Italy, the Land of Wine is Turning to Beer!

Beer drinking started growing in Italy fifteen years ago and now it is fast becoming a fad. In that time, over three hundred microbreweries were started. According to a recent study, their number stood at 397 in 2011 and rising. None of them suffered from the 2008 recession. 

While fast rising, this is still a small sector: it amounts to a modest 1.5% of total production and sells only in specialized beer pubs and a few restaurants -- and not in any supermarkets like industrial beers. 

For example, in Rome, in the old part of town, you can go to a beer pub - the Open Baladin -  that serves 40 different craft beers on tap, all of them Italian. They have an on-going "Winter Beer Fest" and I thought I'd try them out for lunch. I started walking from the Isola Tiberina. Here is a view of the island:

A view from the south-east on the Tiber Island.Isola Tiberina, Image via Wikipedia

I crossed the bridge on the right of this photo, coming across a tramp with his dogs who was beatifically soaking up the winter sun, he with his four dogs:

After five minutes walking towards Piazza Campo dei Fiori, I came to Via dei Specchi, an old narrow street along which the beer pub is nestled, barely visible on the left:

Here's the entrance to the beer pub:

Rather modest with its brown doors, but inviting. I walked in - it was 1:15 pm - and found a big almost empty room with a wall of beer bottles that looked almost like wine bottles! And across it, a long bar lined up with forty taps to draw craft beers:

I sat in a corner and ordered a scrumptious warm bread sandwich filled with melting Mozzarella di Bufala (the best kind) and smoked ham. Then, following the advice of the serving girl (very nice and helpful),  I selected among the 40 beers on tap, "My Antonia". It turned out to be an interesting variation on a pils imperial with 7.5% graduation: strong body, very aromatic, long in the mouth. All beers, regardless of the choice, cost €5, a very reasonable price for a tall glass, (31cl):

Then I had an incredibly good piece of pastry, dark chocolate and nuts, as light as a mousse - a real surprise for a beer place - but that is presumably the Italian touch!

By the time I left, at 2 pm the place was jammed:

Given the late hour for lunch and the way people talked loudly, gesturing with gusto, you could tell there were no tourists here: this was an Italian crowd! 

Italians quaffind down beer? Yes, surprising for a country that is culturally devoted to wine, and the biggest wine producer in the world right after France and the first in terms of per capita consumption of wine: 54 liters/year, ahead of France (47 liters) and much more than the US (7 liters). 

While most Italian micro brewers copy English and Belgian beers, some of them are quite innovative, using local herbs and spices as well as experimenting with wine mixtures (!). There are reportedly over a thousand different brands of craft beer producted in Italy. I can't tell you how good most of them are, but they are bound to be different and they certainly express a renewed interest in beer.

I say a "renewed" interest because Italians are not new to beer drinking. The Ancient Romans used to drink it and even had their own pub, the "Domus Cervisiae", opened by the Roman governor of Britain. 

Beer was drunk in the Florence of Lawrence the Magnificent in the 1400s and regarded as a refined drink. Industrial beer-making flourished in the 19th century, reaching a high point in 1894 with 191 breweries. However, by 1930, there remained only 35, largely as a result of a campaign of taxation aimed at discouraging beer drinking which killed off the smaller breweries. 

By 1960, only three groups (Peroni, Forst and Pedavena) remained that accounted for 60% of all beer production. Now, most of these groups have been absorbed by multinationals (Heineken, Peroni Sab Miller and Carlsberg). The remaining industrial Italian breweries, accounting for less than 10 percent are just four: Forst Menabrea, Birra Castello, Tarricone and Theressianer. The rest, some 25%, is imported by Imbev.

While the Italian per capita consumption of beer remains statistically modest (31 liters in 2007) at about half the EU average and well behind world champions like Ireland (155 liters) and Germany (119 liters), it has been steadily rising (it was some 24 liters in 1990) while wine consumption has declined ( from over 60 liters/year in 1990 to some 42 liters now).

The reasons for this rise?  The micro breweries of course have played a large role in raising interest. And so have the big industrial breweries, introducing a large variety of beers. Indeed, they consider the Italian market as "mature". And beer festivals are organized just like in Germany, including an Italian Octoberfest that you can enjoy even in the South (in Naples for example).

Of course most of the small breweries are found in Northern Italy but they are now expanding in the South and in the islands, Sicily and especially Sardinia (where per capita beer consumption is the highest in Italy: 60 liter/year). If you come to Italy for a vacation, don't think you need to give up your beer drinking. You can even organize picturesque tours from one brewery to the next in Tyrol and elsewhere (for itineraries and news about beer festivals, check this site).

The Italian enthusiasm for beer has led to some interesting research results showing that beer like wine, if drunk in moderate quantities, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. That is the claim of one recent study published online in the European Journal of Epidemiology. And it certainly looks like a serious study: funded by the Giovanni Paolo II Foundation (Vatican-related!), and carried out in its laboratories in Campo Basso, Italy. A meta-statistic analysis aggregating the results of recent scientific studies around the world, it pools together the data of 200,000 persons for whom alcoholic drinking habits were associated with cardiovascular disease (see article below). With that much data on hand, who can resist the lure of beer drinking?

Prosit! Or perhaps I should say, Italian-style, salute, to your health!
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