Thursday, January 23, 2014

Italian Craft Beer Makes a Political Splash at RHEX

Once known as Pianeta Birra, the RHEX or Rimini Horeca Expo has grown and grown and grown. Horeca is the sector of the food service industry consisting of establishments which prepare and serve food and beverages. The word is an abbreviation of the words Hotel, Restaurant and Catering. However, growing pains are being felt by Italian craft brewers. A few companies pulled out of this year’s event, notably Interbrau who is the largest distributor of craft beer in Italy.

The 2014 RHEX, which is a festival devoted to food and ran from 18-22 January this year, includes 1,465 expositions, 110,750 visitors from around the world, 5,000 business meetings, 500 top buyers from 5 different continents with well over 1,000 journalists and bloggers covering events from frozen goods, hotel equipment, technology to interior design and of course, wine and craft beer. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was performed by the Minister of Economic Development, Flavio Zanon, an important note that wasn’t lost on Unionbirrai president, Simone Manetti.

At the RHEX, Manetti addressed the issue of revising the excise duty on beer that was imposed by parliament in October last year (see Pathetic Parliament on this blog). The issue was also discussed at a seminar hosted by Unionbirrai during the event.

From October 2013, the excise duty was increased from €2.35 to €2.70 with two more increases to be made in March 2014 and January 2015. As Manetti put it in his address to the conference, “Taxes will go up to €3.04, with an overall increase of 20.4 percent. The rules are not entirely satisfactory.”

Italian Craft beer taxes are byzantine. To put it simply, taxes are assessed on the wort as it leaves the brew kettle. The problem with being taxed on the wort at this step of the brewing process is the brewer is paying tax on the inevitable losses that occur in the later stages of brewing. Beer is lost during fermentation, dry-hopping, filtering (if used at all) and packaging, but the brewer has already paid a tax on that lost liquid. It would make more sense for them to pay tax on the final product sold to bars, restaurants and public.

Giulio Marini, a member of the Italian Parliament said at the conference, “Italy does not provide for reduced rates for micro-breweries under 5,000 hectoliters per year: these tax advantages are provided by 71 percent of the EU countries. Furthermore, in Italy excise taxes are not applied to wine, on the contrary to what happens with beer.”

Marini made his case that further simplifications need to be made, such as how to introduce a constant coefficient of performance of the wort so that companies won’t pay the excise tax on losses. He suggested Italy should follow the ‘much easier’ laws of other European countries.

Taxation has played an integral part in the development of beer styles. English breweries are taxed on alcohol content; thus, alcohol content has historically been lower in England. While Belgian brewers were taxed on the size of their mash tun; thus, alcohol levels weren’t a driving force in the evolution of their beer styles. Conforming to local taxes has been a key, little-recognized ingredient in the history of beer. How this will play out in Italy is still to be seen. For this fledgling beer community to thrive, Italy will need to get their tax laws in line with their competitors in the rest of the EU. But, It’s Italy. We’ll see.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sowing the seed of a book

I know that Paul and I’ve been a little reclusive in the past few months, and we have to apologize if you’ve been wondering what has become of us. Well, we’ve been working very hard, as usual, but finally, our labor of love is directed primarily on writing the book. The first three chapters of the book have been hashed out. We’re very excited. I’ll give you a clue: they are about Teo Musso and Baladin. Now we are working on the next couple of chapters which will be, wait for it….Agostino Arioli and his Birrificio Italiano.

It’s been really incredible to relive the journey we took in meeting and getting to know these wonderful and ingenious people. Then to go over each of their recordings, turn them into transcripts and in many cases translate them as we transcribe, it’s like reliving the entire scene again and again. For a one hour session recorded in Italian it takes Paul and I two hours to translate—a lot of work. If you consider that most of our interviews are no less than 2 to 3 hours and that we have over 20 interviews in Italian, that’s a lot of late nights. In Teo’s case, they were days’ worth of recordings. Ultimately, it’s in the contents of the dialogue where we get caught up in discussions between the two of us with absolute amazement at some of the material these generous visionaries provided for us. Every brewer, writer, judge, server, bartender and on and on gives us a greater peek into this marvelous and ever growing movement. We are, as always, humbled by their generous portions of honesty and knowledgeable thoughts and points.

Paul and I have had many in depth tête-à-têtes having to leave the transcribing/translating a side for an hour to really engage in the exchanges we just finished listening to. Discussions such as Craft vs. Artisanal or what size of production qualifies or disqualifies a craft brewery or an artisanal brewery.

