A couple of months ago Vittorio Ferraris, president of the Italian craft brewers association Unionbirrai, told me that, in his opinion the time of unconditioned growth for craft beer in Italy is facing an end. “I believe that what microbrewers need to focus right now is the balance point. But, you know”, he added, “there can be different balance points”.
It’s true that the growth of brewing companies has slowed down in the last two years in Italy and that the market has become more competitive due to crafty products made by the big players but also for the appearance of more and more breweries on the market. So the future is turning less “pink” for many of them that do not have a good commercial distribution and prices good enough to compete with other micros. And that’s why many of them need to focus more on their local area, invest in a taproom or even turn back to the “brewpub level”.
Different is no longer enough
The time when just being different from an industrial lager was sufficient to gain attention from the beer lovers has ended. The more experienced, by time and talent, of the craft brewers had already made some moves: brewing “easy” beers to enlarge their target, for example, or opening “flagship pubs” possibly with a good quality food offer. These are two ways to sustain their growth, maintain the volumes they reached, and even implement it’s their hope, but for the newbie or for the brewers that recently acquired a bigger brewing plant thinking that craft beer revolution would grow at the same rhythm of the years from 2010 to 2015, I presume that tough times will arrive.
Another indication of the next challenges to face for the craft brewers are the renaissance of bottom fermentation specialties among them. Italian brewers had a unique role in promoting the amazing difference there’s in beer and they are still doing wonderful niche beers such as Grape Ale, Gose, spontaneous fermentation, hazy IPAs and so on, but many of them have realized that volumes mean, mainly, helles and pilsner. Refreshing, easy to drink, well balanced. In short, beers that everyone in Italy recognizes as beer.
Bored by exuberance
Is this phenomenon a “one step beyond”? Not in my opinion. It’s just the evolution of the market that is a little bit bored by all the strange, sometime simply provoking, beers that appear every two weeks on tap in the independent pubs. They are perfect for the beer geeks, the beer raters, the young craft beer supporters. But these categories, fundamental for the success of craft beer in Italy, are not growing at the same rate of craft beers themselves. Made in Italy or imported.
So, what do I expect from the next future is a change of the scenario in the Italian beer market. After the explosion of craft brewers there were two levels in it: on one side the big multinational companies such as Heineken, ABI, Birra Peroni and the still Italian historical breweries such as Birra Forst, on the other side the bunch of microbrewers. Now we will have three levels with a new category of medium size craft brewers capable to invest on distribution and marketing, positioned between the first two levels. The challenge, both for the middle sized and for the very microbreweries, will be on which level they will be capable to survive. In other words, where they will find their specific balance point.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beer journalist and author, Maurizio is a writer for Il Sole 24 Ore, Bargiornale, Gambero Rosso, Il Mondo della Birra. He is the author of “BIRRE” and “Speakeasy. Most secret bars around the world” and contributor to “1001 Beers You Must Try before You Die” and “Pocket Beer Book”.
Maurizio is the founder and director of Milano Beer Week and an international beer judge at the Brussels Beer Challenge, World Beer Cup, European Beer Star, Birra dell’Anno.