Something's Brewing in Italy

By Dan Rabin

Among the joys of cycling through the gentle northern Italian landscape outside Milan is indulging in the exquisite regional cuisine paired with pours of food-friendly, locally produced beer. That’s right, beer. While Italy’s deeply ingrained wine culture is well known, the country’s rise to prominence as a producer of fine ales and lagers is a more recent phenomenon. Word is spreading among beer enthusiasts worldwide that Italy has the fastest-growing beer scene in Europe. In the late 1990s, the Italian beer landscape was bleak. A handful of breweries were producing mostly industrial lagers, those pale-colored, mass-produced, Wonder Bread beers of little distinction. In recent years, Italy’s beer scene has exploded, with breweries now estimated to number around 1,000. A new generation of passionate, independent-minded, Italian beer-makers is producing richly flavored, nuanced beers in a wide range of styles. But since few Italian beers are exported beyond the borders, the Italian beer scene is a largely unknown entity outside Italy.

The greatest concentration of Italian breweries is in the north, where the Italian craft beer movement took root. In addition to being a hotbed of brewing, the region southeast of Milan is conducive to casual bike touring due to its flat terrain, bucolic landscape, quiet backroads, and great cuisine.

Enter Beercycling. This small bike touring company, sporting the catchy slogan “Getting you from Pint A to Pint B,” began offering beer-focused tours of Belgium and the Netherlands in 2011. As a confessed beer geek with a cycling problem, I joined Beercycling for several Belgian tours in past years. I found the relaxed pace and VIP treatment at breweries along the way a great recipe for an active beer-themed getaway. When the company added Italy to its offerings, I booked a spot on the Fall 2017 “Italian Passion” tour.

On a weekday afternoon in late September, groggy from jetlag following a transAtlantic flight, I arrived by taxi at a Milanese brewpub named La Birrofila, where my 10 soon-to-be riding companions were getting acquainted over beers. For those unfamiliar with beer jargon, a brewpub is simply a restaurant with an in-house brewing facility. Our bike tour would officially begin the next day, but our tour leader, Henk Wesselink, had organized an informal pretour visit to several of Milan’s popular brewpubs for anyone who wanted to partake. The entire group showed up. 

La Birrofila’s personable owner, Marco Biraghi, promptly presented me with my first fresh Italian beer. Surprisingly it was an Irish-style dry stout. I would soon learn that, since Italy has no true indigenous beer styles, Italian brewers borrow heavily from other beer cultures. It’s not unusual for Italian breweries to have within their beer portfolios a mix of German-style lagers and wheat beers, Belgian-style strong golden ales, British-style bitters and stouts, and American-style hoppy pale ales and India pale ales. I found it amusing that the latter, commonly referred to as IPAs, are called “E-pahs” in Italy. If Italy is a melting pot of beer styles, Italian brewers are not lacking in creativity. They frequently use local ingredients – herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, etc. – to add an Italian twist to established styles.

After many hours of travel, the dark ale was pleasantly restorative. As I lustily downed the flavorful elixir, Biraghi explained that the beer’s name, Last Out, was a pun. If you move the space between words, he pointed out, you have La Stout. In the days that followed, I observed that Italian brewers favor English names for their beers. The names are frequently quirky and often have cultural references.

Our group consisted of all Americans, except for Henk and his good-natured, beer-drinker-in-training girlfriend, Tineke, both from the Netherlands. As we sipped and chatted over several rounds of beers, we soon discovered that nearly everyone had participated in previous Beercycling tours. In fact, one of our tourmates was embarking on his eighth tour with Beercycling. Eventually we made our way across town for a dinner stop at another brewpub called La Ribalta. In typical fashion, the nine house beers included German, Belgian, British, and American styles. My well-balanced British bitter paired nicely with a plate of fried sardines.

We kickstarted the official first day of the tour with a frothy cappuccino in Milan’s bustling central train station. As the city is not especially bike friendly, the group took a train to a less-trafficked location east of Italy’s second-largest metropolis. Upon arrival in Verdello, we were met at the station by our Italian driver, Michela Bresciani, who had arrived with our hybrid bikes atop our support van. As it turned out, the amiable Michela would become an integral part of our adventure. She took on the multiple roles of van driver, bike mechanic, translator, and cultural ambassador. In return, she learned more about beer than I’m sure she ever intended to know.