There are also the thousands of pages, electric and paper, of content to shuffle through, finding facts, arranging notes to match such facts. There are the thousands upon thousands of amazing quotes we’ve gathered and garnered for future chapters we have yet to write. But again and again, the main ingredient we continue to assert as the first ingredient to this movement is the absolute passion these men have for brewing beer. This, of course, could be said for any craft brewer, without a doubt. But this hearing today in an interview with Agostino Arioli about taxes and tax laws, I have to give a mass amount of condolences and respect for the obstacles these men hurdle and have overcome to survive in an unfriendly tax system in an economic quicksand under the scrutiny of a hard-pressed consumer still reluctant to accept beer as truly an Italian product now.

As Teo Musso put it, “The Italian market is much, much harder to crack because we are pickier about what we eat and drink.”

But the Italian tax system is a gregariously hungry and corrupted beast that will continue to pray on the profits of these hard working and hard pressed breweries until the Italians can overcome their main and truly deep-rooted issue of not getting along and uniting against a common cause. It’s just something Americans would find difficult to understand. The cultural seeds of mistrust and suspicion for one another have been sowed thousands of years ago and continue to crop up at every brewer’s association or organization splintering any solid attempt at attacking the tax Goliath.  

All this adds up to another and more global issue for the Italian craft beer movement—prices. An Italian craft beer is taxed 25 cents on the liter or about 10 cents a glass and when you consider that the average bottle is 75cl, the amount taxed per bottle is roughly 45 cents. This cost is solely on the product, not the production, not the labels, which are also taxed, the exportation taxes, the outrageous employment taxes or the many other taxes that can be slapped on or disregarded according to each taxman in every little community whose interpretation of that tax will change again with every new taxman that replaces another. To put it in another way, to this day, technically, small brewers are still not allowed to export beyond their own brewpubs.

“We were not supposed to distribute or sell outside the pub.” Agostino Arioli explained to us. “The law was, and still is very clear because the same law rules now. It says you may exist but it doesn’t say how they should control you. I had no big problem with them in my area but in some other areas of Italy they had bigger problems with them. Because this law says nothing clear so nobody could decide and so the brewers made their own decisions. They say no you can’t absolutely sell outside your brewpub. No, you can’t absolutely export. It’s a mess. So now we are waiting for new laws.”

This is why, in the beginning Italian craft breweries all were brewpubs. That’s why today, as this law just simply is disregarded to some extent that some new breweries have decided to not have a brewpub. Risky move if you consider that should the Italian government decide to nationally crackdown and implement the exportation law, many new breweries would be shut down. They would be considered bootleggers.

But with all this, they continue to brew. And for this, we raise our glasses to them.

The Italian Beer Awards and Andrea Turco

While the custodians of the Italian beer movement, Luca Giaccone and Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove, hold center stage as the guides and unofficial guardians, it’s Andrea Turco who is truly the choir. Nobody reaches farther, reports more or brings the entire movement together like Andrea Turco.

A journalist, Turco’s writing skills and the Italian craft beer movement seem to have been a marriage. Turco started Cronache di Birra early in the movement. He began with video interviews of the brewers themselves, asking their opinions and tapping into their psyche. He interviewed both critics and pub owners as well, catching them at festivals, tastings, and award ceremonies. No one is better at reporting the movement’s every step than Turco. So it’s no wonder that Turco and his blog, Cronache di Birra, are hosting its own awards, the Italian Beer Awards for the best of 2013.

The Italian Beer Awards are the first and only awards that will be voted in a two tier system involving both experts and craft beer enthusiasts. Seeking to “award the best players on the national brewing scene,” Turco has collected a large list of who’s who of beer critics to head up the first part of the contest. It was Turco’s desire to ‘on the one hand offer prominence to the best professionals in the industry; the other, directly involve those who drink beer every day.’

“We all know that to operate in a market of quality beer is not easy: it takes devotion, entrepreneurial skills, expertise and a deep love for the product and its culture,” says Turco. “On the other hand the whole movement would not exist without the presence of active consumers and enthusiasts: it is therefore right that the latter decide the outcome of the Italian Beer Awards, allowing them to choose the best character for each type in a list drawn up by some experts of Italian beer.”

During the first half of the month, the experts composed a personal list of the best brewers of the Italian craft scene under categories Turco chose, which included: Best Brewery, Best Brewpub, Best Beer Firm, meaning, a location that doesn’t have its own brewery but serves its own beer, Best Pub/Brewery and finally, Best Beershop. The brewers had to be working in Italy for at least twelve months. The list will be whittled down to a list of ten finalist breweries.

The list drawn up by the experts has already been posted.

