Tuscan hill top vineyards and villas.
When you think of Tuscany, the first things that probably come to mind are beautiful villages and villas, vineyard covered hills, olive groves and of course red wine. As the home of Chianti and some of the most fertile grape growing areas in Italy it’s hard not to associate Tuscany with wine. So it’s hardly a place you’d think you’d find great craft beer. While it’s not exactly obvious, it’s really quite worth the effort once you do find it.
Tuscany is saturated with vineyards and wineries and anyone hoping to get into that business now would likely find it impossible to start something new. Many young Italians have turned instead to making really interesting craft beers. Breweries don’t require a great deal of land and can be operated year round. Italian brewers also have access to a wealth of unique and very fresh ingredients. They’ve turned many beer recipes on their heads and given them a decidedly Italian twist by working with non traditional ingredients like chestnuts and anise. They also make liberal use of spent wine barrels to do some really amazing things with barrel aging.
Barrel cellar – Vignamaggio Winery
Many of the beers that I sampled in Tuscany had a wonderful sour element to them, which in part can be attributed to that barrel aging process. Everything I tried was also bottle conditioned, so the beer inside continued to evolve until opened. Some “evolved” into absolute gushers, but that comes from the inexperience of many retailers who store the bottles in warm places for too long.
I tried a really great range of beers and one of my favourites was a “Bionda” made with spelt called Cotta 21 from Mastri Birrai Umbri. While technically not a Tuscan beer, it was made in nearby Umbria, I still considered it local. It had lemon and herbal notes and wheat-like mouth feel from the spelt. It was a great beer to enjoy under the hot Tuscan sun.
Drinking artisanal Italian beer as the Tuscan sun sets at our villa.
But one of my absolute favourite breweries was Collesi, from the town of Apecchio, located on the border between Tuscany and Umbria. I had the pleasure of trying the Rossa or Red Ale while having a midday pizza lunch in the main square in Greve-in-Chianti. It had all of the complexities of a sour Flanders Red but also had sweet notes with flavours of apple and fig. And because it was refermented in the bottle it had a very robust head that left some impressive lacing on the wine glass it was served in.
Afternoon beer, main square, Greve-in-Chianti.
Generally many of the beers I tried had complex aromas and flavours, with many venturing into wine-like territory. I guess it’s hard to remove the influence of thousands of years of wine making, it’s literally in their blood! It’s also worth noting that many of the artisanal producers use really beautiful bottles, that previously contained either wine, brandy or champagne.
Because I knew that August was a time that many Italians took holiday, as soon as I arrived in Florence I made a point of stocking up on as many craft beers as I could get my hands on. The larger grocery stores had an enormous selection of amazing craft beer to choose from. It was a good thing too, because many of the breweries and brew pubs I chose to visit during my stay were actually closed for vacation, or siesta, or simply because it was Monday. Can’t really fault the Italians for this, they really know how to live. Every day they take a 2 to 3 hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and a nap. They also make a point of taking at least one day a week off, which means closing smaller restaurants and bars. Everyone needs to rest right?
I was hoping to see more of the brewing operations first hand, but because this is a fledgling industry they haven’t quite caught on to the tourism element of that just yet. I suspect that will change as the years pass and more people are exposed to these amazing brews and start visiting Italy for the beer and not just the wine and great food.
Beer Bar in Florence
Regardless of these minor short comings, I truly enjoyed the entire beer experience in Italy and look forward to returning. Salute!