It seems like only yesterday that beer came in three flavors. A limited number of similar companies dominated the market, all of them offering similar tasting beers in a limited number of styles. Today we enjoy a wider range of beers that ever before. The past decade has seen a proliferation of microbreweries around the globe: from London to Madrid to New York. This is more than just a passing fad; it is a complete change in the way that consumers appreciate beer. These small-scale brewers are continuing to push the boundaries serving up innovative beers and from smaller, more controlled production chains.
Agricultural beer is the next step in this continual process of innovation and evolution. But what is an agricultural beer, and why is it important? By definition, an agricultural beer is a beer where more than 51% of the value of the raw materials used to make it are grown by the brewers themselves. “So what?” I hear you ask? Well, this is the first step in considering beer to be an agricultural product like wine. And it is an issue that reveals many of the problems inherent in our current agricultural system.
When we speak of wine as an agricultural product, we mean that what happens in the fields is more important that what happens after the grapes are picked in determining the characteristics of the wine. Is the soil clay or volcanic? How much did the sun shine that year? In the brewing of beer these factors are considered secondary to the actual malting of the barley and the quantities of the various ingredients used. If winemakers are farmers, brewers are more like chefs: wine is agricultural, beer is industrial.
Or is it? The factor that most strongly influences the flavor of the beer is the water available. Water is by far the chief ingredient in beer. Softer waters are much better for producing lighter beers, whereas heavier brews favor harder water. It is the water, more than cultural factors that have influenced the tradition of darker, heavier beers in Munich. It seems water discloses its origins straight away when you start brewing with it. The same is true for the barley and hops. Both plants grow in various geographical regions around the globe and bear the fingerprints of the land in which they grew.
A handful of Italian producers and brewers are now seeking to produce an agricultural beer that Italy can claim as its own: Teo Musso (Baladin brewery, Piedmont), Carlo Fiorani (microbrewer and University of Gastronomic Sciences graduate, Lombardy), Marco Tamba (La Mata brewery, Emilia-Romagna) and Antonello Ghidoni (La Morosina brewery, Lombardy), to name a few.
But the challenges of making a truly Italian beer are many. Barley can easily be grown in Italy; it grows well in many different climates from Mesopotamia to northern Europe. The problem lies in its transformation: there is no tradition of malting in Italy. Indeed, in order to make beers from his barley, Carlo Fiorani first must send it to be malted in Germany and then re-import it before brewing.
If malting barley was difficult, producing hops is almost impossible. Wild hop varieties found in Italy are smaller than the varieties normally used for brewing. These wild and native hops have a flavor somewhere between onion and garlic that doesn’t really lend itself to making beers (although it does make for a wonderful risotto).
The producers therefore cultivate a mix of German and English hops. But this too is laden with difficulty. Hops are climbing plants, meaning a large investment is needed to install the trellises that will allow it to flourish. Harvesting takes a huge amount of manpower. Marco Temba gets around the problem by recruiting members of the local Slow Food network to help him out with the harvest but even he admits that prices for hops and barley cultivated by the brewery are at least twice as expensive as cheaper imports. Similar problems emerge when trying to transform the hops: the equipment and expertize to successfully dry the hops is lacking.
But they have tried anyway, through a system of trial, error and research. The results of their experiment are encouraging: a series of aromatic and truly Italian beers, rich in flavor and deep in color. The difference actually is palatable. Baladin’s Birra Nationale, Teo Musso explains, is never the same twice; it is the product of the ever-changing fortunes of the land where it is made and the farmers who produce it.
All this goes to prove that beer must be an agricultural product after all. There is still much work to be done; these beers are special exceptions to the rule. The battle cannot be fought by just small producers alone; the Italian Ministry of Agriculture needs to invest in research and help farmers who want to start growing and malting barley or cultivating hops.
But a change could well be brewing….