There are many aspects of Italian life that are admired the world over — its cuisine, wine, fashion, art and classical culture. But its beer?
Short of a burst of notoriety last year when Peroni became the latest big overseas brand to be brewed under licence in Australia, any focus on the fruits of its brewing industry has been minimal at best.
Sure, a few offerings from the country's craft brewers have appeared in select bottle shops, bars and restaurants around Australia in recent years — the likes of Na Biretti, 32 Via dei Birrai, Baladin and Birra Roma, for example.
But even for drinkers well versed in the growing craft beer scene in Australia, Italian beers have registered only the tiniest of ripples, with attention being grabbed far more readily by the burgeoning local industry and imports from New Zealand, the US and Scandinavia.
So it might be a surprise to learn that Italy now has about 450 commercial breweries. To put that into context, despite the rapid growth in recent years, Australia has about a third of that number. It represents a staggering rise in a country whose economic travails are well documented.
"In 2005, it was impossible to find Italian craft beer, but now there's an Italian part to the story," says Leonardo di Vincenzo from Birra del Borgo, a brewery north-east of Rome at the forefront of the Italian scene. "Now imported beers from Belgium or the US are not so popular."
After opening in 2005, di Vincenzo set about changing perceptions in a country wedded to wine by focusing on the use of local ingredients where possible — grain, spices, even marine animals — and altering people's attitudes.
Italians don't like to eat without drinking, so when they realised they could put beer [on the table] instead of wine, it opened up a new world.
"Italians don't like to eat without drinking, so when they realised they could put beer [on the table] instead of wine, it opened up a new world," he says. "At the beginning the change was very slow, then there was a big explosion. Now a lot of young people in the big cities aren't interested in alcopops or industrial beers."
Di Vincenzo is among the more experimental brewers, releasing monthly Bizzarra beers — including a stout featuring oysters and clams — and is working on a champagne-style beer that will be a blend of one of his regulars with a locally produced sangiovese wine.
He is also a good friend of Baladin's Teo Musso, one of the Italian beer pioneers, and Sam Calagione, the man behind leading US brewery Dogfish Head.
Among their projects is the development of an ancient beer that each will ferment in a different vessel — terracotta, bronze and wood — at their respective breweries.
Del Borgo beers made their Australian debut during Melbourne's Good Beer Week in May, when they appeared as part of an Italian tap takeover at Beer DeLuxe and were the stars of a tasting at Slow Beer in Richmond.
The beers are being imported along with a host of other new Italian brews, including BrewFist, Croce di Malto and Birrificio San Paolo, by expat Australians John and Kerrie Latta. The couple moved their young family to Italy with his work, began importing wine and, unexpectedly, found themselves slowly drawn into Italy's "underground" beer culture.
"We live in a wine area but one that's also big on craft beer," Kerrie says. "One of our friends who was brewing at a local brew pub began introducing us to the great craft beer in the area. We started drinking more beer and visiting craft beer festivals and found it very different."
Their experiences reflect di Vincenzo's view that the beers being produced by the smaller craft brewers — many of whom run tiny operations — are often designed with food as much as refreshment in mind. "People treat it with the same respect as wine," Kerrie says.
Many of the beers in the Lattas' first shipment included herbs, spices or grains designed to make the beers distinct or have a link to their place of origin. "Their beers are treated like any other food stuff — they source amazing ingredients, such as chestnuts from some food producer in the mountains that are roasted over a fire in an old stone hut."
■32 Via dei Birrai
■Birra del Borgo
■Croce di Malto
■Birrificio San Paolo
Source: The Age Epicure July 24, 2012