Since 2009, Slow Food has published Guida alle Birre d’Italia, our Italian-language guide to what we consider to be the best craft beers across the peninsula. During tasting for the last edition, we discovered that, beyond the extremely high average quality of the some 400 beers we tasted, the craft beer movement has managed to achieve a strong identity both nationally and locally.
I’m not talking just about the fact that many brewers use local ingredients to flavor beers; by now this is a mainstay in Italian artisanal beer: grapes in Monferrato (Piedmont), peaches in Volpedo (Piedmont), citrus fruits in Campania, mountain pasture flowers in the Central Apennines (Abruzzo) and herbs from the Dolomites in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, to name a few.
Rather, while grouping the beers by regions, instead of by style, we realized that there exist macro-regions from a stylistic point of view.
Strongly hopped beers are mostly present in central Italy up until Lombardy. Lombardy on the other hand is influenced by the northeast, dominated by bottom-fermented beers, and having a much lower presence of English- and Belgian-styles (even though the few examples are of a very high quality). The region is in some respects in a class of its own, with a coexistence of strongly hopped top-fermented beers (concentrated in the central part of the region) and those in the Central European style, mostly done by older breweries.
Southern Italy is the land of Belgian-style beer, due in part to the significant use of spices and fruit, in particular citrus, which characterize the aromas of the beers.
The northwest is dominated by Belgian-style top-fermented beers and, compared to other areas, has a large number made with spontaneous or mixed fermentation.
What is the reason for this division? In my opinion, it’s simple. The differences in style are the result of the influence of the very first entrepreneurial beer producers in each region, whose personal brewing styles have left a strong imprint on the local beer culture.