Italy is generally considered a center of wine culture and therefore is thought of as a place where beer is an afterthought at best. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Italy has made significant contributions to the world of beer throughout its long history from ancient Rome to the present. Today it has thriving mass market breweries and a creative, exciting craft beer culture. It seems that the ancient Romans probably encountered brewing on a large scale for the first time shortly after Octavian—better known to history as Emperor Augustus (63 bce–14 ce)—defeated the Egyptian navy under Queen Cleopatra (69 bce–30 bce) and her Roman lover Mark Antony (83 bce–30 bce) at the Battle of Actium in 31 bce. See egypt. Cleopatra, incidentally, had financed her navy largely from a special tax she had placed on beer. By some reckoning this was the first tax on beer ever. After the loss of their fleet, Mark Antony and Cleopatra jointly committed suicide in 30 bce, and Egypt became a Roman colony. At that time, Egypt could already look back at thousands of years of beer making. The Romans were less interested in Egyptian beer than they were in the grains from the fertile banks of the Nile, which they usurped for the bread of Rome. Nonetheless, references to beer started to creep into Latin writings after the Egyptian conquest. The first such mention was by the Greek-born Roman historian, geographer, and philosopher Strabo (63 or 64 bce–approx. 24 ce), who reported that the Ligurians of northwestern Italy and southeastern France lived “mostly off cattle, milk, and a drink from barley.” A few years later, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who was born in 23 or 24 ce and died in Pompeii during the Vesuvius eruption of 79 ce, wrote about Egyptian beer, which he called zythum; about Spanish beer, which he called caelia and cerea; and about Gallic (French) beer, which he called cerevisia. The Roman writer Publius Cornelius Tacitus (approx. 55–117 ce) visited the newly conquered Germanic regions and made extensive notes about the beer-drinking habits of the local tribes there. In his De origine et situ Germanorum (About the Location and Origins of the Germans) he famously wrote, “Potui humor ex hordeo aut frumento, in quandam similitudinem vini corruptus.” (The Germans drink a juice from grain, but fermented, which somehow resembles adulterated wine.) But the foreign “grain wine” could not have been very “corrupt,” because even Tacitus’ own stepfather, the general who was responsible for the Roman conquest of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40–93 ce), had, in very un-Roman fashion, three brewers from Glevum (present-day Gloucester in England) in his employ. In 179 ce, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 ce), the Romans even built a full-scale brewery for 6,000 elite legionnaires at Castra Regina (present-day Regensburg) on the banks of the Danube. This brewery was excavated between 1974 and 1980 and is now considered the oldest preserved brewery site where beer was made not from baked bread, as was common for tribal brews at the time, but from mashed grain. See bavaria. The spread of beer making in the Roman Empire is further documented in the writings of Saint Benedict of Nursia (480–547 ce), the founder of the order of Benedictine monks, who were to become the most prominent brew monks of the Middle Ages. When Benedict stayed, between 529 and 543, at the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Latium, in central Italy, he composed a set of rules that have served as the model for monastic daily conduct to this day. In it, beer assumed a crucial role, because Benedict considered hard manual labor, at least 5 hours a day, in the fields, the bakery, and the brewery the only road to salvation. To Benedict, food was intended to be simple, and beer was primarily a necessary source of nourishment, not an indulgence. He understood that beer—if made strong enough and from the best grains—was not only thirst quenching but veritable “liquid bread.” Thus, Benedict entitled every monk to a substantial amount of daily beer, which, in modern measure, added up to about 1 keg of beer per monk per week! But Benedict also insisted that beer be respected. He forbade drunkenness; any monk who spilled beer was punished by having to stand upright and perfectly still for an entire night.

