ROME, Italy — Just blocks away from Rome’s famous Campo dei Fiori, on a dark cobblestone alley, stands an old three-story building. Inside, waiters flit from table to table as customers drink into the night. But they are not drinking glasses of Brunello or Amarone — Open Baladin only serves tall glasses of Italian craft beer.
At this first and largest Italian craft beer pub, customers choose from 38 beers on tap and an entire wall of selected bottles — all Italian.
“Open Baladin aims at becoming a showcase of Italian artisan beer,” said owner Leonardo di Vincenzo, who inaugurated the pub earlier this year with business partner Teo Musso, currently the largest brewer of artisanal beers — generally defined as those made in small batches production using traditional methods — in Italy.
“Ordinary customers that are curious about beer come here and say, ‘Wow! Italy too knows how to make beer,’” said di Vincenzo.
Di Vincenzo became serious about beer after quitting his job as a chemist at the University of Rome. What started as a hobby in his kitchen became “Birra del Borgo” — a profitable brewery with a yearly output of nearly 1,900 barrels of beer crafted in Borgorose, a tiny town tucked away in the mountains of central Italy.
“At the beginning town locals thought I was crazy,” said di Vincenzo. “Now I’m a hero.”
Italian brewers like di Vincenzo aren’t bound to century-old brewing traditions like producers in England, Belgium or Germany. With that freedom to experiment with many styles, Italian microbreweries gained international respect after just a decade of brewing. But much of the hype is owed to a few pioneer Italian pub owners who single-handedly pushed craft beer to the masses.
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“When I’m behind the bar I do beer evangelization,” said Manuele Colonna, a longhaired, former heavy-metal DJ who now owns an internationally famous pub in the popular Trastevere district of Rome.
The oldest and smallest craft beer pub in Rome, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa.
His pub — Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa, “Why Did you Even Come Here?” — is the antithesis of Open Baladin.
It’s a hole-in-the-wall with a wide selection of Italian and international beers, and a crowd of hardcore fans that is always trailing outside. Ratebeer.com considers Colonna’s pub the second-top beer destination in the world.
Italian craft beer production is still minimal. It makes up about 1 percent of the country's overall beer production, in comparison to 8 percent artisanal production in the U.S. But in a sign of the artisanal brewers' success, tension has begun to grow among the tight-knit circle of brewers and pub owners.
Open Baladin now serves virtually all the Italian microbrewer labels, but has an underlying conflict of interest. One-third of all beers on tap belong to the owners.
"Because you are opening a bar to sell your own product, it’s a different philosophy,” Colonna said. He looks at Open Baladin as a smart marketing move but publicly pulled out from the venture months ago. He says Italy’s artisanal beer scene is too small to feed such a thirsty enterprise.
“It’s not possible to push out 40 different draft beers without avoiding that the kegs go bad or that problems occur,” said Colonna, who offers 16 draft beers at Ma Che Siete. “Unless you have the right personnel who can push out all the beers at the same time."
Colonna first promoted di Vincenzo’s beer “Re-Ale,” helping it become one of best-selling beers in Italy. In 2007, beer protegee di Vincenzo and beer guru Colonna joined forces and opened Bir&Fud. It has since become one of the highest-rated restaurants in Rome, serving slow-food style pizza and a selection of Italian craft beer.
“We’re pretty radical and somewhat fascist in our choices of products we serve our customers,” said Bir&Fud Beverage Manager Aleandro Scarpetti. To him, craft beer triggers emotions.
But those emotions are laced with concern. Among craft beer spots, the opening of Open Baladin has brought prophecies of a draught.
By turning more beer drinkers to craft brews, Open Baladin has widened the Rome circuit and caused a steep increase in demand, which Colonna says Italian brewers are not prepared to meet.
“In the end, bigger artisan-beer players will offer their facilities to microbrewers, and then give them a place to sell,” said Colonna. To him, there is potential for the artisan beer world to turn into a cartel.
To di Vincenzo, pairing up his Borgo Brewery with Teo Musso’s Baladin Brewery was the best option to keep growing — and a preemptive move against the risk of a corporate takeover.
“Italy lacks awareness,” said Di Vincenzo. “As soon as a brewer becomes bigger everyone attacks him by saying he has lost the charm of an artisan producer.”