Last month we took our maiden Italian craft beer tour across northern Italy. It was a blast, to say the least. But on our tour we experienced more than just beer, we experienced firsthand the Italian culture.
When Paul and I first had the idea to write Italy: Beer Country, we were stunned to find that no one had thought of it yet; moreover, that so few articles existed about the movement in general. When we sought information online, it was difficult to find and, skimpy at best. Even when we asked prominent beer writers, craft beer publicans and knowledgeable beer people in the US about the Italian craft beer scene, they had little or no information.
The first person we asked for information about Italian craft beer was Chris Black, owner of the Falling Rock Tap House in Denver, Colorado. He didn’t know much about Italian craft beer, but he did know Eric Wallace, owner-brewer of Lefthand Brewery in Longmont, Colorado, was well informed and knew a few of the brewers. Before meeting Wallace, Paul and I made a list of Italian brewers. I’m grateful it was four years ago, because that list was short then. Today, there are over 1,000 breweries. At that time, it was nearing 400. Of those 400, as you would expect, a handful were worth talking to.
Armed with our list, we set off to pick Wallaces’ brain. He was very gracious and went through our list ticking off the most important and the must-see breweries. Wallace had served in the Air Force at the Aviano Air Base in Italy. He also married an Italian woman. He explained some of the ins and outs of what was going on in Italy. Much of which, I believe, Paul and I vaguely understood.
With a solid list in hand, we began to plot a course. Our budget restricted our territory. Some locations were just too far away for us to reach. We had to juggle the clutter of closed and open days and random opening hours typical of Italian businesses. We narrowed in on the ground we could and would cover. Then we began the tedious task of sending emails, calling and reaching out to the brewers. It took some time, at first. Some, I imagine, were suspicious. Who are these two Americans talking about a book about us?
Our breakthrough was Agostino Arioli, owner and brewer of Birrificio Italiano, the first Italian craft brewery. He immediately embraced our project and welcomed us with open arms. He offered to pick us up at the airport and give a tour. He booked our hotels for us and eased our anxieties. Emboldened by Agostino’s kindness, we tapped out more emails, made phone calls late in the Denver morning during the hours the Italians were open or arriving at their offices. Having Agostino’s name attached opened the doors. Return emails began to pour in.
With a plan and a map in hand, research done, questions ready, we took off for Italy for ten days. We had charted a great course with no issues from the welcoming brewers, with the exception of one, whose name we shall not speak. We didn’t have much fudge room, but while in Italy we squeaked in a few more breweries that were offered or who had opened their doors to us. As we were being driven by Agostino to the Milan train station to pick up our rental car, he asked if we had considered Lambrate. We had and even sent emails, but they had not responded. Agostino picked up his cell phone and called them. Forty minutes later, we were sitting at a table with Alessandra and Davide and taking a full tour of the new, year-old location and the historical Aldechi 5 location that was closed during the day. We had so much to thank Agostino for. We still do today.
We rambled through Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna through Tuscany headed to Rome. We were invited to Del Borgo’s Annual Perle Festival. What a hoot. We took the detour to the Marche into the hills. Paul pressed me on to drive back to Rome by blasting Van Halen and keeping the windows down to allow the brisk January Apennine air to blow through so I wouldn’t fall asleep. It was a challenging drive, but we got home. Rome being home. In Rome, we spoke with great publicans that set the movement up to grow and grow and grow. Nobody then knew that we would be at 1,000 in just a couple of years. Paul left, I remained behind to finish interviews, including interviewing the great Roman publican, Manuele Colonna.
We had done some good work, but we needed more. Returning to Italy to tour Piedmont, an all-important region with so many instrumental breweries, meant launching a Kickstarter campaign to make it back. We reached our goal and returned to Italy. We had a new map with more breweries and hundreds of more kilometers. All the charting we had done was fodder for an idea—tours. Perhaps we could do tours and continue our ambassadorial duties to the Italian craft beer movement. We had already mapped out the trip. Why not take people on the trip we had just made?
The book was finished and published in record time for the 2014 Craft Brewer’s Conference held that year in Denver where several Italian brewers attended the book launch. It was a great week. But we realized that just passing the message to an English-speaking audience wasn’t cutting it. We really needed to showcase the breweries and the brewers and their beers when they were at their best—at their home.
We painstakingly thought out a tour. Neither of us had any experience in the tour business. So, we learned. We attended seminars, meet-and-greets, expositions. We created a business plan, partnered with promotional companies. By and by, a tour seemed viable and maybe even profitable. It had to be. We needed to make a living and books don’t offer a living.
After the third year of the book’s release, we brought Italy Beer Tours to fruition. This summer, we took our inaugural tour to 15 breweries in 10 different villages and cities. But what we discovered wasn’t the importance of seeing a brewery or even just meeting the brewers. It was how we had immersed our guests into the Italian life. Our hosts were elated to hear our guests’ perspective of their world. In short, we had pulled off an even greater feat than we had anticipated.
We are very grateful to the people who took our tour. We are, as always, in great debt to the brewers and publicans who host us so graciously. But we are more empowered to keep spreading the message that Italian craft beer is a unique and fantastic place to experience. Our book gives a great story, no doubt. But our tour brings you to their home. And they always have a set table waiting for you.