A chat about the Italian craft beer scene with Giorgio Airaldi from Scurreria Beer & Bagel
It’s a hot, sweaty July afternoon in Genoa, (there’s something like 34 degrees, the asphalt is melting and so is my skin) when my half an hour walk in the sun finally ends up at the front step of Scurreria – Beer & Bagels.
I’ve had too many espressos already and I’m sweating all of them, pretty much instantly. The little craft beer pub now looks to me like an oasis in the desert. It won’t open until 5pm, but owner Giorgio Airaldi has kindly offered to meet me before opening time for a chat about his place and the Italian Craft Beer scene. Or Birra Artigianale, to be precise.
I figured, best to do it before starting to get pissed and forget to get notes.
The first time I met Giorgio was about two years before, when during my holiday back home a friend of mine took me to Scurreria, tired of listening to me going on about how good British beer was. I remember us drinking an awful amount of Super Tennents when I was still living in Genoa, so this was a pretty serious change in our drinking habits.
(Yes, if you’re wondering if I actually just mentioned Super Tennents, you’re not having blurry eyes: us Italians, man, we love a Super Tennents. No idea why, we just do. I guess for the same principle that makes the UK such a great importer of Fosters. My Aussie friends wouldn’t even get anywhere near it.)
I fell in love with the place straight away. Its design, a mix of wood and metal, giving both a nice, warm, welcoming feeling and the excitement of something new and experimental. When I asked Giorgio about it, he pointed out how Italy doesn’t really have a centuries old pub tradition, as Britain does, so it had to be something a bit different. So he took inspiration from Lambic Zoon in Milan, and used the same architect, to deliver that mix of tradition and innovation that makes Scurreria not just a place with really good beer, but also a really lovely nice little bar.
But most of all, the beer.
In my university years in Genoa, back in 2007 and on, when we had enough money to deviate from the classic bottle of Tennents, to be rigorously drank in the street, we used to get some “fancy” Belgian beer. Orval was my favourite. It was expensive, but so, so much worth it. There was no craft beer movement in Italy that I knew about, but back in those days I didn’t know there was such a thing as “craft beer” at all. There were though few bars with an impressive Belgian bottle selection. Those have always been the “good” beers.
But Italy’s traditional drink still is very much wine. Italians are estimated to drink about 31 litres of beer per capita (and only 6% of those litres are estimated being craft beer). Which makes me feel a bit shy as representative over here in England, when I compare it to the 67 litres per capita of the average British. I mean, there’s no competition.
Since basically everything I know about beer is what I learned in the past 5 years in the UK, I now need someone to take my hand and show me the Italian beer scene. Somehow, this scene seemed to explode all at once the moment I left, and now I feel I’ve got a lot to catch up with.
So, the first question had to be
Why did you decide to open this place and focus it entirely on craft beer?
We [Giorgio Airaldi and co-owner Alessandro] opened Scurreria the 21 May 2015. We used to co-own a bar on the beach in Alassio; it was a cocktail bar, as Alessandro’s background was on mixology, and the clientele was mostly composed of tourists. We had 200 cocktails on the menu, but only four beers on tap back then, and I wanted more. We decided it was time to open our craft beer place, but moving from Alassio to Genoa. Four years ago Genoa was one of the few big, prominent cities in Italy without an actual craft beer pub; a place that would focus entirely on curating an interesting, rotating beer list, both from the already established breweries and the new upcoming ones. So we did it, and we opened it not in centre of the “movida”, the streets and “piazze” were all students and young people go out to drink and party. We wanted it to be a place where to go, exactly because you want to go there. To drink beer.
What was the initial reaction?
The place was fairly busy since the very beginning. Most of our clientele are 30 to 50 year old, pretty much white collar people, and most of them were desperate for a place like this to open in Genoa. In fact, we’ve been lucky: opening in May gave us time to fix and adjust everything, since summer is the least busy period of the year, with everyone leaving the city for the beaches. Then, once Autumn kicked in, we became very, very busy!
So it was a success from the beginning: are most of your customers beer connoisseurs?
