Tuscany On Tap. An alternative for the wine weary.

Italy has long been the friend of both food fanciers and wine worshippers. Yet despite this, it is also a country that is viewed with suspicion by the beer-guzzling masses beyond its borders. Beer, you see, is the world’s most popular alcoholic drink, and it stirs strong rivalries among many of the biggest brewing nations. England is famous for its bitter, Ireland its stout, Germany its pilsner, Belgium its blonde beers, Australia its lager and America its innovative microbrews. These countries-and many more-claim to brew the best beers around, each boasting styles, ingredients, trends and tastes they believe no others can match.What about Italy? Despite consuming as much in the way of alcoholic drinks as the likes of Poland, little of what is consumed in Italy is beer. In fact, if you measure per capita international beer consumption, Italy ranks behind Cyprus, Gabon, Uganda and Sri Lanka. However, although it might seem easy for an outsider to dismiss Italy as a serious beer player, according to recent research from drinks industry experts Canadean, Italy is one of only a handful of countries in Europe where sales of beer are likely to grow, not decline, over the coming years.

This could be the case for a number of reasons. Firstly, beer is increasingly being seen as the ‘trendier’ tipple of choice for younger drinkers. Second, Italian craft beer is having something of a renaissance, with Tuscan brewers leading the way.

Craft beer, unlike commercial beer, is produced on a much smaller scale, using finer ingredients. Tuscan craft beer is also often quite different in style from the plain straw-coloured lagers brewed in the south of the country. Take Bruton of Lucca. Opened in 2006 as a music-orientated brewpub, this craft brewery has grown impressively in recent years. Its big-bottle, big-flavoured take on microbrewed American and traditional Belgian styles has proved to be a massive hit. Part of Bruton’s ethos is that Italians, with their reputation for appreciating fine food, are as well equipped as any to taste good beer.

This notion that Italians are particularly adept at judging good beer is certainly something that deserves closer inspection. While the consumption of beer might be greater elsewhere in Europe, much of what is consumed tends to be rather basic. Yes, best-selling Italian beers like Birra Moretti and Peroni lack real gourmet quality, but when you look at what accompanies them on the shelves you can better understand this famed Italian palette: even the most basic stockists and supermarkets in Tuscany carry a selection of rare niche beers from abroad. These can range from cult American brewer Flying Dog, with its big hop-heavy ales, to high-quality Bavarian classics such as the wonderfully cloudy Franziskaner wheat beer. In fact, just recently, with German beer sales slipping, Walter Koenig of the Bavarian Brewers Coalition moved to dampen fears of a slump in the industry by suggesting that increased export to Italy could compensate for the dip.

This interest in high-quality beer as opposed to less-appealing alternatives is extremely reassuring for Tuscany’s fledgling microbreweries, many of which need to charge more per bottle to cover high production costs and expensive ingredients. In a recent trip to North America to promote Bruton, founder Iacopo Lenci stated that the number of Tuscan breweries has risen from 4 in 2006 to over 50 today, proof that there is a strong regional market for good beer.

While many of these 50 breweries are extremely small-scale brewpubs and tiny local microbreweries, a couple of other sizeable ventures are beginning to have the same sort of impact as Bruton and should soon be widely available across the region.

I Due Mastri of Prato is one such brewery. It specialises in taking traditional British beer styles and adding a quirky Italian twist. Glencoe, its interpretation of a Scottish Highland ale, is excellent and challenging. But better still, it demonstrates Italians’ willingness to experiment in unexpected ways.

Cheers!

Chris Hammond is an Edinburgh-based editor and journalist who has written extensively on the drinks industry, both at home and abroad. He is currently working on a guide to Scottish beer, due for publication in 2011.