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.
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.