Birrificio Indipendente Elav Leads Italy's Craft Beer Movement
Italy has been a busy place this year. In particular, the city of Milan has welcomed in excess of 20 million visitors over the past six months, eager to visit EXPO 2015, the World Fair or Universal Exhibition. This multi-cultural extravaganza, designed to further economic, technological and social cooperation on a global scale, had the theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life", highlighting the need to solve global poverty by promoting sustainable development and protecting biodiversity.
Over 140 countries were represented, showcasing their ideas with purpose-built pavilions, some grandiose and architecturally stunning, others adopting a simpler, more laid-back but similarly effective approach in conveying their ideas and solutions for future wellbeing. The Slow Food movement was also represented, advocating their holistic vision of food and agriculture, i.e. that everyone should have access to ethically sourced, good quality food made with respect for the environment.
Food and drink lovers visiting the fair enjoyed culinary treats from around the world and, of course, Italy laid on several areas where lovers of 'la cucina italiana' could feast on dishes from the length and breadth of the country. Wine flowed enticingly as well and the two masterclasses I attended, one on Grappa and the other on reds from Lazio, showcased the amazing quality that can be found in this nation rich with tradition and winemaking expertise. However, I was also in Italy to investigate a newer phenomenon...
Craft beer is on everyone's lips … literally! As reported in an earlier article this week, the U.S. led the way across the world with ground-breaking brews and the UK has an increasingly innovative and growing craft beer scene … but there's a new kid on the block undergoing a hop and malt-filled revolution and it's wearing Italian colours.
Italy has exploded on to the craft beer scene, so much so that there are now over 900 breweries (and growing!) in the country. Centred mainly on Rome and Northern Italy, particularly Piedmont and Milan, children of wine producers are now brewing, breaking with tradition, rebelling with a genuine heartfelt thirst for beer.
One brewery at the forefront of the Italian craft beer movement is Birrificio Indipendente Elav, based around the beautiful historic city of Bergamo, a UNESCO 'World Heritage Site' in the north of the country. With twenty fermentation and four maturation tanks at present, they are a growing company with a reputation for innovation. They also own two pubs attracting beer lovers from near and far, have a loyalty card scheme, host a yearly music festival and brew a new beer each year specifically for the annual Biografilm Festival in Bologna of which they are one of the sponsors.
They began brewing in 2010, releasing Grunge IPA, which along with Punks Do It Bitter, remains one of their two biggest sellers. Their latest beer which will be ready next month, is based on their award-winning Dark Metal Imperial Stout and is brewed with chocolate. Apparently, it took five hours to open the cocoa beans to brew one batch of beer! In addition to beer, their products include chocolates, biscuits, hop jam and Panetone (with beer!) made by a local artisan producer. None of their beers are pasteurised, artificially carbonated, filtered or clarified using a fining agent, so the resultant brews have a naturally cloudy haze and retain their true character and freshness of flavour.
Having first become aware of the brewery while judging at an Italian food and drink show in London, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see them again this year and to experience their unique vision on their home soil. My trip began with a visit to the Città Alta, Bergamo's hilltop 16th Century medieval town, surrounded by Venetian walls and home to Elav's second pub, the Osteria della Birra.
My charming host, Elisabetta Rota, introduced me to bar manager Gregorio and together we tasted a range of beers, before being joined by Valentina Ardemagni who, together with head brewer Antonio Terzi own the business. The walls of this intimate (and mostly packed!) bar are littered with awards, testament to the growing reputation and success of this young Italian craft brewing company. Delicious homemade food is brought over from their other pub, The Clock Tower, in Treviglio, a nearby town, so what better way to taste local beer than with local dishes?
With six different beers on draught and a host of others in bottle, all with highly original labels, there is always plenty of choice for the most demanding beer lover. A selection that particularly impressed me is as follows:
- Indie Ale (5.5% ABV)
An amber ale, characterised by tropical fruit notes, particularly mango, plus
hints of apricot and a refreshingly cleansing bitter finish. Great with cheese.
- Uppercut IPA (6.5%)
A hop-driven style with red fruit and herbaceous notes reminiscent of
Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, plus a touch of toffee too.
- Aeresis Black Ale (6% ABV)
An aromatic and spicy brew with liquorice, black pepper (the peppercorns
are added at the boiling stage) and coriander notes.
- Humulus Black IPA (6.6% ABV)
Toffee, vanilla cream, coffee and roasted malt notes with a touch of herbs
combine with a fruity and floral character from the Cascade hops.
- Dark Metal Imperial Stout (8% ABV)
With liquorice, coffee, roasted malt and dark chocolate notes, this would
make a great alternative to an after-dinner espresso or with a dessert like
chocolate and salted caramel cake.
- Progressive Barley Wine (11% ABV)
A blonde style of barley wine made with Japanese Sorachi hops and pale
malt, exhibiting notes of caramel, honey and peach. This beer is matured
for between six and twelve months.
I also had the pleasure of joining Antonio and Valentina at the brewery and the Clock Tower pub the following day and they were happy to answer the following questions:
Robin Goldsmith: Can you tell me how your company was started? Who had the idea and why?
Valentina Ardemagni: The Elav company started in 2000 with the opening of its first pub, the Clock Tower, which was originally an Irish pub from 1984. We have always been dedicated to craft beer, collecting many examples from around the world. The initial idea was just to offer customers good craft beers in an enjoyable atmosphere, but then Antonio decided to produce his own beer. At first, he sent his recipes to a brewery in Bavaria who would make the beer for him. However, after five years the brewery closed down after being acquired by a large company. This was the incentive for Antonio to found his own brewery.
