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Focus On: Beers Of Italy

Good at a pizzeria but should they command any respect beyond that?

Good at a pizzeria but should they command any respect beyond that?

Whether or not you’ve ever paid a visit to Italy, you surely have an image of the country in your mind.  Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist, once said, “A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority.” We’ve all seen postcards or paintings or movies set in Italy, imagined what it must be like traversing the canals of Venice or dining at the osterias and trattorias of Rome.   

It remains doubtful that those thoughts extend to Italian beers.

Italy is in Europe’s wine belt. Its food is justifiably world famous, and people associate it, mostly, with wine. I’d put much higher odds on a random someone having tried an Italian Chianti or Prosecco over an Italian beer.   

The most famous Italian beer brand internationally and its oldest beer giant is Peroni. Since 1846. For years, it’s been the stand-in Italian beer on Italian diaspora restaurant menus. Peroni manufactures seven types of beer, but their two primary sellers are both pale lagers and equally as available within Italy.  Abroad, its “premium” Nastro Azzurro (Blue Ribbon) is the beer that drinkers associate with the brand. Peroni is currently owned by the non-Italian beer behemoth SABMiller and has 21% of the beer market.    

Heineken Italia, owning the Birra Moretti, Ichnusa, Dreher, and San Souci brands besides its own world famous Dutch namesake, is the market leader with 27%.  Birra Moretti can be found in any grocery or ma & pa store.   InBev Italia commands 8% of the market and handles many of the German and Belgian imports. In last place, with 7%, Carlsberg Italia owns the ubiquitous Angelo Poretti brand and Splügen and also hawks a few Danish, German, and Mexican brews. Smaller mainstream labels command the rest, all a bit harder to locate:  Beba, Castello, Forst, Birra Messina, Morena, and Menabrea (Italy’s oldest brewery).    

The stereotype of Italy being wine country is more than a stereotype. While Italians under 55 prefer beer as their alcoholic beverage of choice, those over 55 still prefer wine.  And the fact remains that all those below 55’s insisting they love their beer aren’t drinking all that much of it. In 2011. Italians drank, per capita, 29 liters of beer.  For reference, the Czech Republic that same year drank 154 liters; Belgium, 145; Austria, 107.8; Germany, 106.8; Ireland, 103.7; the USA, 78.2. Italy’s current beer consumption is only 40% of the European average. It’s been borne out statistically that nations known for brewing the best beer (Czech Republic, Belgium, Germany) also drink the most, and those with poor reputations for brewing (i.e. India) drink very little. 

63.9% of the beer consumed in Italy is from domestic production.   Slightly more than a third, therefore, is imported. AB InvBev Italia’s range consists of entirely multinational brands: Beck’s, Corona, Tennent’s Super, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Jupiler, Spaten, Lowenbräu, Franziskaner, and Budweiser.  Carlsberg sells its Carlsberg brands plus Tuborg Light, Holsten, Tucher, Devil’s Kiss, Grimbergen, and Negro Modelo and Modelo Especial.

Having four big guys dominate a country’s beer market is nothing unusual. There are four predominant mainstream breweries in Thailand.  The same in Japan.  What’s unusual is just how large a role foreign ownership and foreign brand names play in the Italian beer industry. At present, all the Italian brands are owned by non-Italian operators. That may not be so illuminating in a world where mainstream beer brands are starting to become owned by the same beer consortiums.    What is illuminating about the Italian stance on its own beers is that three of the big four operators specialize in hawking mostly non-Italian beer. 

Having 36.1% of a country’s beer consumption imported is a huge figure. By contrast, imported beer in the USA only constitutes 4.5% of the total beer volume.   In Germany, around 2%. The Czech Republic imports 50m liters of beer, a paltry figure next to the 1.5bn liters consumed domestically.  No country manufacturing outstanding brews imports a third of its consumption.

Microbreweries constitute less than 3% of the market but around 10% in value and seem to enjoy a reach abroad that can’t be matched at home. In a relatively tiny craft beer market like Thailand’s, Birradamare’s Bionda and Rossa and Menabrea 1846 seem to regularly appear on upscale Italian restaurant menus, being among the handful of Italian microbrews imported into Thailand.  On a two week vacation in Italy itself, you’d be challenged to find these beers from just randomly walking into groceries and beer shops.  Despite a stated policy of groceries to stock more regional products, I could find only one microbrew in a high ticket grocery in Florence – and the beer came all the way from Torino.

The craft beer scene, like the mainstream one, is dominated by imports. Visit the average craft beer bar, whether in Rome’s Campo de Fiori or the Birroteca in Greve-in-Chianti, and only one or two of the product offerings are Italian. In other countries, the reverse would be true. Italians, thinking themselves wine aficionados by history, defer to international beer selections. 

Still, the Italians manage to export almost 16% of their beer production.   Peroni likely deserves most of the credit for this achievement.  Beginning in the 1980’s, the brand revamped itself abroad as a premium label, and by the 1990’s, the brand name was known worldwide. After SABMiller bought the company in 2003, it aligned the brand with other high-end Italian fashion brands. 

Combine that brand elevation with the widespread existence of a huge Italian diaspora – 30m Italians immigrated between 1861 and 1985 — operating Italian restaurants in every corner of the globe serving what may possibly be the most famous cuisine in the world. In 1950, a diner at an Italian restaurant in New York City’s Little Italy would have been content having a Budweiser with his pizza and gnocchi. Consumers today expect more authentic experiences and relish the option, certainly at any respectable establishment, of ordering at least a Peroni. With craft beers enjoying higher profit margins and desirability, it now behooves such restaurants to stock an Italian craft beer or two as well.

The famous composer Ennio Morricone was offered a free villa in Hollywood but turned it down .  He preferred to live in Italy.  As for Italian beers, he prefers to drink those, too – when he’s in Hollywood. 

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2 Responses

  1. brian says:

    Hi Doug, thanks for the article. The oldest Italian Beer is Menabrea and not Peroni by some months so there should be a reference change. As the promoter of Italian Artisan Beers in SE Asia, we are delighted to see more Italian Beers in Thailand especially craft beers. There are close to 700 breweries now in Italy but most of the beers are sold in the towns where they are brewed and not in large retailers or supermarkets. Very similar to how the majority of products in Italy: wine, cheese, meats, etc. are sold but only the big brands with big money can establish their brand internationally. So this what makes artisan beer so special in Italy is that every town or region you are in you can probably have the best beer that no one has ever heard of. I think Thailand is ahead of the curve when it comes to Craft beers in the region and more an more Italian craft beers like L’Olmaia and Birra Roma are being drank in bars, hotels, restaurants, and beer bars such as HOBS, Beer Bridge, Mikkeller, Wish Beer Home Bar, etc. We’re just happy to be part of the movement!!! :)

    • Doug Knell says:

      Brian, thanks for the comment. I mention that Peroni is the oldest beer giant, not the oldest brewery. But I will amend the article to mention Menebrea being the oldest brewery. I did make another mistake. I said Birradamare and Menebrea were the only two micros imported into Thailand presently. I am wrong. L’olmaia is also imported. How could I forget? I tried it and loved it.

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