26 Sept 2017
A Crafty Look at Vinitaly's Lesser-Known Beer-bearing Expo Stands
Although rightly famed as an unparalleled showcase for the world's leading wines, this year's Vinitaly also gave a nook or two over to craft beers, with this bespoke-brewing sector proving to be one of the fastest-growing trends in Italy.
Vinitaly, now in its 51st year, is the biggest wine fair in the world by exhibition area, regularly attracting more than 130,000 people, from 140 different countries, to Northern Italy every year. Over in one small corner of its huge exhibition ground, however, is an area devoted to a rival drink, one that is gaining an increasing foothold in Italy's bars and restaurants – craft beer.
Indeed, Italy's craft-beer scene is booming, with the country now boasting more than 1,000 breweries dedicated to the sector. Italy's take on this brewing phenomenon, however, has proved to be somewhat idiosyncratic. The most notable difference is a distinct preference for the larger shareable 75cl bottles as opposed to the more individual-oriented 500ml bottles. With Italian culture very much dedicated to eating out in groups, with bottles of wine tending to be passed around between friends and family, the country's craft brewers have reflected that preference by opting to produce big bottles of sharable beer.
The other peccadillo is a partiality for using local ingredients – not only locally grown barley and hops, but also such peculiarly Italian additives as sweet chestnut flour, grape must and local honey. At the more bizarre end of the scale, these exotic ingredients can even extend to aubergine skins and, apparently, Cuban cigars.
One local brewer with a clear penchant for Italian ingredients is Birrificio I Due Mastri (The Two Masters). Operating out of the Tuscan city of Prato, the two masters in question are Christiano Settesoldi and Jacobo Fabri, the brewers who started the business back in 2009.
Assessing the appeal of one of their most popular beers – Urca, a strong amber ale made with local chestnut honey – Settesoldi said: "We add chestnut honey at the end of the boil, making it a very elegant beer. At 7.2% alcohol, it's well-balanced and goes particularly well with aged cheese."
At present, I Due Mastri is exporting to the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico and Canada and also looking to find a US distributor.
One Italian brewery perhaps pushing the envelope more than any other is iBeer, which operates out of Fabriano, a small town in the country's central region. Run by Giovanna Merloni, a female brewmaster, the company began commercial production three years ago and now has a line-up made with some of the most unusual content ever to grace the ingredients list on any beer bottle.
Its Special One – a 9% abv imperial stout – comes, for instance, bittered with roast aubergine skins and then dry hopped with Cuban cigars. By contrast, its Lady Acid sour/wild beer is treated with an infusion of beetroot puree (to produce its pink colour) before being dry-hopped with Italian chilli. Continuing this slightly oddball tradition, Million Reasons, the latest addition to its range, is a saison [a spicy, highly-carbonated pale ale] made with rooibos herbal tea. In terms of exports, the company is already servicing France, Spain, Israel and Sweden and Japan.
Another relatively new entrant to the sector is Birrificio Antoniano, based in Padua and run by two brothers – Sandro and Michele Vecchiato. Starting life as a farm brewery back in 2015, the company took its name from St Anthony, the patron saint of Padua, and is fairly unique in that it grows its own raw materials, including barley and hops. In fact, Antoniano is now one of fewer than half a dozen Italian hop-growers and currently nurtures some six different varieties, including Cascade, Magnum and Safir.
Despite being just under two years old, the company already has distribution deals across the whole of Italy, while also exporting to Japan, Korea and several European countries. If all goes to plan, its US distribution deal will be in place before the end of the year.
Its best-selling beer is its Marechiaro blonde lager (5.2% abv), which takes its name from a small village near Naples that has long been a popular getaway destination for those in search of a little la dolce vita. Herbaceous and floral in taste and made using a blend of traditional European hops (Saaz) and its US counterparts (Cascade and Citra), it has been particularly designed to complement the cuisine of Southern Italy, most notably the region's renowned take on pizza.
If there is one brewery, however, that most reflects the style aspect of Italian craft brewing it is Birra Arduini, which started out, six years ago, selling its range of Viola beers solely in attractive 75cl-shouldered bottles. Explaining the thinking, Maurizio Arduini, the company's Founder, said: "In Italy, you would drink my beer from the same kind of glass you would use for white wine and, similarly, you would put the beer bottle in a bucket with ice, just as you would do with sparkling wine. This goes down well in Italy – when you drink a beer as an aperitif with your friend, you can share this big bottle. That is why I started out with only the big bottle. Presentation is very important in my country."
Based in Catolica, close to Rimini and on the Adriatic coast, Birra Arduini started out offering just two beers – one blonde, brewed with Saaz and Perle, two of the more traditional lager hops, and the other a rossa, made with combinations of hops from the UK, the Czech Republic and the US. After three years, a third beer was added to the roster – a bottle-fermented pale ale known, slightly unimaginatively, as Number Three (Numerotre). Despite Arduini's bold defence of the virtues of sharing, all three beers are now also available in 33cl bottles.
Another brewery striving for a great look on the restaurant table was Birra Anima, a two-year-old company based in the small village of Roccasparvera in northern Italy's Piedmont region. Launched by Alberto Di Giovanni, a former economist, the company's range of six beers are all available in unusually shapely, black, long-necked 75cl-champagne-corked bottles and, more unusually still, in champagne-corked 33cl bottles.
Stylish black 75cl bottles have also been adopted by Birrificio Il Mastio, a farm-based microbrewery in the small town of Urbisaglia in central Italy. Founded in 2011, the brewer's range of beers includes Litha, a 5.2% Belgian-style witbier that won a gold medal at both the Barcelona beer festival in 2017 and at the Brussels Beer Challenge in 2016. Lightly hopped and flavoured with coriander, orange peel and cardamom, it has already proved to be a popular medium for cooking fish. At present, the company has export deals in place with the US, Germany and Norway.
Similarly successful in the export stakes is BirradaMare, with its beers already available in Taiwan, Japan, Australia, US, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Founded in 2004 in a brewpub in Ostia, the site of Rome's ancient port, the company's success saw it move to larger facilities in 2010.
With its name reflecting a degree of Italian wordplay, meaning either "birra da amare" (beer to love) or "birra da mare" (beer of the sea), the company prides itself on brewing ales that celebrate its locality. La Zia Ale, for instance, contains rosemary and artichokes, two staples of the cuisine of the surrounding Latium region, which ensures the beer's aromatic and balsamic overtones pair well with a number of popular local dishes.
Vinitaly 2017 was held from 9-12 April at the Verona Exhibition Centre.
Martyn Cornell, Special Correspondent, Verona