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Italian beers: The Fourth Wave?

Italian beerThe Italians are coming. The Italians are coming.

If all he hype is correct then Birrificio is going to become part of any good beer geek’s vocabulary. Cancel that trip to Wallonia; I’m headed to Piedmont.

Goodness. These things happen quickly. Just a little over two years ago during the Great American Beer Festival the Brewers Association put together a panel of American brewers talking about their Belgian-inspired ales.

“Belgian-style ales are hot,” Ray Daniels said, making the introductions. “I’ve begun to refer to them as the Third Wave.” He explained German and British styles were the first two waves.

Is it time for a fourth already? It would certainly be different than the first three. Germany, the UK and Belgium all have historic beer traditions, dusty brewing logs to study, they invented beer styles. Italy? Italy was lumped in with “The Mediterranean” in Michael Jackson’s first World Guide to Beer. Compared to Iberia, which merited its own facing pages.

I mention this today, when I was so looking forward to writing about Light/Lite beer, because Don Russell has two must reads on the subject. Start with his column, Italy – the next great brewmaster?, and then head on to his blog and an extended interview with Lorenzo Dabove.

Additionally, in the previous issue of Ale Street News, editor Tony Forder detailed extensive travels in Northern Italy, importer B. United International has put together an entire Italian Release campaign, and on May 8 Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver will give a presentationa at National Geographic Headquarters in the District of Columbia titled “The Italian Beer Renaissance.”

The press release sums things up: “Long thought of as a wine producing rather than a brewing country, Italy has in the past few years seen the birth of several fine microbreweries. The result is an array of products that go beyond the traditional European beer styles, making for a brave new world of brews that echoes the inventiveness of Belgian brewers, but with an unmistakably Italian flair.”

Go beyond the traditional European beer styles. Indeed. These guys make Sam Calagione look like Anton Dreher. Chestnuts are big in Italy, as are flowers and just about any spice you could think of. Commercially available beers include a blueberry barley wine, a tobacco porter and pre-Prohibition American pilsener dry-hopped with recyled “We Want Beer” posters. (The first two are true.)

We’re not getting many of these beers in New Mexico. Guess we’ll have to visit my cousin in Italy (October, it’s on our schedule). Meanwhile, Joe Sixpack has the floor:

“Is Italy the next great beer nation? It has a long way to go, but its astoundingly unique selection of artisan ales certainly deserves some attention from U.S. beer lovers.”

8 Responses to Italian beers: The Fourth Wave?

  1. SteveH February 22, 2008 at 9:36 am #

    “These guys make Sam Calagione look like Anton Dreher. “

    A simile only a beer lover can truly appreciate!

    But do the Italians actually hav a beer style(s) of their own? Or, as Sam and others have done, are they just creating their own variations on themes?

    Of course — I guess you could say Dreher and Sedlmayer were also creating variations of sorts too, it was just that no one else ever really had at that time.

  2. Stan Hieronymus February 22, 2008 at 12:28 pm #

    Right now style is the last thing on many of the brewers’ minds. Many do take inspiration for Belgium, so you’ll see references to strong golden, blond, etc.

  3. Stephen Beaumont February 22, 2008 at 2:30 pm #

    Having judged in Milan in November 2006, and then sampled numerous Italian brews again this past year at the Flaveurs event in Montreal, I can say that in my view, the Italians are currently at a crossroads between innovation and expertise. Some breweries do traditional styles very well, others manage innovation very well, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Overall, I’d say they are enthusiastic, inspired greatly by the Belgians (and their American brethren) and learning fast. Most Italian breweries won’t blow you away yet, and likely won’t still for a year or three, but they’re definitely a growing force.

  4. tedo February 22, 2008 at 4:25 pm #

    If UK, Belgium and Germany are the first three waves, where does America Beer fit in? I agree with Steve H, is Italian Beer really a style unto itself or like America, they’re taking other styles and creating their own variations?

  5. Stan Hieronymus February 22, 2008 at 7:42 pm #

    where does America Beer fit in?

    Ray’s statement was in the context of discussing where American brewers were finding inspiration.

    Obviously the influence of America’s brewers is bouncing back the other way as well.

  6. Stonch February 22, 2008 at 8:58 pm #

    Having spoken to several Italian brewers and others in the beer industry there, my conclusion is that they don’t think in terms of “styles”. Thank heavens.

  7. SteveH February 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm #

    Understood Stonch, but the whole article is about style or “the waves.” Just read Ray Daniels’ quote above:

    ““Belgian-style ales are hot,” Ray Daniels said, making the introductions. “I’ve begun to refer to them as the Third Wave.” He explained German and British styles were the first two waves.”

    Which is why I asked my question — not whether or not the beer being brewed is good, there will always be dtractors or proponents there — just as there are here in the U.S.

    Much as you side-step it, style isn’t a bad thing — in most cases, anyway.

  8. Stonch February 26, 2008 at 4:50 am #

    I wouldn’t describe my approach as “side-stepping”, I’d say I avoid taking a diversion!

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