I think we have a good proportion between “beer geeks” and “normal” customers. Which is good, because bars and pubs still rely mostly on the average customer, rather than on the beer connoisseur, which most of the time “tastes” rather than “drink”. Lots of friends told us we had a tough task ahead, opening our place in an area surrounded by off license selling big brands beers for 2 euros. But the moment we opened our doors, so many people turned up. They’ve been waiting for a place like this to open for years. And then, for sure, we also created a fair amount of (craft beer) “monsters”!
As per the potential issue of the prices, we decided to price everything the same. According if you want a “piccola” or a “media” (the Italian half and pint, although in a smaller version), you’ll pay a certain fixed amount, no matter which beer style or abv you’re choosing. This way, we assure a constant rotation of the taps, and we push people to try everything at least once.
My eyes start to wonder over the 12 kegs taps, a good mix of Italian and German beers at the moment. I already had the chance to enjoy several of those beers the night before, thanks also to the clever pricing system. The slight hangover, still lingering on top of the many coffees, can’t stop my thirst to suddenly awake at the sight of one particular beer now on, one of the two cask lines: Jarl from Fyne. One of the evergreens of modern cask ale; one of my favourites. It still amazes me to find cask ale in Italy, although, as Giorgio says, there are very few Italian breweries making real ale. Giorgio has spent some years in England, and just like me he’s a big fan of cask ale. If you’re Italian and coming from many years of mainly lager drinking, the first time you try a proper, well conditioned and well poured real ale, it’s a pretty intense moment. Either you hate it or you love it. We both loved it.
At first, when we opened, the taps were almost exclusively Italian. Then we started to order some Dark Star on cask, and we started to expand our keg lines to include German beers first, then from all over Europe.
When it comes to beer styles, not having a real longstanding brewing tradition, Italian brewers had to “steal” from everywhere they could. Sometimes though, the student surpassed the teacher: now Italian breweries can produce some amazing lagers, Belgian style beers, sours and farmhouse, pales and IPAs.
And it’s about styles that I’m very interested to know more. It’s really hard to find small, independent Italian beers in the UK, especially on draft. I think the first one I had over here that blew my mind and got me to find out more about my own country’s beer scene, was a bottle of sour from Loverbeer. According to Giorgio, and according to my pretty intense drinking session from the night before (call it “research”), “Italians do it better”.
Besides Loverbeer, for which I feel comfortable in declaring my everlasting love, there are plenty of new, amazing breweries emerging in the Italian landscape: Vento Forte is one of them. Their Session IPA on tap at the moment feels like drinking Gamma Ray again, when Beavertown was still at the beginning, and everything they’d do was just new, refreshing, and simply really, really good.
At the same time, there are lagers produced in Italy that hardly find equals in the UK (I would say with the exception of Lost and Grounded, which still produce some of the best lagers over here, in my opinion).
One of the reasons (or part of the issue) for the lack of a top quality British lager and Pilsner tradition can also be found in the lack of attention for the product at the end of the chain: Giorgio can spend a very long time pouring a pint of Pilsner, to be sure it’s served in the right way, and people don’t seem to mind having to wait in line at the bar for a bit. The same scene in a pub over here, would have most likely caused some sort of commotion, and people leaving complaining about slow service.
Weirdly the same can be said about cask beer. If you spent some time working in a pub, you know pouring a good pint of cask ale does take its time. You rush it, you ruin it. But British people, even with all their traditional politeness, don’t really like to be kept waiting at the bar.
But what I really saw in my few days immersion in the hot, sweaty Italian craft beer scene, was a freshness and enthusiasm I find harder and harder to encounter these days here in London.
Maybe because Italy’s beer is five years behind compared to the UK, and you can see it from the style mostly brewed: West Coast, bitter IPAs. Still no haze (!!).
Maybe because the wine tradition is still so strong, that most brewers approach the process as astronauts walking for the first time on Mars.
Maybe because they don’t use much Twitter.
Maybe it’s just me.
It’s time to open the pub now, and it’s time for me to attend another interminable dinner, drink a couple of Tennents, a coffee and a couple of Amaro shots to digest.
Then back to Scurrera to work on my next Italian hangover.