As an American in Europe, sometimes it’s hard to be proud of our food. Ok, let me rephrase that… I am very proud of all kinds of American food, but nobody in Europe knows about some of our best foods. Green chili is a good example. Nobody knows what it is and yet anyone who’s ever tried it, loves it. Sometimes we export the worst of ourselves and the diamonds still lay in the rough.
I think that nothing exemplifies a hidden American secret like our microbrews. We make really, really good beers in the US, especially in the west in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and California, and only a small minority of Europe is aware of this. There’s a lot that I miss about home. Mostly, it’s the people but whenever I’m in Denver, I love shopping for great, local beers. The Europeans have been making beer longer, and I’m certainly not qualified to say who’s the best. I actually don’t care who’s best. I just like tasting great beers.
In most of the world, the industry is dominated by the light, easy-to-drink lager style native to Germany. In Germany they still make their beer according to a law from the 1600’s that limits the ingredients to water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Of course, the Germans are known for figuring out the most efficient and cost effective ways to make quality things and their beer is not an exception. Efficiency can get boring though and the recipes from brewery to brewery in Germany don’t differ much. Having now pissed off all of Germany, I will say that I’m speaking about the majority of large-scale producers. I am well aware that there are indeed interesting beers in Germany. Industrial beer in the rest of the world, and especially the American part of the world is extremely cheap beer made with corn syrup and all kinds of other cheap nonsense resulting in the alcoholic, fizzy water with a hint of beer. Microbreweries still don’t make a majority of the beer market, but they are growing with every sip of tasty, original beer.
Italy’s craft beer scene has exploded over that past 5 to 10 years. Unfortunately for most Italian microbreweries, Italy doesn’t really help them out. The taxes on microbrews in Italy is extreme, as it is for most things, and they are forced to sell at prices that rarely go lower than 5 euros per small bottle to ridiculous prices as high as 12-15 euros. If you’re thinking of starting a company in Italy, I encourage you to rethink. While I don’t run a brewery (at least not a real one that sells beer…) I do work for a small, independent organization and taxes kill us. Our passion keeps us going, not our salaries. I’ve spoken with a lot of Italian brewers and the reoccurring theme to our conversations is a passion for good beers contrasted with frustration and doubt with regards to a future.
Aside from limiting prices, there are some great Italian beers. There is also a plethora of mediocre microbrews, and a good number of nasty ones. Most Italians don’t know what they’re missing when it comes to quality beers. The general public in Italy has a limited exposure to a variety of beers and most people only know the industrial lagers, which aren’t really different from one another. Generally, Italians hold onto their traditions and see new innovation as a threat. In the case of beer, the situation is interesting. It’s not wine, but it’s still widely enjoyed. Innovation in the wine industry tends to be something that foreigners partake in because they don’t know what they’re doing. Beer doesn’t really have anything to measure up to in Italy except industrial beers. So, any beer that comes along that tastes different sparks a rare interest for something new in Italy. The interest is augmented by the name artigianale (artisanal) that has been given to the craft beers. The artigianale label is associated with quality, although it’s also a great marketing term. I’ve witnessed Italians drinking what could only be defined as bad-tasting beer praise it because it was artigianale. Most of the artigianale products in Italy have to be legit in order to be accepted because they have hundreds of years of history behind them. If any group of people spends hundreds of years doing something, they’re probably going to get good at whatever it is. Local beer in Italy is young. The vast majority of brewers in Italy have been brewing for about 15 years.
Just because something was made in a 400-year-old basement does not necessarily mean it is good. Case and point: The initial stages of my foray into homebrewing. I live in a house that’s roughly 400 years old. In it I have made gallons and gallons of undrinkable beer. Only after years of trying and failing have I been able to enjoy homebrews. 4 years ago, my friends and colleagues bought me a basic beer-making kit for my birthday. The original kit was designed to make beer with a reduced beer-syrup that the homebrewer would mix with water and ferment on their own. I tried it a few times and things came out drinkable and mildly enjoyable. I wanted to immediately take my operation to the next step by buying malted grains, hops, and making my own recipes from scratch (the all-grain method as it is know by homebrewers). This resulted in gallons and gallons of disgusting beer but also a desire to learn more. I have to thank a lot of nice people on the reddit/r/homebrewing forum for helping me out whenever I’ve run into trouble.
My first beers were made in our kitchen/living room to Marianna’s dismay. A healthy sample of each batch ended up on the floor. Eventually, I started involving friends and two of them in particular shared my enthusiasm. Both Italian, Gabriele Falsetti and Antonio Aquilino joined up with me to make a homebrewing club. When Marianna and I found out that she was pregnant, I knew that the kitchen brewery’s days were numbered. Maybe one day Sean and I will brew a beer together, but it will have to wait a few years. Gabriele came up with the solution by offering his garage and our “brewery” took a step forward. Our system is far from professional; a collection of self-engineered containers and tools that each have their own strange quirks. Some of the more creative components include an old shower head, copper tube meant for an air conditioning unit, and two broken speakers upon which we balance one pot to drain it into another pot. We now buy our grains from local producers and we even grew our own hops.
We’ve been brewing together for more than a year and have made some really great beers. Antonio is a certified sommelier and he always gives samples to his other sommelier friends who generally love our beers. We’ve even competed in two competitions. In the latest competition we placed 15th out of 68 participants. We have a lot to learn, but the satisfaction of drinking a beer that you made is pretty unique.
Now I get to go to Amsterdam all the time. This makes scheduling brewing time a bit more complicated but it’s great for tasting new and different beers. If you’re looking at the Netherlands on a map, you’ll see that it’s right next to Belgium. Earlier I mentioned the German beers being kind of boring. Belgian beers are anything but boring. They’ve been throwing all kinds of stuff into their beers for hundreds of years. Belgian monks have found nirvana through beer (…they’re success kind of makes me question the religious dedication of the Belgian monasteries, but that’s another question, for another time…).
The Dutch beers have been heavily influenced by the Belgian gurus and they love to drink beer in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, Heineken dominates just like Bud, Miller, and Coors in the US, but nonetheless there are a ton of microbreweries all over the Netherlands and Amsterdam. The microbreweries in The Netherlands can’t get away with making mediocre beer and they also can’t sell it for the ridiculous prices that we see in Italy. This makes shopping for tasty beers a lot more like what you get in the US. It’s also easy to find some of my favorite American beers in Amsterdam.
Below I’ve made a list of Italian and Dutch breweries that I think are interesting. If you’re in Amsterdam, make sure to put De Bierkoning on your list of must-visit places. This little shop has more beers than imaginable, hundreds of local brews, and a great selection of American beers as well.
Italian Craft Breweries
Birra del Borgo
Dutch Craft Breweries
Texel (large-scale, but interesting and unique)