The importance of beer in the Italian culture, however, declined with the demise of the Roman Empire, in part because of the greater difficulty of growing grains than vines in the Italian soil and climate. Also, beer was considered a drink of the barbarian hordes from up north, who periodically descended across the Alps to sack and plunder Italy and to cause general mayhem. One such marauder was Flavius Odoacer (433–493 ce), a Germanic chieftain who revolted against the Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus and succeeded in deposing him in 476. It turned out that Romulus Augustulus was to be the last Roman Emperor. In subsequent centuries, the country later known as Italy simply fell apart and split into many different duchies and city states, which became easy prey for invading forces, notably those of France and the German Empire. Much of northern Italy surrounding the Adriatic port city of Trieste, for instance, became Austrian in 1382 and remains so virtually without interruption in 1920, when it was merged with Italy after the post–World War II disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The little beer that was consumed in Italy during the Middle Ages, not surprisingly, was consumed mostly in the north of the country, and it was imported. Things changed, however, in the late 18th century, when in 1789 Giovanni Baldassarre Ketter opened the first Italian brewery of modern times, in Nizza Monferrato, Piedmont. Two years later, Ketter sold his brewery to Giovanni Debernardi, who managed to obtain a license for selling beer in all of Piedmont. By 1890, almost 3 decades of the Italian unification in 1861, known as the “Risorgimento,” under Giuseppe Garibaldi and Camillo di Cavour, there were some 140 breweries operating in Italy; by the end of the century that number had almost doubled. One of the major forces of large-scale brewing was the Schwechat Brewery near Vienna, owned by Anton Dreher. It was the headquarters of the largest brewing enterprise in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, in those days, comprised not only Austria and Hungary proper but also Bohemia and Moravia (today parts of the Czech Republic), Slovakia, much of the Balkans, and much of northern Italy. Dreher had breweries not only in Austria, but also in Budapest, Hungary, and in Trieste, where he had founded Birra Dreher in 1896. That brewery was bought by Heineken in 1974. Since 1996, incidentally, Heineken also owns Birra Moretti, founded in Udine, in 1859, by Luigi Moretti; as well as Ichnusa in Sardinia; Messina in Sicily; and Von Wűnster in Bergamo. The other internationally known Italian brewery, Birra Peroni, was founded by Giovanni Peroni in Vigevano in Lombardia in 1846 and moved to Rome in 1864. It is now owned by SABMiller, as are Wűhrer in Brescia and Raffo in Bari. Then there is Carlsberg Italia, which owns Poretti in Varese and Splűgen in Chiavenna. The only major Italian brewery not affiliated with large international concern is Forst in Merano, South Tirol, which also owns Menabrea in Biella.

Today, Italy can boast one of the most exciting and creative craft brewing cultures in the world. Only a decade before, craft breweries were counted in dozens, but by 2011 the number had climbed well past 300 and shows little sign of abating. The story of the Italian beer renaissance will be familiar to anyone who has followed the arc of the American craft brewing movement. Young beer enthusiasts, after enlightening trips to countries with long brewing traditions, opened the first brewpubs in the mid-1990s, mainly in northern Italy, selling fresh new beers to consumers who had become used to drinking almost exclusively bland mass marketed lagers. They took their inspirations from Belgium, England, Germany, and the United States and set about forging a still-evolving idiom of beer that is uniquely Italian. Not surprisingly, the new Italian brewing culture is unusually food driven. Brewers are using varieties of tobacco leaves, smoked teas, beans, nuts, berries, flowers, fruit, herbs, vegetables, spices, sugars, salts, peppers, and more.

The chestnut is a culinary mainstay in many Italian regional cuisines, and more than 30 Italian brewers make chestnut beers. The chestnut, which gives profoundly earthy flavors, is employed in a myriad of forms—dried, smoked, roasted, as chestnut flour, and in powerfully flavored local chestnut honeys. Brewing competitions often include a “birraalle castagne” category (“chestnut beer”), a beer type unique to Italy. There are also interesting fruit beers brewed using local rare fruits and others making use of the traditional spelt grown in areas such as Tuscany, Latium, and Abruzzo. Among the most interesting emerging trends is represented by those beers that are linked to the world of wine. Some brewers, especially those who are former vintners, age beers in oak barrels that previously held local wines, and some add grapes or wine must to the kettle or use wine yeasts to ferment their beers. Italian craft beers sometimes show more flair, style, creativity, and individuality than technical skill, but the latter quality can be learned and the former qualities bode well for the future of Italian craft brewing.

Cooking with beer, as well as the pairing of beer and food, is becoming increasingly popular in Italy. Famed chefs are increasingly adding interesting beer menus to their prestigious wine lists, and they are proud to put Italian craft beers on their tables.

Italy’s burgeoning craft brewing scene has started up some relatively large competitions, the biggest of which is “Birra dell’Anno” (Beer of the Year), organized by Unionbirrai. Movimento Birrario Italiano, known as MoBI, promotes beer culture and beer quality, organizing seminars, conferences, competitions, training courses, and tastings, among other activities.

Italian craft breweries produce 200,000 hl (5,282,000 gal) per year, representing 1.5% of the total Italian beer production. Craft beer production has trended consistently upward, whereas production and consumption of multinational mass market lagers have more or less stagnated during the past few years. As of 2010, beer surpassed wine as the favorite fermented beverage of Italians, a development that could scarcely have been imagined only 20 years ago.