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When you picture Italy, it's likely you're envisioning tender strands of pasta and intensely-flavored vegetables, plates of luscious cured meat, and glasses full of wine: all products of the country's unique soil, climate, and culture. But these days, you'd be missing an element that's recently been electrifying Italy's food scene: craft beer.
What Italy may lack in brewing history, it makes up for with impressive creativity. Today's Italian brewers have very few preconceived notions, and they face few laws or restrictions about how or what to brew. While influenced by the great beers of Belgium, Germany, and the U.S, beer from Italy stands out right now as something distinctly Italian.
Many credit Teo Musso of Birra Baladin for kickstarting the Italian craft beer revolution. At first, Musso ran a bar serving many of the beers he fell in love with while traveling—particularly Belgian favorites—but Baladin became a brewpub in 1996. Musso began experimenting with classic styles as well as unique spices, heritage grains, and local ingredients including peppers, honey, nuts, and fruit.
Musso's interest in spicing, and the addition of local ingredients like roasted chestnuts, caught on, in part because it helped his beers work marvelously with food. Italian brewers today keep food pairing in mind as they design their beer recipes, and a lot of the breweries have their own restaurants, serving beer paired with food and food prepared with the brews as well.
Given Italy's rich wine culture, it's not shocking that winemaking has influenced local beer producers. Italian brewers have access to wine grapes and grape must as well as the yeast living on local grapes' skins. Using barrels that previously held wine as it aged, Italian brewers can experiment with wild yeast and other critters that can add acidity, earthiness, and funk to a beer.
If you've ever seen Italian beer for sale in the US, it likely struck you as seriously expensive. In part, that's thanks to the heavy Italian taxes levied on beer—those fees are reflected in the final price tag. But if you're comparing it to the cost of an age-worthy Italian wine, perhaps it won't feel quite so steep, especially for a large-format bottle ideal for sharing.
Ready to explore? Here are nine fantastic Italian beers worth seeking out.
Almond 22 Pink Italian Pale Ale (Spoltore, Italy)
A whiff of this delicious beer will remind you of a farmer's market: it's a blast of fresh salad greens, lemongrass, and rose. The flavor is crisp and clean with just the right amount of restrained bitterness. We'd recommend it even without the addition of pink peppercorns, but it's that extra kick of freshly cracked pepper flavor and earthiness that makes this beer taste like it was picked right out of the ground.
Drink it with: Chips and guacamole. The herbal qualities of the beer get boosted by the guac's fresh cilantro flavor.
Del Borgo L'Equilibrista (Borgorose, Italy)
To make this tart and fruity beer, Del Borgo blends blends an equal-parts mix of their 'Saison Duchessa' with Sangiovese grape must, then ferments the mixture with Champagne yeast. It's dangerously easy to drink and with the help of an abundance of tiny bubbles, it hides the high 10.9% alcohol content almost too well. This beer smells bright, like freshly picked not-quite-ripe raspberries, and the flavors are all stone fruit marmalade with hints of lime. It's electric.
Drink it with: Potato pancakes with crème fraîche. The acidity and fruity flavors of the beer cut through the dish and add a pop of freshness.
LoverBeer BeerBrugna (Marentino, Italy)
BeerBrugna offers an amazing combination of sweet and sour. This ripe and fruity beer is brewed with Piemontese Damaschine plums and you really taste the whole fruit, down to the pit. Aromas of roasted peach give way to flavors of fig and nutty banana bread. The sourness creeps in very slowly—the tannins dry out your mouth, and the acidity cuts through the sweet beer one touch at a time: it's soft and understated but balancing.
Drink it with: Grilled octopus. The beer's fruitiness enhances the natural sweetness of the seafood, and the tang works like a lemon slice to brighten the dish.
Barley BB 10 Dexi (Maracalagonis, Italy)
This strong ale brewed with Sardinian Cannonau grapes and orange peel is a little reminiscent of trail mix: It's nutty, fruity, and chocolatey all at the same time, but the finish is bready and dry. The orange peel adds a burst of freshness to this malty brew. Don't expect an overt fruity flavor from the grapes. Instead, this beer is earthy, round, and complex. Lively carbonation makes it ideal for cutting through salty, oily foods.
Drink it with: Charcuterie. The malty sweetness of the beer balances the salt, while the bubbles scrub all the oils from the cured meats right off your tongue.
Pausa Cafe Tosta (Saluzzo, Italy)
Pausa Cafe's beers are brewed in a prison as part of a program that helps bring inmates back into the job market, and the brewery was awarded the highest rating by the Slow Food Italian Beer Guide. Tosta is a barleywine that's brewed with Costa Rican cacao beans, with a scent that might remind you of oloroso sherry. This is a rich and boozy beer at 12.5% ABV, and it has oxidative aromas that mingle with sweet raisin flavors. This strong beer is especially impressive because its alcohol level doesn't mask more subtle flavors. You'll taste hints of fresh green grapes, roasted hazelnuts, and molasses, capped with a much drier finish than you'd expect. Tosta is bold for sure, but it's beautifully balanced.
Drink it with: Braised rabbit pappardelle. The figgy sweetness of the beer latches onto the richness of the dish.
Birrificio Italiano Tipopils (Lurago Marinone, Italy)
It might seem odd to include a German-style pilsner on this list, but Tipopils is just too good to skip. This delicate lager showcases hints of sweet honey, biscuits, and fresh herbs. The delicate bitterness tames the malt's sweetness, but doesn't overpower, and each sip refreshes with a smack of black pepper at the end. This golden beer is unpasteurized and unfiltered—you'll likely only see it on draft.
Drink it with: Cannellini bean dip. The lemon, garlic, and basil will enhance the fresh grassy hop flavors of the beer even more.
Birra Baladin Terre (Piozzo, Italy)
Brewed with barley from Baladin's own grain fields along with local black Nerone rice, and aged in a variety of wine barrels, this isn't much like most beers on the market. It's almost still and quite oxidized, tasting more like a dessert wine than a typical beer. Concentrated grapiness, chewy black raisins, vanilla, and maple make it ideal for post-dinner sipping, though the body is lighter than you might expect at 11% ABV. If you like ruby port or you're a fan of bourbon, give this one a try.
Drink it with: Goat cheese croquettes. The mouth-coating fruit flavors of Terre are a perfect substitute for fig jam, and the beer's full body stands up to the crispy edges and gooey, tangy goat cheese.
Birrificio Del Ducato Verdi Imperial Stout (Roncole Verdi di Busseto)
An Imperial stout brewed with Calabrian chili peppers sounds like it'll be pretty in-your-face, but this big beer is remarkably subtle, not overly spicy or bitter. Roasty notes of burnt cocoa, coffee, smoke, and anise are laced through the rich and inky brew. The flavor of the peppers is present but faint, lending a small kick of heat at the finish of each sip.
Drink it with: Gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce. The roasty flavors of the stout stand up to the cheese while the pepper in the sauce accentuates the spice.
Birrificio Grado Plato Strada San Felice (Chieri, Italy)
Strada San Felice is a rich lager brewed with Piemontese chestnuts. It's a bit like a cross between a chewy, malty German Doppelbock and a figgy Belgian Dubbel. The wood-fire dried chestnuts give the beer a woodsy, candied nuttiness with a touch of smoke. At the core, the flavors are fruity—all red apple and strawberry—but the lager yeast keeps the finish dry. It's a wonderfully well-made beer.
Drink it with: Italian ricotta cheesecake. The fruit flavors of this beer are the perfect topping.
Note: Tasting samples provided for review consideration.