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Craft vs Artisanal

Though the Italian craft beer movement has borrowed much from the American, one point that sets the two apart is that Italy is actually having an artisanal beer movement, not a craft beer movement. No one in Italy defines or defends this point more than the brewing pioneer, Teo Musso, owner and brewer of Baladin.

“To me artisan means that you have to make live products.”

In 2010 the Boston Beer Company brought the discourse of craft front-and-center in the US craft beer scene when they crossed the craft beer threshold of 2 million barrels, set by the Brewers Association. For Samuel Adams’ Jim Kock, this was a problem. He was about to be ousted from the craft beer world. In the end, the Brewers Association changed the number to 6 million barrels. This argument isn’t mundane. It is one part that defines and separates craft from macro. For many consumers it’s what separates Sierra Pale from Bud Light.

In Italy, the argument is more organic. “The true message in the US is to be called ‘craft’ beer and here it’s to be called ‘artisanal’ beer; that’s the real label,” says Teo. “That’s what we’re defending, this concept.”

According to Union Birrai, Italy’s largest brewers association and the most influential, an artisanal brewery is “a brewer who produces unpasteurized beer in establishments that do not reach quantities exceeding 5,000 hectoliters (4,261 barrels) per year.”

“Certainly,” Teo says, “there will be someone in this tsunami that will go over that number.” But what won’t change for Italian craft beer is that it will remain artisanal.

Part of the growing pains is this very definition. Today, Italian breweries attempting to infiltrate the market label their beer ‘artisanal’ but do so in direct violation of what Italy defines as Italian craft beer.

“I’m not against macro breweries or the products they make,” says Teo. “It’s the confusion in regards to the message. According to me it would be taking advantage of a false message. You can’t do it. It has to be a live product, otherwise, don’t put artisanal on the label. If it’s been filtered it’s not artisanal anymore. Where’s the threshold?”

This is an important definition to defend. Without a definitive answer to what an artisanal beer is, the consumer may just as well assume artisanal beer doesn’t exist. But it’s also a big part of Italy’s identity as a new beer nation.

“That is the real difference,” says Teo. “In the US they didn’t really have this culture to discuss whether something was artisanal or not. The label of craft brewing in the US is only a question of marketing. For me, the label ‘craft’ is gone in the US. It’s an indefensible term there. In Italy, our movement is still small enough that we can still have this argument about what ‘artisanal’ means.”

While the US craft beer scene races to become 30 percent of the overall beer market share, Italy barely touches 1 percent. Italian brewers are making a beer that is bought and shared by five people in a pub. And even though the Italian consumer drinks more craft beer than wine outside of the home, they aren’t selling five beers, they sale one.

“We’re the beer of Sundays,” says Teo. “In the overall market you concede to paying a little more for our product. It’s okay with me that it’s like that now. It’s okay that way.”

Regardless of the outcome of squabbles to be playout in the next 20 years, Italy ain’t going back. “At this moment, for me, the total contraction of Italian brewing is almost impossible. If there was a total economic meltdown some breweries and pubs would still exist.”

And that is a point we’re happy can’t be argued.

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