The Winemaking Traditions Behind Italy's Craft Beer Boom

What accounts for the high-end brewers cropping up in northern Italy? A love of terroir, local ingredients, and barrel-aging.


Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

If you haven't heard yet, Italy is in the midst of a craft beer tidal wave. Five years ago there were barely a handful of good beers to be had. But in the last year there has been an explosion of small, craft birrificci opening up.

The interesting thing is that most of them seem to hale from Piedmont. At the Salone del Gusto, in Torino, I attended a craft beer tasting where eight out of eight beers were from Piedmont. And most of the breweries were under two years old. What's going on?

While the Belgians ferment their Kriek, a type of Lambic, with sour cherries, Valter picked a local variety of plums.

One of the best known of this new breed of brew masters is Teo Musso, who's been crafting his Baladin beers in the small town of Piozzo since 1996. His beers are pretty much distributed not only all over Italy, but all over the world. And you're about to get to know him a whole lot better, since he is one of the masterminds behind the soon-to-be-opened beer garden on top of Eataly in New York.

Perhaps due to Musso's success story, other brewers in Piedmont have decided to come out of their attics, basements, and garages and start sharing their wares on the open market. After experimenting for years on their own, many of these men (and yes, they are almost always men) bring quite a bit of experience to the table.

But back to my question: Why Piedmont? I had a chance to ask a member of this new breed of brewers from the Piedmont who was in Rome last week. Valter Loverier spent the afternoon at Domus Birrae talking about two newest beers, Beer Brugna and D'Uva Beer. Loverier has been brewing for himself for the past decade, but only launched Loverbeer a year ago. Despite his small production, he's already received a huge amount of attention and praise.

Instead of answering my question directly, Louvrier very cleverly switched the topic to terroir. In other words: How Piedmont?


Elizabeth Helman Minchilli

"Like most of the beer makers I know, I'd like to be following a local tradition, using local ingredients," he said. "We are all believers in the Slow Food philosophy, and would like to be local in terms of both ingredients and techniques. But with beer, local is not always possible. That said, we do in fact have a very strong, long, and well-known tradition in Piedmont: winemaking. So I've been exploring ways to incorporate different characteristics of wine making and other local traditions and ingredients into my beers."

Although it might sound slightly weird at first—marrying wine and beer—once you taste his beers you begin to understand what he is getting at.

The first beer we drank was Beer Brugna. Slightly sour, and dry, with a floral aroma and just a bit of fruitiness, this beer is made in the classical tradition of Belgian Kriek. But while the Belgians ferment their Kriek, a type of Lambic, with sour cherries, Valter picked a local variety of plums, Susine Ramassin: "I wanted to make a true Kriek, but with a local flavor. These plums come from a valley nearby, and were in danger of dying out since they were an old variety."

After the first fermentation is finished, the beer is put in wooden barriques, along with the fruit, for the second fermentation. "The barriques—which are not new—allow the beer to breath, which wouldn't be possible using steel." The result is a dry, slightly sour brew perfumed with plum, which gives it a softness and makes it very easy to pair with food.

With D'Uva Beer, Valter is playing more directly with the region's wine heritage. Using traditional beer yeasts to get things going, he adds the must of a local grape, Freisa. The fruit adds not just sweetness, but more importantly tannins. The beer is bright and sharp, and—according to Valter—complex enough to age well in the bottle.

Even if Valter didn't really answer my question of why the beer scene is so lively in Piedmont, I did begin to understand some of the reasons. A pride in local traditions is a firm base to work from. And the local ingredients—whether ancient varieties of grapes or fruit or just using barriques—make a happy marriage with the newer traditions of beer. And the result is uniquely Italian.