The origins of Italian beer
Italy is rightly celebrated for its world-class wine, after all, the country’s warm climate and ample sunshine make it an ideal place for grape growing. However, Italy also has a long and storied relationship with beer.
The Phoenicians – inhabiting the island of Sicily in the 7th century – commonly traded and consumed beer. Ancient Rome, too, produced beer in small amounts, although barbarian invasions meant that the Romans’ means of production were almost completely destroyed. Interestingly, Italy’s first medical school, Schola Medica Salernitana, praised beer for its supposed health benefits: ‘It supports old age, flows through the veins, increases well-being, and strengthens the blood’... or so the science claimed.
Although wine still retains an extraordinary level of popularity among Italians, it doesn’t mean that beer isn’t extremely popular too. Italy has, in fact, enjoyed a beer renaissance of sorts, with Italians drinking 34.6 litres of beer per person in 2019, compared to 28.6 litres just 9 years previously. From the variety of flavours produced to the extraordinary craftsmanship of independent manufacturers, there’s something inherently special about Italian beer.
What does Italian beer taste like?
Italian beer is best known for its lager beers. Such lagers, like many Italian beers, tend to lean towards a fruity flavour, with significant concentrations of malt and hops. A key difference in their taste compared to beers from other countries lies in the fermentation process. As Italian beers favour higher fermentation temperatures, they lend themselves to a sweeter taste than those made at lower temperatures.
When more creative brewing processes are involved – especially in small-batch production – a beer will tend to adopt a more fruit-forward flavour from the malt. More complex flavours such as caramel, roasted nuts, toffee, and berries may also be present as common by-products of excess malt. Many small-batch producers also like to experiment with unusual, local ingredients such as basil, nuts, and ancient grains, creating flavour profiles that set them apart from traditional Italian beers.
The best Italian beer brands
Although sweeter flavours tend to be more popular in Italy, some Italian beer brands have also experimented with heavier dark ales and hoppy pale ales. We’ve rounded up four of our favourite Italian beers to enjoy, best accompanied, in our opinion, by a bowl of fresh pasta.
Moretti Italian Beer
Birra Moretti is an original Italian brewhouse, founded in 1859 by Luigi Moretti in Udine, northern Italy. The first bottles were sold to consumers in 1860, making it one of the oldest Italian beer brands, and one with a complicated history. Although the Moretti family remained in possession of the company until 1989, it was then sold to a conglomerate of brewers before being handed over to the Dutch firm Heineken in 1996. Eventually, Heineken was forced into returning the company to Italy, where it remains until this day. Despite its changing hands, Moretti has always been known for its consistency in flavour, yielding a moderate bitterness and clean aftertaste, perfect for a hot day under the Italian sun.
Messina Italian Beer
First brewed in 1923, Birra Messina is the signature beer of the southern Italian island of Sicily. Named after the Sicilian harbour city of Messina from which it originated, Birra Messina is a refreshing golden-hued lager with a dry finish. This beer is made by a process of slow fermentation, which gives it a slightly more delicate taste than some other Italian beers. Despite its strong Sicilian roots, Birra Messina has become a truly Italian beer that’s popular all over the country. In fact, our Head Chef Roberta has fond memories of sipping ice cold glasses of Birra Messina on her annual family holiday to the sun-drenched island.
Peroni Italian Beer
As one of the best-known Italian beers, Peroni Nastro Azzurro was first brewed in Rome in 1963, the same year that Italian fashion gained global recognition with the release of the film 'La Dolce Vita'. Ever since then, the beer has been brewed according to its original recipe which uses high-quality crops such as corn, hops, malt and barley; all native to the country. This light beer offers a sweet yet bitter flavour, with lingering hints of toffee and caramel. With an alcohol content of 5.1%, it‘s also an easily drinkable beer which has helped its worldwide success.
Ichnusa Italian Beer
Over the years, Birra Ichnusa has become an enduring symbol of the island of Sardinia. The name of the beer itself is thought to have come from the Greek word ichnos, roughly translating to ‘footprint’; the main logic being that when gazing upon Sardinia from above, the island looks like a giant human imprint. In Italy, the beer is found almost exclusively on the island, but it has also achieved international renown, comparable to many craft beers that are popular today. Our very own Chef Martina describes this beer as being one of her favourites: “Ichnusa has a balanced taste. It's light in colour and flavour, possessing a faint bitterness that is perfect when relaxing under cover from the unrelenting heat of the Sardinian sun.”
How to pair pasta and beer
In Italy, pasta is typically paired with wine, with the sauce matched to a particular grape. But the same principle can be applied to pairing beer and pasta.
Whether it’s a punchy puttanesca, spicy arrabbiata or an authentic amatriciana, some of Italy’s most famous pasta dishes rely on the country’s prized pomodori. When it comes to pairing beer with tomato-based pasta sauces, we’d opt for a light lager or pilsner. Italian beers like Peroni and Ichnusa work well, as they’ll match the acidity from the tomatoes without overpowering the flavour of your pasta dish.
From the classic Roman trio of carbonara, cacio e pepe and pasta alla gricia, to Italian-American favourites like mac and cheese, sometimes only a creamy pasta dish will do. Creamy, cheesy pasta sauces pair best with crisp, sharp wheat beers – the citrus notes commonly found in this style of beer do a great job of cutting through the richness. Although wheat beers typically come from Belgium and Germany, craft Italian breweries like Birra Baladin now produce some excellent Italian wheat beers.
Some of Italy’s finest pasta dishes feature I frutti di mare – ‘the fruits of the sea’. Whether you’re tucking into a classic like spaghetti vongole or sampling some luxurious lobster ravioli, seafood pasta dishes work brilliantly alongside beers with a hint of sweetness. An amber lager like Birra Moretti is a prime example – this beer’s malty background notes of toffee and caramel provide the ideal foil for the subtle sweetness of fresh seafood.