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The best beers in Italy

The beer revolution is thriving in Italy, with some classic venues in Milan and Rome

In the land of Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco and Bolgheri, you may well think that there is not much room for beer. But in fact, just as in many European countries nowadays, real ales are very much in fashion in Italy, particularly in Milan and Rome. 'Beer lists' are appearing in prestigious restaurants such as Sadler in Milan, and chefs are experimenting pairings between beer and fish dishes. Today, 2,700 Italian restaurants have a beer list.

A lot of people in Italy have discovered the attraction of beer because of its lower alcohol content with respect to wine, and its refreshing coolness in summer. But statistically, Italy still has a long way to go, with consumption pro capita at 26 litres per year, which compares unfavourably with Germany, for which the figure stands at 110 litres per year. But beer is definitely here to stay. It has even become a wholly home-grown product, with hops grown in increasing quantities in northern and central Italy.

To learn more about birra artigianale (the Italian term for real ale) we visited the newly-opened venue named Baladin in Milan. Baladin is a brand of real ale founded by Teo Musso, who saw the light after a visit to Belgium in 1996, and set up his first brewpub, Le Baladin, near Turin. Today he is considered as a prophet and paladin of real ale in Italy.

Teo, what were the major milestones in the development of real ale in Italy?

"For the first seven years, I was just about alone. I believe in the beneficial results of competition, and, at the start, there was none at all. So I actually set up another brand, named Lurisia, to create a home-brewed competitor. Soon, thankfully, other breweries began to arrive, and the mentality of consumers began to change. Particularly important in my own brand, Baladin, was the design of a new bottle, with the idea of creating a product that could be served in restaurants in a way analogous to wine. One of my bar-girls was artistic, and so she designed the label with its hand-written lettering. I sent two bottles of beer to 500 restaurants in Italy, and the result was encouraging in a way, because my sales immediately increased, but discouraging in another way, because the beer was just being drunk by the chefs in the kitchen and not by the customers! But I kept hammering away at the PR, and interest from press and television finally produced results."

So, the situation for beer in Italy is better today?

"It's better, but still minimal. Today, there are 560 independent breweries, but they still represent just a drop in the ocean: just 1.7% of Italy's total beer consumption. The real explosion began three years ago, and Rome played a significant part. A quarter of all real ale in Italy is consumed in Rome, in venues such as Open Baladin Roma, a point of reference for Italian beer culture."

Why the name 'Open'?

"We felt it essential to spread the word about beer, and so we created Open, the first open-source beer, with the home-brewing recipe published on the Internet. At the venue in Rome, we present not only our own beers, but many others, by 100 other Italian real ale breweries."

How is the product changing?

"Baladin, like many other breweries, is moving towards more sophisticated beers, with rich, complex taste and fragrance. You could call them barley wines. My first is named Xyauyù: I had the idea in 1997, but it reached the market only in 2005. More recently, we have launched two beers that are aged in barriques, Terre and Lune. Our Birrificio Agricolo beers are made using 100% Italian-grown ingredients, in bottles with corks."

For anyone with an interest in beer culture, Baladin Milano offers a refreshing experience, with seven beers on tap, great food (including hamburgers made with quality Piedmont beef), home-made potato crisps, and Cola Baladin, made without artificial colorants or preservatives, using certified cola nuts from Sierra Leone. The kitchen is open from midday to 2.00 a.m. non-stop. The interiors are a curious blend of classical bar and 1930s Prohibition-era speakeasy, with episodes of Soviet art. You may even see Teo Musso behind the taps: his dedication to his product is such that at the opening of Baladin Milano, he himself pulled all the beer. And two of his real ales have the same names as his children, Isaac and Wayan. I wonder which came first, the beer or the kids?

Baladin Milano, Via Solferino 56, tel. +39 02 6597 758
Baladin Torino, Via Saluzzo 21, 10125 Turin, tel. +39 011 6983 360
Open Baladin Roma, Via degli Spechi 5-6, 00186 Rome, tel. +39 06 6838 989