Two important ingredients have helped Italian brewers bring things to a rolling boil: first, a willingness to experiment that can arguably be traced back to the US, and secondly, a generous dose of their own renowned food culture. Uninhibited by a deep-rooted tradition of brewing and inspired by local ingredients, Italy has enthusiastically pushed the envelope, increasing the net variety of European beers by leaps and bounds in the process. From the foothills of the Alps in the North to the Strait of Messina in the South, innovators and nonconformists are using beans, berries, tobacco, flowers, vegetables, and herbs to produce some truly original creations.
Chestnut beers, for example, can be found at many a microbrewery and gastropub; more than 30 versions—including Palanfrina, an intense tipple made with chestnut flowers, honey, and jam, as well as the meaty nut itself—now exist nationwide. It shouldn’t surprise then, to learn that Birrificio Troll, the rustic, unassuming brewpub where this dark ale originates, is just as singularly Italian as the beers that emerge from their kettles. Local herbs and spices from the surrounding mountain slopes typically appear in the beers, while the smoked trout, pork tenderloin, and other dishes from the kitchen usually marinate in beer before winding up on the grill. Travel to the source to try Daü, a peppery saison, or the minty Christmas ale Stella di Natale, unless you'd rather track a bottle at a shop like Johnny’s Off License in Rome.
To refer to an Italian craft brew as a farmhouse beer is often apt in more than one way. Birrificio L'Olmaia, for instance, began in Siena on a farm distinguished by three old elm trees in its courtyard (olmo is elm in Italian). Moreno Ercolani has since moved his operation to Montepulciano, but continues to use native ingredients, like the hibiscus flowers that give Karkadè its rosy hue. And then there’s Loverbeer. Started by Valter Loverier in 2010, this inventive brewery manages to bridge the worlds of beer and wine, using wine barrels, wine musts, local grapes, and other fruits to produce unusual beers that cause bloggers like Alessio Leone of Hoppy Hour to wax rhapsodic. BeerBera relies on Barbera wine grapes for its spontaneous fermentation, while Damaschine plums lend a prune-like sourness to BeerBrugna.
Further south, Birra Karma in Campania uses local Sorrento lemons in their fittingly-named Lemon Ale, while Centesimale is brewed with Pallagrello wine must and Annurca apples, an ancient variety of the tree fruit which gives this distinctive beverage a quality best described as zesty and juicy. Meanwhile, Birrificio Almond 22, another newcomer at the vanguard of the country’s craft beer movement, is regarded by many as one the best in central Italy. Andrea Turco, who runs the popular website Cronache di Birra, goes so far as to suggests a pilgrimage to Abruzzo for their Pink IPA, made with peppercorns of the same color. Find it (along with nearly every other style of Almond 22) at La Taverna Di Paola, a comfortable, wood-paneled establishment in Brescia between Milan and Verona.
And then of course there’s Birra del Borgo, the company founded by Leonardo di Vicenzo that joined forces with Birra Baladin and Dogfish Head to open Manhattan’s own birreria, a rooftop laboratory that showcases Italian edibles and seasonings in draft-only releases. As their popularity has grown, some of di Vicenzo’s beers have found their way to the United States, including Castagnale, a smokier take on chestnut ale, and Genziana, a spiced amber ale that relies on gentian roots for its unique character. But at the elegant restaurant Taberna in Palestrina outside of Rome, it’s possible to try cuisine-inspired creations like Perle ai Porci (Pearls for Pigs), an oyster stout made with fresh oysters and local clams—shells and all.
For a wider sampling of the country’s best however, Open Baladin, serving faithful customers since September 2009, is a contemporary temple to Roman beer with no less than 40 Italian taps. Its modern main space gets loud and crowded, so take your pint to one of the more intimate rooms upstairs to taste in peace. Don’t forget a menu though, the homemade potato chips with licorice powder probably shouldn't be missed.