After covering many miles by planes, trains, and automobiles, it felt good to be in motion on a bicycle. The early fall weather was perfect for cycling — mild and dry. The hazy outline of the Alps was visible in the far distance. With our easy-going Dutch guide in the lead, we soon entered an area where mixed businesses shared the landscape with recently harvested fields.

Henk, we learned, had designed the Italian Passion tour a few years prior with two key criteria. First, there had to be a high concentration of breweries to visit. Second, the cycling had to be easy. “Our audience is into outdoor activity, but not into really challenging trips,” he explained. “I’d heard about the booming craft beer culture in Italy. I started to do some research to see where breweries were located and to see if it was possible to ride there. I found that the most famous breweries, and the highest density of breweries, were located between Milan and Bologna. It’s a completely flat area. I knew it would be easy to bike there.” When this former investment banker isn’t leading bicycle tours, Henk grows hops, organizes beer-themed events, and is a partner in a brewing business in the Netherlands.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at a business park housing Birrificio Independente Elav (“birrificio” is Italian for “brewery”). As we rolled up to the entrance, we were greeted enthusiastically by the brewery dog, Stout, and the husband-and-wife owners, Antonio Terzi and Valentina Ardemagni.

After a short tour, the couple told us about their brewery. With Michela translating, we learned that the brewery name, Elav, is the backwards spelling of Vale (short for Valentina). The owners are advocates of the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy in the late 1980s. To increase their use of local ingredients, they’ve begun growing hops, herbs, and berries for use in their beers. Many of their beer names – Punks Do It Bitter, Indie Ale, Grunge IPA, etc. – are inspired by music.

The Elav owners also own several pubs in the area. The Clocktower, located about 10 miles away in the town of Treviglio, would be our lunch stop. When we arrived at the Irish-themed pub, we were treated to an over-the-top afternoon feast with different Elav beers paired with each course of the multicourse meal.

Enticing meat and cheese platters were served family style, followed by heaping plates of pasta and baskets of fresh bread made with spent grain and beer. I was especially impressed when our server, Simona, described in great detail and flawless English the unique qualities of each of the four Elav beers we were served. The meal’s finale was a decadent and irresistible dessert plate featuring a trio of sweet treats. The 15-mile ride to our overnight stop in Crema was just what we needed to work off our divine indulgences.

With Beercycling, mid-ride beer samplings are just that, samplings, and are tempered by a quality-over-quantity sensibility that keeps rides on an even keel. Evening explorations to local pubs and beer bars have a more lenient policy regarding adult beverages.

Our second day of riding began along a nearly empty stretch of roadway bordered by a meandering canal on one side and freshly plowed fields on the other. If our cycling route lacked the thigh-burning climbs and adrenaline-charged descents one might expect with Italian bike touring, the flat, rural landscape we traversed had its own subtler charms. We averaged 30 miles a day with most of our pedaling on narrow, lightly trafficked roads through peaceful farmland. We made occasional stops in towns along the way for mid-morning cappuccinos or afternoon gelatos. On short stretches of busier roadways, drivers were courteous. On the high traffic approaches to larger towns, there was often a dedicated bike path paralleling the road.

Our next brewery visit was an afternoon stop at Birrificio Brewfist, one of Italy’s best-known craft breweries. Craft beer hasn’t yet reached mainstream status in Italy. In fact, from what I observed, it’s considered a somewhat renegade movement with a mostly young audience. By intention or not, the Brewfist name, along with its clenched fist logo, epitomizes the spirit of fierce independence that permeates the Italian craft beer movement.

A friendly member of Brewfist’s brew crew, Ricardo, showed us around the modern facility. The brewery produces a wide range of quality beers with an emphasis on American-style pale ales and IPAs. A growing trend in the craft beer world is the practice of aging beer in wooden barrels previously used to age wine or spirits. Italy has a surplus of wooden barrels that brewers are utilizing to produce small-batch beers of unique character. Brewfist’s barrel room included a collection of repurposed wine, port, marsala and grappa barrels now filled with Brewfist beer. Some of the barrels, our guide informed us, were a century old. 

The oldest barrel I’ve ever seen used to age beer was a 200-year-old barrel we encountered the next day at a small brewery, Birrificio Retorto, where we were warmly received by owner-brewer Marcello Ceresa, and his partner and sister, Monica. The weathered barrel, we were told, was originally used to store Vin Santo (literally, “holy wine”), a traditional Italian dessert wine made from dried grapes. It seems fitting that the barrel now contains barley wine, a strong ale aptly named because its alcohol content equals that of some wines.

As we were enjoying pours of Bloody Mario Sour Cherry Beer, Vincent Vega Belgian Tripel, and Daughter of Autumn Strong Scotch Ale, our hosts produced several snacks. While a plate of locally made salami was delicious, an insanely rich and fatty mystery meat was more challenging. We eventually determined it was fried pig skin.

Near the end of the day’s 40-mile ride, the longest of the tour, we arrived at Birrificio Del Ducato. This was the largest brewery on our route, and the best known, as their beers are exported to North America. Like most of the breweries we visited, Ducato doesn’t normally host visitors, but they made an exception for our group of beer-loving, bike-riding foreigners. If the brewery ever changes its visitor policy, they’ll be wise to ask Gaia Freytag to conduct brewery tours. The vivacious 25-year-old, who led us on an extended tour of Ducato’s expansive brewing facility, had only been employed as the brewery’s quality manager for three months when we visited, but her unabashed enthusiasm for her job, the brewery, and the beer world in general was infectious.

Gaia beamed as she showed us Ducato’s sophisticated lab, where she conducts her “crazy experiments.” “As long as you write it down, it’s not craziness,” she joked. “It’s science!” When asked how she learned to speak English so well, she mentioned the months she had spent studying in Belgium, and quickly added, “but I think it was mostly Netflix.” Gaia had picked out several interesting Ducato beers for us to sample. The one I found the most intriguing was a beer-wine hybrid that had been fermented on the skins of local Malvasia wine grapes.

The next day’s destination was Parma, the city famous for Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto. On the way, we stopped for a picnic lunch outside a bottle shop operated by Birrificio Toccalmatto. The shop’s proprietor, Massimo, had prepared a savory assortment of cured meats, marinated vegetables, focaccia, and three and four-year-old parmesan cheese for us to compare. All were paired with Toccalmatto beers, of course. As we ate and sipped, Massimo explained that the brewery’s attention-grabbing slogan, “The Beer Freak Show,” referred to the noncorporate image the company wants to portray.

As we rolled into Parma in the late afternoon, we soon discovered there’s more to the city than ham and cheese. Parma is a lively college community with one of the oldest universities in the world. The city is home to a vibrant beer scene, with a variety of busy beer bars catering to a young crowd.

Our final ride was an out-and-back trip to Torrechiara, south of Parma. In the tranquil countryside beyond the city limits, rolling hills came into focus, increasing in detail as we approached. At the base of the hills, we arrived the family-owned Panil brewery where we were greeted by our engaging hostess, Patrizia Losi. As we embarked on a tour, Patrizia told us that her family had operated the business as a winery for many years. In 2001, they launched their beermaking endeavors, making it one of Italy’s original craft breweries.

Compared to the pristine modern breweries we had visited in previous days, Panil had a weathered look that only time can create. Some of the equipment was antiquated and obviously dated back to the winemaking days. Panil ferments beer in oak barrels and was the first Italian brewery in modern times to do so. We’d soon discover that Panil beers possess a unique character with house flavors that can’t be replicated in another location. 

Following the tour, we gathered in the garden for yet another extended midday feast and beer sampling. Our scenic lunch spot was adjacent to a small vineyard that remains on the property. On a nearby hilltop, the Torrechiara Castle towered over the landscape. The dramatic fortress dates from the 1400s.

Plate after plate circulated around the table with tomatoes on toast, pickled vegetables, a variety of meats, crispy fried bread, cheeses and cake. “If you don’t eat everything, there will be a penality,” Patrizia threatened good-naturedly in serviceable, if imperfect, English. Beers flowed including a blond ale, an amber, and several distinctly flavored sour beers for which Panil is well known. Before departing, I purchased a few bottles of Panil beer that are now sitting in my cellar awaiting a special occasion. 

On the mellow ride back to Parma, I pondered the idea that pedaling the pastoral backroads of northern Italy on a mission of beer discovery may not be everyone’s idea of the quintessential Italian bike tour. But it’s certainly mine.

Dan Rabin is an award-winning beer and travel journalist from Boulder, Colorado, with a thirst for two-wheeled adventure. He is author of the guidebook, Colorado Breweries, and contributes regularly to a variety of magazines and websites.