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The Old Guard, The New Beer

My mother recently turned 76 years old. Auguri Mamma. While I was in Italy launching our craft beer tours, my mother and Aunt Rosy, her older sister, wanted to know why I hadn’t brought them any craft beer from the US. I had brought beer from the US to give to our brewery friends and the many people involved with our tours, but I had neglected to think of my aunt and mother. I shouldn’t have been surprised though because more and more elder Italians are realizing the great pleasure of craft beer.

In the 1970s Italy, along with Europe, was under an economic boom. They had finally shaken off the economic drag of the war. Along with the boom came beer. For the first time, beer from Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland made its way to Italy. This was the first time for many of the World War II generation to try a diverse beer selection in their home. And many did. A few became hooked and would go on to influence this generation of craft brewers. Franco Sangiorgi was one of the young men exploring the new flavors of beer in the 1970s and no doubt left an impression on his sons, craft beer pioneers, Davide and Giampaolo who would launch Lambrate, one of Italy’s four pioneers to open in 1996. The incoming wave of beer in the 1970s would also have a great influence on Sergio Ormea. His love of beer, and organic foods, would have an enormous impact on his son, the craft beer protégé Gabriele Ormea who would open one of the first brewpubs, Grado Plato, at the dawn of the Italian craft beer movement in 2001. It was the beginnings of a cultural revolution.

For my generation, in the 1980s, especially in the north which borders with Austria and Germany, many pubs offered a much larger selection of Germanic beers on tap and selections of bottles from England and Belgium. For us, as teenagers, it was a great means to branch out and discover. For Agostino Arioli it was the beginning of a new world that he would set upon Italy with all his heart and soul when he opened Italy’s first craft brewery, Birrificio Italiano.

His trek to becoming brewer started at the age of fourteen. “I was a beer drinker at a very young age. Too young, I would say. But there were German and English beers on draft like Bulldog, John Martin, and Courage Bitter, my personal favorite. We were just young kids, but we were revolutionary in our way. There was an aim to change toward something different. We chose beer, not wine.”

With Birrificio Italiano came a dry-hopped German pilsner, the Tipopils, a hodge-podge of style and technique from foreign beer cultures that directly influenced him in his youth.

The widespread availability of European beers in the 1980s had an enormous impact on Teo Musso, Italy’s most outspoken driver of Italian craft beer and one of its earliest influences. While he was just months from opening the first Italian craft brewery, he had already been a beer pioneer. In his tiny town of Piozzo he had opened a beer bar. Baladin included classics from around the world like Chimay.

For me personally, as I’m sure it was for many of the Italian brewers today, this was a period where we stretched our cultural wings, diving into beer from around Europe and soon America with great enthusiasm and wonder. This period brought me to the Falling Rock where I cut my teeth on the wonders of craft beer. When I returned to Italy to find that influence blossoming into the Italian craft beer movement, it changed my life once again when I wrote Italy: Beer Country.

I apologized to my mother and my aunt for not having brought them beer. I hadn’t thought about them because they weren’t really in our targeted age group, the 18 to 55 year old. Today, Italians consume more beer outside of the home than wine. While wine continues to be the preferred beverage with meals; during holidays, many Italians will trade their traditional wine for beer exploring a new tradition. After all, beer pairs better with food than wine. In a 360 degree circle of flavors, beer can pair with the entire circle of flavors. Wine covers less than half. Think crème brulee. There’s not a wine that can handle the sweetness of a crème brulee while beer allows for several choices in styles and tastes like a saison, a gose or even a dry stout.

A survey, something like a Pespi challenge, was being conducted throughout Italy in the early 2000s. Italians were asked which paired better with the meal presented, beer or wine. Ninety-five percent of them chose beer.

What appeals most to my mother’s generation of conservative, traditional wine drinkers is the artisanal aspect of the Italian craft beer movement. In all reality, Italy is having an artisanal beer movement, not so much a craft beer movement. Craft beer in Italy must be a small production under 5,000 hectoliters, non-pasteurized and unfiltered. All of which appeals to the largest population of Italians, the elders.

During the 1980s, Italian cuisine took a dive. As more and more women entered the workforce, and spent less time at home, more and more fast foods and boxed meals were being served in Italian households. In 1986 McDonalds made its debut in Italy. The reaction then was the launch of the Slow Food movement in protest. Today McDonalds, Burger King and other fast food-chain billboards line highways just like in the US. Along with the European Union’s export/import laws that chipped away at local and fresh products that had to be imported, like tomatoes from China, this generation of Italians had lost some of the high-quality and respectability of that strong-held notion that Italian meant fresh, local and artisanal. The Italian craft beer movement has brought artisanal back, not just in its craft beer, but with food as well. The two have gone hand and hand since inception of craft beer in Italy 20 years ago.

Which brings us back to my aunt and mother. When I came home one day, I found my mother and aunt enjoying a crowler brought from the US. They were enjoying it with their lunch. “But that wasn’t for you,” I protested. “That was for our clients.”

“Mbeh,” my mother said, “if you don’t want to give us good beer, I guess will have to take it.”

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