Why are consumers in a wine country like Italy now turning more and more to beer, what trends can be seen in the craft industry, and what are the biggest hurdles for the Italian brewers? In an interview, beer pioneer Robert Widmann, head of Batzen Bräu in Bolzano, Italy, talks about the current state of the Italian beer scene and predicts where it will go in the coming years.
Mr. Widmann, most people associate Italy with wine, not beer. Now it seems that beer fever has broken out all over the country. Why are more and more Italian consumers turning to beer?
Robert Widmann: There are several reasons. Italy is fairly open when it comes to cuisine. At the same time, the willingness to experience new pleasures is extremely high. The first craft breweries were already established here in the 1980s as precursors to today’s beer trend. Nevertheless, we still didn’t have any special beer culture and no real variety of flavours. The Italian craft beer movement can also be seen as a protest movement by brewers who to some extent see themselves as rebels. We now have around 1,000 small breweries with an average output is about 700 hectolitres.
Besides the number of breweries, the number of varieties in Italy is also growing. In addition to classics such as dunkel, Vienna lager and wheat beer, Batzen Bräu also brew India pale ale, gose and barley wine. But what specific trends are you currently observing in your competitors in the local craft scene?
Robert Widmann: Following a tendency toward extreme beers with wild combinations of raw materials, the trend is now toward more drinkable brews, such as lagers. I think this development’s fantastic because it also demonstrates that a new, even more varied brewing culture is being established in Italy and that Italian brewers are also capable of making technically difficult beer styles.
So courage and variety are extremely important. But what do creative brewers have to do to survive in the difficult Italian beverage market?
Robert Widmann: Above all, they have to stand out from their competitors and, in any case, they have to provide their own catering. The biggest problem for brewers is not having their own brewpub or an associated restaurant. This takes away not only their opportunities for direct sales, but also having their own calling card. Also, training as a beer sommelier as well as beer tours are important for establishing professionalism and for ongoing development.
What role does the consumer experience factor play for brewers?
Robert Widmann: It’s extremely important. Italians drink with greater awareness, in smaller quantities, and demand extremely pleasurable experiences. Per capita beer consumption is only 30 litres. That’s why food pairing is also such a big issue for Italian brewers. Maybe it’s also a genuine opportunity because, in this area, we’re also a bit more refined than our colleagues in many other countries.
What do you mean?
Robert Widmann: Italian cuisine is world famous for its simple and flavourful dishes. For example, brewers regularly organize special tastings pairing beer with typical dishes, cheese or chocolate. Beer is also tested as an ingredient in many dishes.
And what can events like Beer Craft in Bolzano or CRAFT BEER ITALY in Milan contribute to the Italian beer industry?
Robert Widmann: Lots! I find this type of event to be extremely important for the industry. Beer Craft gives craft brewers and their products greater visibility. They have an opportunity to present their beers, get feedback and discuss current problems. At CRAFT BEER ITALY, on the other hand, it’s explicitly about expertise, which makes it an extremely valuable trade fair. This year, I attended several lectures there, all of which were on a very high level and conveyed genuine knowledge.
How do you see the development of the Italian craft beer industry over the next few years?
Robert Widmann: Pessimists are predicting a mass extinction of small breweries that actually should have happened long ago. They believe that many small brewers won’t be able to sustain their business over the long term. But I see it differently, I’m very optimistic. Certainly, some brewers will give up, which is totally normal in a new growth sector, but new and exciting brands with new ideas will also enrich the beverage market. If the quality of the beer continues to stabilize, the scene will definitely continue to improve and creative brewers will reach and bring pleasure to more and more people. In the future, I see well-made, drinkable beers with character.