Beer Culture

Stories about great beer from the countries that invented it.

Italian Craft Beer as a Gourmet Product


I’ve just about recovered from the eight-day, 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) drive through Piedmont and Lombardy, though the impact of seeing northern Italy’s wonderful beer culture firsthand is going to be harder to get over. A case in point: I can’t quite forget the outstanding beer selection at the Eataly supermarket in Turin, pictured above.

Eataly is surely a special case: most supermarkets in Italy don’t carry legends like Thomas Hardy’s Ale, as well as vast selections of local craft brews like Baladin, Grado Plato, Troll and Montegioco. Nonetheless, the fact that a high-end food store like Eataly has a entire craft beer department — as well as an on-site beer restaurant — testifies to how successfully Italian craft brewers have pushed for their products to be seen as an integral part of fine food and drink.

In part this is due to the an obvious competition with wine, I think, which is probably the reason that Italian craft beers are often sold in .75-liter bottles, rather than half-liter standard in Central Europe.

Additionally, the bottles themselves are almost ridiculously well-designed, with great logos and excellent packaging. If you hand someone a bottle of Italian craft beer as a gift, it really looks like something special.

(Compare that to the tasteless, soft-porn labels from Slovakia’s Steiger. Or the goofy, hard-to-recognize packaging from the Czech Republic’s Strakonice.)

Unfortunately, the craft beer prices in Italy are often at the level of wine — and sometimes higher. At Eataly, two vintages of Baladin’s outstanding Xyauyù were priced just under €30 (currently $47, or about 750 Kč). Bottles of Grado Plato’s beautiful Chocarrubica — I really liked it, others did not — were around €9.

That’s hardly appealing to the least common denominator. In a country where overall beer consumption remains very low, Italian craft brewers seem to be striking out for the top of the market, abandoning the low ground almost entirely to the mass-produced Eurobeers. It’s an interesting approach, though I’m not sure it would be as successful in a country with higher beer consumption — and stronger beer traditions — such as the Czech Republic and Germany.

But what are the options? Can Czech craft brewers really hope to compete with growing juggernauts like Heineken, SABMiller and InBev when it comes to basic lagers? More importantly, will Czech consumers ever go for unusual craft beers produced with chocolate and other unusual ingredients? And when will the Czech market get around to recognizing that bottled beers can be as good or even better than draft?

Other than the second question, I really don’t know the answers. But I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed if more Czech brewers took aim at gourmet markets and fine-dining restaurants. After all, what have they got to lose?

It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Czech craft beer makers looked to their Italian cousins for inspiration, as well as for potential clients. For example, Eataly stocks hundreds of bottles of craft beer from all over Italy and all over the world. The only Czech bottles they carry, however, are those from Pilsner Urquell.


Italian Beers for Home


Japanese Rats Prefer Czech Beer


  1. Kjetil Haugland, Bryne, Norway

    The craft beer prices in Italy seems to be even higher than here in Norway!

  2. As you point you, there the Italian craft brewers are aiming at a gourmet market, trying to compete with top of the range wines. They have turned their lack of tradition into an advantage.
    Craft brewers here have a different approach. They want to reclaim the tradition of a brewery in each town and their beers are aimed mostly for local consumption. There are actually only a couple of microbrewers that bottle their product and sell it out of their premises, Vrchlabi (not the best one), and U Medvidku, and this one only found at Pivovarsky Klub. The rest seem happy to tap their beers to those who come by, or at most bottle it pretty much on request. I wish it would change. But maybe the cost of bottling the beers would become too hight making their beers too expensive in a market used to low prices.
    The prices is another thing. X33 has shown that people are willing to pay a premium crowns for something special. Maybe other craft brewers could copy the idea.
    That could change if posh restaurants stopped ignoring beer. It is beyond my understanding how it can be that most luxury places will offer you a list with hundreds of wines from all over the world and only one or two choices of mass produced beer (to add insult to injury, some will even stock Stella Artois!), when beer is considered the national drink.

  3. Ok, Xyauyù is a boundary case, because of its productive process. But it’s true: in my opinion here in Italy craft beer are too expensive. I don’t like this approach to the top of the market, because it makes beer something for the elite… here we don’t have a real beer culture, and I don’t think it can grow if only few people drink craft products.
    In this way, italian beer enthusiasm remains just a trend, not a culture. The competition with wine is useless, for economical and cultural reasons. First of all, beer production in Italy can not be compared with wine, for quality and numbers. Then, wine prices are lower than beer prices: I can go to a supermarket and buy a good wine for 5 euros, while for a .75 cl of a beer I must pay 12 euros or more. And these are just two examples…
    I’d like if craft beer will become something popular, for the mass, like in Czech or other european countries… On the contrary you appreciate italian way. Eheh, the grass is always greener…

  4. Evan, this is a bloody brilliant post. Hits on so many issues.

    From my Italian beer chums, I’ve come to understand there really is a move toward artisanal beer being priced like wine, as you describe. Baladin leads the way. There’s considerable resistance to it from some, as you’d expect.

    I don’t have any problem with high-falutin, barrel-aged, fancy dan wotsit beers being priced highly – even opportunistically. After all, only the hardcore beer fan will seek them out – or even enjoy them. However, brewing an excellent session beer – a pils or a pale ale for example – should be sold at an accessible price.

  5. In Spain, the best place to buy beer in most towns is upmarket department store El Corte Ingles. Not that you find a lot of Spanish stuff there, but there’s usually stacks of quite obscure German beers, together with the usual Belgian and Czech suspects. The odd English beer, too, but the price is prohibitive — would you pay 3euros+ for a bottle of Marston’s Pedigree when you can get everything else for less than 1.50?

  6. Italian craft beers are prices as wine, and some low alcohol beers are actually more expensive than in Norway.
    But – the beers are usually sold at the same price in bars and shops, they don’t seem to encourage home consumption. They are usually not to be found in supermarkets, but are sold either from a salumeria (delcatessen) or a specialist shop where people expect to pay more.

    Distribution tends to be very local or regional, you have to do some careful planning to get hold of the beers. If you buy directly from the brewery, the prices can be a lot lower.

    With the high price level, the Italian market should be very interesting for craft breweries from the rest of Europe.

  7. Interesting, Knut. Teo Musso mentioned that his beer (Baladin) is sold in 1,500 restaurants around Italy. Restaurants, not pubs, and almost always in bottles. He wants it to be thought of like wine.

    Especially coming from the Czech Republic, I thought the prices were crazy. (5 euros for a half-liter? Czech readers, that’s 125 Kč!) But there are no Italian hops, little to no Italian malt, and even much of the brewing equipment comes from elsewhere in Europe.

    The diversity of what they’re making still amazes me. As well as how avant-garde, contemporary and cool it felt to be sitting in a pub. It’s not a bunch of old farts lamenting the glory of days long gone — instead you have a bunch of young people talking about how great things are getting. It’s like Backwardsland.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén