Long the laughingstock of the global beer scene, America now shines as the leading light in the resurgence of flavorful ales and lagers. The expanding sphere of American craft brewers’ influence can be seen in capital cities around the world, from Berlin to Tokyo. Once dominated by industrial lagers of varying degrees of quality, countries such as Denmark and Italy have quickly and enthusiastically adopted American beer styles, customs and culture.
But in countries like Germany and Britain, there remains concern that the traditional and influential local beer cultures will somehow be affected and even corrupted by the growing reach of American brewers. In these countries, which have so heavily influenced brewers around the world—including in America—younger drinkers are choosing flavored malt beverages and other alcoholic drinks over the traditional favorites, such as Hefeweizen or Bitter. Consumption of beer per capita continues to fall in the historic brewing centers, giving rise to opportunities for brash, new brewers possessed with an American spirit.
While trepidation for the undermining of long treasured beer heritages remains understandable, in countries with little in the way of a native or historic beer culture beyond that of mass-produced lager, the change of pace and perspective brought by an interest in American-style craft brewing is a welcome breath of fresh air. Brewers in these countries have embraced American takes on the traditional styles. They’ve also co-opted the language of America’s new wave brewers, including the phrase “craft beer” itself.
Perhaps the most advanced new brewing culture exists in Italy, where some enterprising brewers now produce a wide range of American, German, British and European styles of beer. Often promoted under the name craft beer or as birra artigianale, the popularity of flavorful beer continues to resonate with the food-obsessed Italians. A few dozen craft-focused beer bars exist across Italy, but proof of the popularity of better beer can be found in average bars in and out of tourist centers, too. Veteran brewers such as Baladin now find their products available in divey bars, gelato shops and local convenience stores in a way that Samuel Adams Boston Lager once led the way for small brewers in the US.
Temperamentally equipped to embrace great flavor in beers, thanks in part to a relaxed and dedicated culture of eating and drinking well, Italians rarely express skepticism over or disregard for craft beers. A further positive sign of the staying power of flavorful beer is its adoption by the nation’s largest brewers. Both Peroni and Moretti have launched their own artisanal brands. Italy has even adopted one of America’s least charming exports: beer snobbery. Although a pioneer in Italian craft brewing, you won’t likely find many if any Baladin beers in the beer geek-focused bars as they consider the brand too big to be cool anymore.
Surpassing any other nation I’ve visited outside of the States, Italian brewers are creating beautiful impressions of Belgian, American, British and German styles. They produce playful sour beers, juicy American IPAs and clean examples of Helles. And while imitation is of course flattering and a sure road to success, Italian brewers need to develop their own identity as brewers of distinctive, expressive beers. As Italy’s craft brewing scene continues to mature, it will be a true pleasure to watch as its brewers carve their own paths, helping to expand the global brewing palate in exciting and unexpected ways. ■