The nominees for Best Brewery in 2013:

            Barley (Cagliari)

            Birra Del Borgo (Borgorese)

            Del Ducato (Roncole Verdi Di Busseto near Parma)

            Del Forte (Pietrasanta near Lucca)

            Extraomnes (Varese in the Lombardy)

            Foglie d’Erba (Udine)

            Lambrate (Milan)

            Menaresta (Milan)

            Montegioco (Alessandria in Piedmont)

            Toccalmatto (Fidenza near Parma)

 The nominees for Best Brewpub in 2013:

            Baladin (Piedmont)

            Birrificio Italiano (Como)

            Birrificio Settimo (Varese)

            Troll (Piedmont)

            Lambrate (Milan)

The nominees for Best Beer Firm in 2013:

            Buskers (Rome)

            Cerevisia Vetus (Frosinone in Lazio)

            Sorrento (Naples)

            Stavio (Rome)

            Via Priula (Bergamo in Lombardy)

 The nominees for Best Pub/Brewery in 2013:

            Abbazia di Sherwood (Bergamo)

            Arrogant Pub (Reggio Emilia)

            Brasserie 4:20 (Rome)

            Locanda Del Monaco Felice (Bergamo)

            Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fá (Rome)

            Open Baladin (Rome)

            Ottavonano (Avellino near Naples)

            Sherwood Music Pub (Pavia in Lombardy)

            Taberna (Rome)

            The Dome (Bergamo)

The nominees for Best Beershop in 2013:

            Astral Beers (Bologna)

            Bere Buana Birra (Milan)

            Bir Sciò (Naples)

            Bir&Fud Beershop (Rome)

            Domus Birrae (Rome)

            Il Birratrovo (Como)

The most interesting aspect of Turco’s nominees is that amongst the founders, and the usual historic players of the movement (Baladin, Lambrate, Birrificio Italiano), are a few newer breweries (Extraomnes, Forte). It’s a sign of a healthy, growing beer community.

Now the vote for the winners in each category goes to the consumers. By accessing Cronache di Birra’s Facebook page beer lovers can place their votes.

Turco’s continued passion is inspiring and refreshing. England and America had Michael Jackson, Italy can be proud of Andrea Turco for his informative blog and his innovative and creative ways of bringing the message to the people.

So if you find yourself traveling to Italy, even without the final vote, you’ll be more than pleased with an encounter with any of the nominees. I will post the winners when the results are released by Turco.

Till then,

Cin Cin

Friday, January 10, 2014


It’s done. The book has been written, edited, photos and Paul’s amazing illustrations have been added. It is now in the hands of the publisher and their design team.

Since June, after our second research trip to Italy, Paul and I have been working long days, long nights, weekdays and weekends, through holidays, birthdays and family get-togethers. Despite the long hours away from our families, they’ve cheered us on when the mounting work seemed to never end and the time away grew longer. Thanks to them.

Our return to Colorado was immediately followed by a wonderful visit from Agostino Arioli and his fellow Birrificio Italiano workers, Maurizio, Giulio and Giancarlo. It was great having them here in the United States and we had a wonderful visit. They soon left and I went to work. I pulled serious hours, as I said before, working from 9 am until 10 pm taking few breaks with the exception of dinner with the family. When they went to bed, I returned to work until the wee hours. Often I managed a few hours here and there of sleep to keep me going. I didn’t drink coffee for over a week once I had finished.

By November, we were nearly there. The final push to get the manuscript to the editors caused Paul and I to work 17 hour days. I simply moved in with him for the final two weeks. But we got it done. Then the handoff was made. Paul took over the hard hours creating sketches, painting, pulling photos, designing and editing. I don’t think he’s quite recovered yet.

With so many hours devoted to the book, our other projects that keep us in business, including this blog, were set aside. That meant a long couple of weeks catching up. And catching up we have done. Now what?

We wait for about three weeks for the publisher’s design team to finish laying out the book, including the foreword by Eric Wallace from Left Hand Brewery. Once the design department has finished their part, we will receive proofs to look over and make final adjustments and approvals. If all goes well it’s off to the printer and we will soon have a book.

For those of you not familiar with the publishing process, this is how it’s done; except, usually it’s a yearlong project, not months. But as you all know, our goal was to have this book out for the Craft Brewers Conference in April held this year in our hometown of Denver. Many people, as you know, are still unaware of the incredible Italian craft beer movement, but not for long.

Since our project began, Italy has seen growth to over 600 craft breweries, yet a stiff tax law has been imposed, the absolute nightmare scenario, which threatens to close some of these breweries and possibly cripple the momentum of the entire movement. But, perhaps, as often is the case in a crisis, this may be the glue that finally holds them together. Unity has not been a hallmark of Italian craft beer movement, but a campaign has been started by Unionbirrai to halt this unfair taxation that sees craft breweries paying ever-higher taxes while the wine industry pays none. We will see, and I will keep you updated.

When our book, Italy: Beer Country, is available we will let everyone know.

As always, we can’t thank the many supporters behind this project enough.

Till next week and our next blog,
Cin Cin.