pilgrimage should begin here.
Two priests are among the lunch clientele when I arrive, along with business workers, a table of moms with kids, and a group of Italian hipsters, one sporting a t-shirt that reads “Mad4Beer.” Motown plays on the soundtrack, and burgers and cacio e pepe croquettes feed the crowd. Altogether, 44 beers are on tap today, including four hand-pump casks. There’s another hundred labels in bottle—95 percent Italian. Though Baladin’s own brews dominate, they share the stage with other microbreweries. “The project is to popularize Italian artisan beer,” says manager Rosy Spataro.
I sample one of Baladin’s most popular labels: Nora, a spiced ale made with kamut wheat, which has a sweetish caramel finish. “In Italy, we make a lot of experiments, because we don’t have a very long history in beer—so we try everything,” says Luca Tosato, one of Musso’s business partners.
This pioneering spirit, combined with the rage for all things indigenous, has led to some interesting concoctions—not all successful. (I once tried a basil beer in Genoa that tasted like soap.) But they hit the jackpot with ArcheoBirra Etrusca. “It’s very strange,” Spataro cautions as she pours me a bottle. I read the ingredients: malted barley, hazelnut flour, chestnut honey, pomegranate, myrrh resin, gentian root. Not your everyday brew.
It is strange—and alluring and worlds away from the bitter-hops IPAs that are my usual fare. If you were a time-traveling Etruscan, you’d feel right at home. Or that was the intention when the ArcheoBirra Etrusca project started a few years ago. I lit up when I heard that Patrick McGovern was involved, for this professor of biomolecular archeology at the University of Pennsylvania has been publishing some pretty interesting stuff on the drinking habits of ancient civilizations. Etrusca’s exotic list of ingredients grew out of his analysis of drinking vessels in 2800-year-old Etruscan tombs, and three master brewers stepped up to create their own interpretations: Musso from Baladin, Leonardo di Vincenzo from Birra del Borgo (northeast of Rome), and Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head (Delaware). Each of the “Birreria Bros,” as these frequent collaborators call themselves, tried a different vessel for fermentation: bronze (Dogfish), oak cask (Baladin), and terracotta amphorae (Borgo). What fun!
If you’re stuck Stateside, you might luck out and find some bottles at Whole Foods or Eataly. For me, the weird and wonderful Etrusca sums up the try-anything mentality that defines Italy right now.
It’s late afternoon, so I have the bartender all to myself. Hearing my mission, he offers one sample after another from today’s 30 taps: Dark Star Brewing’s Seville, a wheat beer matured with Spanish bitter oranges. Birrificio Italiano’s Nigredo, a black lager with roasted hops (motto: “Blacker than the blackest black”). Bloed Zweet & Tranen (Blood Sweat & Tears), a smoked Netherlandish beer aged in Bruichladdich Scotch casks. Then there’s the pub’s own label, Revolution Cat. I sample their molasses-dark black double IPA (Bombay Cat) and two sour beers (my newest infatuation, thanks to this trip), including one aged in Brunello wine barrels. If I lived in this neighborhood, I’d never leave this place. A roof deck, a smart incentive program for regulars, and an affiliated BBQ joint next door makes it all the more appealing.
Soon Brasserie 4:20’s owner joins me for a chat. Alex Liberati was part of the first wave of Rome’s beer revolution and remains an influential player. “I discovered beer by pure chance,” the cheery ponytailed brewer says with a perfect American accent. (Though born in Rome to an English mother, “I traveled a lot in the U.S.,” he explains with a shrug.) He studied psychology, but didn’t see a future there. “Too many other students, and not enough Italians going to shrinks.” What excited him more were his trips to Belgium, Germany, and beyond. “I brought back beers, made my friends try them. They loved them. So I thought, This is great! I should make a business out of it. There was no craft beer in Rome at the time.”
Liberati dropped out of school and kept his bimonthly trips going. Being the early 2000s, “there were no websites to show the lay of the land,” he says. “I learned by knowing people, especially in Belgium.” In 2004, at age 22, he opened Brasserie 4:20. “We were probably the first to sell only and exclusively craft beer,” he says. In 2009, Liberati began brewing his own beers under the label Revolution Cat.
As an advisor to Unionbirrai, the craft brewers association, he has a bird’s eye perspective of Italy’s progress. “It all changed in 2009, when the first serious manual for craft brewers, the bible, was translated into Italian,” he says. “We’re the Galapagos of beer here in Italy, because no one speaks English. We don’t intertwine with the rest of the beer-drinking communities. So after that, the quality of Italian beers really flipped.” Evolution came overnight, making this Galapagos the New Frontier.
Just over the Ponte Sisto bridge to Trastevere lies another old stalwart, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà? (translation: What in the heck are you doing here?, affectionately known as Macchè). When Manuele Colonna and Fabio Zaniol opened this sliver of a bar in 2000, they were largely ignored. But over time it’s become an institution and requisite stop for beer pilgrims. It’s also a launch pad for brewers. When Birra del Borgo founder Leonardo di Vicenzo was about to make the leap from homebrewing to commercial production, “he brought us the first bottles he’d made, with labels handwritten in pencil,” says my bartender, Paolo.
Like 4:20’s Liberati, Colonna was inspired by travels to northern Europe. Rubbing elbows with master brewers, he picked up a fervent dedication not just to artisanal beer, but to serving it right—keeping the tap lines clean, the kegs fresh, the temperature right, the foam head appropriate.
Most nights, a young, predominately male crowd fills Macchè’s tight quarters and spills out onto the sidewalk. Unlike Rome’s gastropubs, this bar is open all day. When I settle down on a bar stool one afternoon, I find myself next to the manager of No.au, another destination on my list, known for its natural wines and beers. He’d stopped in for a quick beer before his shift. “A lot of people from other pubs come before or after work,” Paolo tells me later. “They like good beer, and they’re friends. Plus, we’re open all day and are in the center.”
Macchè’s predominantly Italian list changes constantly. Today 16 beers are on tap, with dozens more in bottles. Here I’m introduced to beer with myrrh resin, from German brewer Gaenstaller Bräu (“weird, but not off-putting,” I scrawl in my notes), a beer/wine hybrid from LoverBeer fermented with 20 percent Barbera (“delicate and light”), and Petit Ghisa from Birreria Lambrate, a low-alcohol smoked IPA that I adore. Even better is Verdi, Birrificio del Ducato’s Imperial Stout, a dark, rich beer infused with habanero chile (“Mole!”).
Feeling hungry? Across the street is Bir+Fud, a pizzeria Colonna started in 2007 with Di Vicenzo and chef/baker Gabriele Bonci. I’ve had some fantastic pizzas there over the years (try their potato and rosemary pizza bianca) and have gotten blissfully lost in their beer list—36 beers on tap, all described in elaborate detail. But there’s also 200 bottles in the cellar, mostly oak-conditioned Belgian brews collected by Colonna over the years. (You must ask for that list.)
With 650 breweries and more on the way, Italy is evolving fast. Time will tell which brewers have staying power. According to Bir+Fud manager Alfonso Strianse, “only 25 percent are really good. But they’re as good as any Belgian, German, British, or American.” That’s not a bad start.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Tastes of Italia, but since they don't post articles on their website, I'm doing that here—for all you Rome-bound travelers!