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Rome - With oyster, tobacco and watermelon flavoured brews, Italy's craft beers are flourishing despite a punishing recession that is putting thousands of other businesses out of work.
From just seven craft breweries in 1996, there are now more than 445 challenging wine's traditional dominance and experts say there is scope for more growth in a country where tastes for beer are still being shaped.
“Creativity and experimentation are the current characteristics of the world of craft beer in Italy,” said Luciana Squadrilli from “Birra del Borgo” brewery in the tiny town of Borgorose some 100 kilometres from Rome.
The brewery, which was a pioneer in the sector when it opened in 2005, produces around 30 different types of beer every year. It was set up by Leonardo di Vicenzo, a biologist who decided to turn his hobby into a business.
“At the time we had a total production capacity of 500 litres per cycle of production. Now we have 2,500 litres,” chief brewer Andrea Lecchini, also a biologist who holds a Master's in brewing, told AFP on a visit this month.
“I think consumers like the variety, the chance of combining typically Italian ingredients to make unusual drinks, especially in a country where there is no tradition of beer making which would have pre-determined tastes.”
The brewery employs 15 people in everything from production to administration to bottling whose average age is around 30, which is very young for a company in Italy where the workforces tend to be older.
A report by Assobirra, the association of Italian brewers, said 71 percent of Italians drink beer and that it is quickly catching up with wine with 28.8 percent saying it is their favourite drink compared to 37 percent for wine.
The authors of the report said beer “was the most democratic drink” as it could be drunk at all occasions and was cheaper.
Craft beers have a higher price tag, however, with a 0.75-litre bottle of “Birra del Borgo” selling for around 10 euros.
“Five or 10 years ago we could only have dreamt that the future could look so rosy,” said Brooks Carretta, a brewer at Eataly, a temple to Italian gastronomy that opened in Rome this year and includes a small craft brewery.
A 0.5-litre bottle at Eataly can sell for as much as 25 euros.
“We produce around 1,000 litres per week and now we are going to bring out beers with watermelon and papaya flavours,” said Carretta, a young Italian-American who is currently working on a beer with lemons from Amalfi.
Craft beers currently make up around two percent of Italy's beer market but the share is growing in double-figures every year as the trend catches on.
Carretta said he did not think there was any conflict with wine as the two drinks “are two separate worlds and their paths cross only rarely.”
“I like discovering the novelties, knowing that there are now major differences between the beers in Italy depending on where they come from.” - AFP