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The best way to make a trip to Italy better – with local craft beer

As the American craft beer wave rolls across the United States –  bringing brewpubs, tasting rooms and cans of local fresh beer to every county and town, one can’t help but wonder about the saturation point.

It’s not just the beer itself, but the very culture of craft beer (a topic I explored in depth in an article back in July) in the US is becoming more and more assimilated into “normal social life”. Craft beer tastings, beer dinners and beer-themed events are commonplace. In Pennsylvania you can (finally) buy beer in a grocery store, and even find it now in so called “Third Spaces” like movie theaters.

But unfortunately for some of us, a byproduct of the growing “routine-ness” of craft beer, is that some of the excitement, and much of the edge has become diluted. The world of craft beer is no longer as special, or “off centered” as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head likes to say.

But there is good news for those beer appreciators that long for the days when you would wander into an obscure local unpolished brewpub, and find yourself talking with an impassioned, excited brewer who is just thrilled to talk about craft beer with you while you down his or her brews. You can still find this now in Europe.

I was fortunate enough to be in Italy and Spain in the late fall of 2018, and found myself having quite a throwback good time with the Euro-Craft brewers I met, and quality beers that I enjoyed.

Taps at Zapap offering some very tasty brews in Bologna

First up, In Bologna, Italy I looked up “Birrificio Zapap” a brewpub located just a short walk from the center of town. It was supposed to be open at 5:30pm that evening, so I killed some time with a bottle of Italian lager at a cafe, and waited respectfully until about 5:45 to drop by the brewpub. As I walked in the door past the “Zapap Urban Brewery” sign, I didn’t anyone in the place – then a busy man with a friendly face appeared and looked at me quizzically. “Can I buy a beer?” I asked in broken Italian. He said (in pretty good English) “Oh, we aren’t ready for that yet, come back in about 30 minutes”… When I reappeared at about 6:15 the beer was flowing.

The owner/brewer Di Christian Govoni happily poured me a delicious hoppy pilsner called “Prodigy” which poured foamy with a pleasingly light body.  (The rocky head was a style I found in all types of beers in pubs in Italy and Spain – some even used a knife to trim off some the foam).

Chris sharing his “liquid art” at Zapap

Chris was very excited to talk about his experience in Italian craft beer, and passionate about his brews. He explained that his 10 hectoliter brewery was just outside the city, and this taproom was his second, the other being near to the University. He proudly explained that the recipes are his and that he’d love to have brewery in the city but it’s just too expensive.

I looked over the pub’s decor and the throwback feeling got deeper – on the walls were posters from “Clockwork Orange”, “Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction” along with a hand painted depiction of the the brewing process that used to decorate US breweries in the 1990’s. Soon a diverse crowd of locals, students and families began to filter in. And the beer was good! Many hoppy, some malty, with both light and full bodied brews available. this included some “US-like” beers such as “Sick Boy” made with Columbus Hops, and a collaboration beer called “Hop Disorder” made with the “Guineu” brewery in Barcelona.

After I felt I had monopolized  enough of Chris’s time talking beer, I finally asked “Why did you call your brewery ‘Zapap’?” He stared at me, suddenly serious “Have you heard of Charlie Papazian?”. Of course I did I told him, I have followed his leadership of craft beer in the US for decades, and even got to talk to him a bit at this spring’s Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville.

“Zapap is named after him – Papaz (ian) backwards!”. I thought that was really fabulous, and asked if he knew if Charlie knew about his homage to the “godfather of craft beer”. “I don’t know, I don’t think so” he replied. I bought a couple of bottles of some of Chris’s fine beer to take back to my hotel, and hoped to figure out a way to let Charlie know about his place some day.

Fresh Pilsner Urquel at the Beer House Club in Florence

In the more touristy medieval Italian town of Florence, craft beer was in even more evidence. For example, by accident I happened on a tap room dedicated to particular beer. This one was called the “Beer House Club” located by the Arno river near the Ponte Vecchio. It offered tanks of unpasteurized Pilsner Urquel (“tankovna”) shipped directly from the Czech brewery. The fresh, frothy lager was ready for parched tourists who scaled the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo and local business people alike.

After winding my way through the twisting narrow streets of Florence I came upon the “Brew Dog” pub near the center of town. Yes, those crazy Scottish brewers – James Watt and Martin Dickie set up some of their brew pubs and tap rooms in Italy, with Florence being the first. The co-owner and general manager “Lapo Ricci” – a Firenze native – was happy to pour us some delicious Brew Dog beers and talk in depth about the beer scene in Italy.

Brew Dog in Florence featuring US craft brewers Cascade Brewing – along with their own great beer

Why put Brew Dog in Italy? Lapo explained – “,,,There are three large universities here, with thousands of US students… and they party, and party late. We honestly didn’t know if Brew Dog would work here, but it has.” He told me that the younger generation in Italy are looking more to beer as a cheaper alternative to wine for their drink of choice. “Prices of wine keep going up, and there has been bad press – wineries not using the types of grapes that they claim, so people are getting annoyed and are trying more beer.”

“In Italy until recently beer was very regional, and we couldn’t really get another region’s beer. There was a great brewery in Milan – which started in 1996, but its beer didn’t appear in Florence until 2016.” (This reminded me of how long it took to get Anchor Steam on the east coast of the US – though it didn’t take 20 years!) Lapo pointed out that the people of Florence think of themselves as being Florentines first, and Italians second. Locals are proud of their heritage, and their beer.

Chiilin’ in Florence at Brew Dog

Time passed quickly as we talked happily about beer, while quaffing some tasty potent Brew Dog beers like  “Elvis Juice” and “Jackhammer”, I asked Lapo if he had heard about the new “Brew Dog Hotel” (The Dog House) recently opened in Ohio in the States. He said he had, and I asked him “But why Ohio?”.

He said: “…well, I think that James and Martin saw Greg Koch of Stone Brewing open his brewery in Berlin and though ‘we can do this even better’ and opened one in the States as sort of a gesture of competition…But Stone overreached a bit, their place is huge and way out in the middle of nowhere – though the beer is very good”. (I agreed – having been lucky enough to be there two years ago when visiting Germany, but it was in fact a 25 minute cab ride from downtown Berlin.)

Zapap in Bologna and Brew Dog in Florence were just two of the really good craft beer experiences I had in Italy, and there were others in Madrid as well. These brewery visits reminded me so much of my experiences in the US in the earlier years of craft beer in the 1990’s. And while I am very happy that nowadays in the States craft beer is everywhere, I do sort of miss the excitement and unpredictable passion of earlier days.

So do go to Europe for the food, culture and arts, but also indulge in some throwback pioneer craft beering while you can. (You may want to point the wine drinkers to a museum so you can have time for a good conversation and beer.)

Craft beer always a welcome sight anywhere in the world