Italian Hops, Not Grapes

Paul Blow

It’s unlikely that anyone can name any brands of Italian beer beyond the insipid Moretti and Peroni. No, when it comes to drinking in Italy, it’s all about the grapevine. Or it has been. The Italian craft beer scene that began in the mid-1990s, closely associated with the slow food movement, is coming of age. Craft brewing has spread throughout the country (B. United International, which imports many of the beers mentioned below, has a wonderful brewery map).

A couple of months ago I attended a remarkable beer dinner put on by Rob and Des DeNunzio, authors of the excellent (if infrequently updated) beer blog Pfiff! I had no idea, as I sat down with about 10 others one sunny, cool afternoon at a backyard picnic table in San Francisco, that I was about to have so many notions shattered.

The Italian craft brewing movement seems different from the American one. While we put an emphasis on heavy hopping and inflated alcohols, Italian beers are fresh, creative, and new in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. Consider some of the beers we drank: Fleurette from Birrificio Italiano, a delicate, floral, bright beer inflected with whole roses and violets, citrus-blossom honey, elderberries, and black pepper; or Palanfrina, a tawny ale made with local chestnuts by Birra Troll; or even Chiostro, made by Piccolo Birrificio, which is brewed with wormwood. These beers are not sold in cans or, many of them, even in beer bottles, but rather in wine bottles, with corks. And some cost as much as a good wine, at $30 to $50 a bottle.

“Most of the new-wave Italian breweries are also restaurants,” Rob told me. And what they serve is very different from the brewpub food—fish and chips, plump burgers, sweet potato fries—we find here. “It’s very serious cuisine, based on local ingredients and specialties.” The beers are not made with esoteric ingredients just to be different; rather these flavors and styles are intentionally crafted to help the beers work with food. In true Italian brewpub fashion, Rob had devised a nine-course meal as interesting as the beers, beginning with grilled peaches, goat cheese, and arugula, and ending with chile pepper chocolate. One of the stops along the way was kamut-flour shrimp fritters with homemade butter and chocolate-infused eggplant caponata, to go with a kamut beer. (You can download the entire menu and beer list here.)

I didn’t love BB10, a beer from Birrificio Barley in Sardinia that was 10 percent alcohol and made use of the Cannonau grape variety native to the island. The brew was a bit big and overbearing, with some definite funk to it. Likewise, the chestnut Palanfrina was a little heavy and bore some strange, feral notes. But then again, no beer captured my fancy as well as the Wayan from Birreria Baladin, the most famous of the new-wave Italian producers. Wayan is made with five kinds of grain and a dozen secret spices and hops. As complex as a great aged wine, the beer was powerful, yet graceful and smooth. And that aromatic profile was profound. It triggered real, intense memories of flowering summer meadows traversed on the backpacking trips of my youth. And when a beer can stimulate such an emotional and provocative response, I want more of it.

Sadly, there wasn’t another bottle—it was time to move on to the next course. But by the end of the meal, Italian beer had its hold on me, with Moretti and Peroni just figures in the distant past.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.