In the world of craft beer, the concept of agricultural supply chain is brought up more and more often and has only recently become a hot topic. Although beer has a strong connection to the earth, this fundamental aspect has often been overlooked. First of all, there are cultural reasons for this. Before the international craft beer revolution, there was no interest in explaining what ingredients are used and how. Secondly, Italy has virtually no tradition in beer brewing and this has never promoted the development of a related agricultural supply chain.
The vast majority of Italian brewers still buy their ingredients abroad, from countries that, historically, are the largest suppliers of malted barley, hops and yeast. In recent years, small yet fundamental steps have been made to change the situation and try to develop an entirely Italian approach to beer brewing.
After all, in many parts of the world beer has always been linked to locally available products. And there's more: in some cases, it was the quality of the available ingredients in a specific geographic area that determined the characteristics of specific beer styles. One of the most renowned examples is that of Pilsner Urquell, the first Pils in history, which owes its distinctiveness to the water from the city of Plzen and Saaz bohemian hops. In more recent times, American beers - appreciated all over the world - have exploited the great aromatic features of hops grown in North America, such as Cascade, Citra and Simcoe, just to mention a few.
One of the most important steps to develop this awareness was made in 2010, when the Ministerial Decree 212/2010 established that beer can be considered as an agricultural product and created the concept of “farm brewery”. According to the decree, this definition applies to breweries whose beers are made with at least 51% barley from their own fields. Breweries that comply with this requirement enjoy several tax and economic benefits.
The provision presented some gaps and practical limitations, but it helped spark the debate on the agricultural supply chain in the world of beer brewing. An idea that seemed unattainable just a few years earlier suddenly became quite widespread.
Growing barley for beer brewing was not entirely foreign to Italy, but this is not the case for hops. Until a few years ago, no real fields existed, with the exception of a few small experimental plots with no commercial purpose.
It was long maintained that Italy did not have the right climate to grow hops, even if new successful varieties were being developed at all latitudes in the rest of the world. Once again, the main problem was a cultural prejudice. Luckily, this has now been overcome and several hops fields can be found in our country. It is still a limited phenomenon, but it is growing at a steady pace. In future, it will become easier and easier to access Italian hops, which, in the meantime, will reach good quantitative and qualitative levels.
Although the Italian debate on the agricultural supply chain in beer brewing only developed in the last ten years, some visionary projects had already started before. Baladin launched one of the most important ones: in September 2011, after years of analyses, studies and experiments, the Piedmontese brewery launched Nazionale, the first 100% Italian beer. The first Nazionale was made with barley malt from Melfi, hops grown in Cussanio (Cuneo) (planted in 2008), yeast grown in Italy and, of course, local water from the Maritime Alps. For Teo Musso Nazionale was not only a dream come true, but also the first important step towards the idea of a truly Italian beer production.
As the history of beer shows, the ultimate goal of developing an agricultural supply chain is to establish the national character of beer, exploiting the peculiarities of the ingredients grown in our country. It is a long and ambitious process, but more and more stakeholders are interested in supporting and helping it. An important contribution will certainly come from Consorzio Birra Italiana, a project launched in June 2019 by several stakeholder to develop a strong identity for Italian beer made with Italian ingredients.