RG: Where did your inspiration come from for your Grunge IPA? Did you actively follow US & UK trends?
VA: The inspiration came from music: from associating the taste of the beer with a music genre and lifestyle. Antonio actively followed US and UK trends, because he liked the English tradition of drinking in pubs and the American 'craziness' in using hops. For him, this was like mixing tradition and innovation to create beers for people who genuinely like to drink beer and who love staying in pubs.
RG: What makes Birrificio Indipendente Elav unique?
AT/VA: The commitment to combining our dream of innovative brewing with physical effort in all aspects of the business, something we are very proud of. This is why we started the Elav Agricultural Society, to create beer with our own raw materials (five different varieties of hops plus malt). In order to realize this ambitious project, we are renovating the Elav Farm, a very old farm from the 14th Century, which will also eventually house our agricultural micro-distillery. We will cultivate these raw materials ourselves in a hop garden in the Astino Valley (a Bergamo project of which ELAV is one of the participants) and in the fields around the farm. Additionally, all our bottle labels are designed in the brewery. In fact, a graphic designer works with Antonio during the brewing process, translating his ideas into pictures.
Every five years we have done something new and innovative. In 2000, our Clock Tower pub opened and then five years later the Osteria della Birra was launched. In 2010, the Elav brewery was founded and in 2015, we founded the Elav Agricultural Society, the "green arm" of our brewery. As you can see, the Elav philosophy is really like a religion to beer-making!
RG: How important is the purity and mineral content of your local water for making your beer?
AT/VA: It is indispensable; absolutely essential! It is not just by chance that we founded our brewery in Comun Nuovo. We chose this location just for the quality of the water. The water we use is perfect for us, so that the clarity of our beers is natural without needing any kind of adjustment.
RG: How many people do you employ, how much beer is produced annually and where is it sold? Which are your exports markets?
AT/VA: On the whole we have around 50 employees. Between January and end of October 2015, we have produced 600,000-700,000 litres. However, we changed plant at the beginning of 2015, so we're not sure yet how many litres of beer will be produced annually on an ongoing basis. The beer is sold all around Italy, while our exports markets are France, Germany, Sweden, UK, Finland, Belgium and Taiwan, but these are quite small markets at the moment.
RG: You refer on your website to making experimental beers? Can you tell me a little bit more about this?
VA: At the start, everything was experimental, new and a challenge! Now we want to continue making something different, using generous hops in the American style and also creating traditional British brews like stouts, all with an Italian twist from Antonio's personal touch. We want to offer people the chance to taste something new, building on the strong Italian culinary tradition. We are also experimenting with wine barrels.
RG: Can you describe the importance of the Clock Tower and Osteria della Birra for the brewery's image and renown?
AT/VA: Our two pubs, the Clock Tower and the Osteria della Birra, opened to the public many years earlier than the brewery and always specialized in craft beers. They are very important for us, because this is where we get initial feedback from customers on the taste of our beer. In our pubs we can also combine our beers with particular dishes, sometimes organising beer and food tastings. We love these two pubs, because our beers are at home in a great atmosphere. The Osteria, in particular, with its magnificent setting has a magical atmosphere during winter nights and we now have some seating outside for the summer.
RG: How did the idea for the Elav Indie Festival come about and what type of bands/artists play?
AT/VA: The first Elav Indie Festival took place four years ago and has become an annual event, seeing in the transition from summer to autumn. It is unique and completely independent, without any large corporate sponsors or big names simply to bring in the punters! The focus is 'Indie' as a wide concept, associating the truly independent way we produce beer with many art forms like music, publishing, comics, silk screen printing, street art. The festival has grown year on year – in 2012, there were 2000 people present and the following year, 5000. Then in 2014, attendance doubled and this year, we had more than 25,000 visitors! For this reason, we had to change the location, because there was simply not enough place at our brewery to accommodate everyone! The festival attracts visitors from Bergamo and the surrounding area, while bands and artists come from all over the world and we do get some local TV coverage.
RG: How do you think the Italian craft brewing scene in general is developing and where do you see Birrificio Indipendente Elav within this context?
AT/VA: The Italian craft brewing scene is very rich, but there is still a lack of tradition and competence. In our opinion, there are many other breweries like us who believe strongly and invest in their work, taking very important decisions for the future. We see Birrificio Indipendente Elav as central to this movement.
RG: What plans do you have for the future and where do you see your company in ten years' time?
AT/VA: We want to continue improving the quality of our beer, as well as making more people aware of it, developing our production chain, refining our image and the way we communicate to become even more original and distinctive. Additionally, our micro-distillery based in the old farm, should be ready next year. Initially, it will have seven bedrooms for visitors, a tasting room for beer and gin, a small restaurant where we'll use our own vegetables and a beer spa. In 10 years' time, we hope to be a respected company with a good reputation, strong enough to resist adverse market forces, but always aiming for innovation and perfection, remaining true to our ideals.
It is clear from speaking to the Elav team how forward-thinking they are. Even their bottle labels epitomise the modern, innovative spirit that underpins everything they do. Their beers reflect a wide-range of popular and original styles and, by continually experimenting, they are honing their skills and improving all the time. They are passionate and honest about brewing and everything associated with it, but above all, it's their way of thinking that shines through. Elav's attitude is summed up by Valentina Ardemagni: "We're not just brewers. We want to link beer to lifestyle - to music, cinema, food and fun! Our objective is not only to make good beer, but to make people happy too!"
… and who can argue with that?