To celebrate the publication of the 2013 edition of Italy's beer guide, Donald Strachan hunts out alternative alcohol in the wine hills of Tuscany, where microbreweries are booming
Tuscany's hills, such as the Val d'Orcia, are home to a growing number of microbreweries as well as the vineyards they are famous for. Photograph: Juergen Schonnop/Alamy
Name an Italian beer. You went for Peroni, right?
Now, think of a Tuscan drink. I'm guessing you chose a wine. Maybe a red – first-division labels such as chianti, brunello and vino nobile all hail from these vine-clad hills. Or vin santo, the sticky, yellow one traditionally aged under the terracotta roof tiles of a palazzo, and these days best for dipping cantuccini (almond biscuits) into at the end of a leisurely lunch.
You probably didn't go for a beer. It sounds wrong, somehow. But brewing is booming in Tuscany like never before. There's hardly a commercial outfit here more than a decade old, but Eugenio Signoroni and Luca Giaccone, co-editors of the Guida alle Birre d'Italia 2013, published last week, have counted more than 30 microbreweries across the region, and quality is higher than ever. Local beers are usually brewed strong (alta fermentazione in Italian) and tasty, with Tuscan brewers drawing inspiration from "Belgium, the United States, and the UK", according to Signoroni.
What typical styles should visitors look out for? "In Tuscany, perhaps more than any other region, beers are embellished with native products," says Signoroni. "For example, at Birrificio Amiata, that is chestnuts. Birrificio La Petrognola makes a beer entirely from Garfagnana farro (spelt wheat) that for legal reasons shouldn't even be called beer." The best ales are pricey, certainly, but also generally unfiltered, unpasteurised, genuine craft products made for love, not profit.
If you want to get serious about planning brewery visits, the latest Guida alle Birre d'Italia is an essential companion (available at local bookshops or via slowfood.it). There's a handy iPhone app, iMicrobirrifici (69p from the App Store), and you should bookmark Fermento Birra and Cronache di Birra for the latest Italian beer news.
If you find a good bottle shop, also ask for Amiata's Bastarda Rossa, with a name that needs no translation, a pungent wallop of chestnuts, and a gold medal earned at last October's Mondial de la Bière; or Contessa, a sophisticated pale ale in the American style.
Here are my top five Tuscan beer haunts:
Considering the strength of the ale on sale at this Florence bar, the 20-something crowd of locals and clientele from the area's budget hotels is pretty easygoing. There are usually around five beers on tap, all brewed by Mostodolce in nearby Prato. The 2013 guide has recognised the brewer for the quality of its cask ales. The "bitter" Cristian straddles English and Belgian ale styles, but if you're feeling bold, go for a half-litre of their Martellina, a 7.4% amber beer flavoured with chestnuts and honey. There are a couple of big screens for the football and decent pizzas made on the spot. Happy hour (€3.50 a pint instead of €5) is actually four hours long, running from 3.30pm to 7.30pm.
• Firenze Via Nazionale 114/r, Florence, +39 055 2302928, mostodolce.it
Birrificio San Quirico, San Quirico
San Quirico is a pretty little Val d'Orcia town, whose sunbaked stone houses with their pitched terracotta roofs huddle around the handsome bell tower of a 12th-century collegiate church. Opened in 2009, the town's microbrewery – and I mean micro, all the magic happens in a room barely bigger than a cupboard – turns out two refined ales nominally in the "English style", but in fact more like ungassed Belgian beers. Iris (a fruity blonde) and Giulitta (a richer, malty ale) are sold in wine-sized bottles to take away (€12 and €10, respectively) or you can sip a glass in the smart cantina. Tasting is free.
• Via Dante Alighieri 93a, San Quirico d'Orcia, +39 0577 898193, birrificiosanquirico.it
De Cervesia, Lucca
Lucca has an ale pedigree that stretches back at least to the 1840s – one of its landmarks, the baroque Palazzo Pfanner, was inhabited by an Austrian immigrant brewer. So, according to owners Michele and Matteo Sargenti, their bottle shop-cum-bar that opened in June is just "rediscovering" a local tradition. De Cervesia (Latin for "about beer") always has bottles on sale from the two excellent brewers from the hills north of the town, Brùton and La Petrognola – barley and farro (spelt wheat) are ingredients in the local cuisine, and pure water flows down from the Apennines. Brùton's Lilith, an aggressively hopped, modern IPA, is among my favourite beers in Italy. You can sample each of three Italian artisan beers De Cervesia has on tap, in rotation, for €2.50.
• Via Michele Rossi 20, Lucca, +39 0583 492620. For more on Brùton, see bruton.it
Orzo Bruno, Pisa
This is about as close to a homegrown "pub" as you'll find in Tuscany, a place in Pisa's back streets that's mercifully free from the Irish pub kitsch that's so popular in Italy's tourist towns. Food is also part of the ritual for the groups of students who gather to drink and chat (to each other, and into their mobiles), but you're welcome to perch at the bar and concentrate on the beer. It's all brewed in Bientina, just outside the city. I've tried all four of their draft beers – strictly for research purposes, of course – and each is good, especially the 7% double-malted Gorgona and amber Valdera.
• Via Case Dipinte 6/8, Pisa, +39 050 578802, orzobruno.it
Le Coti Nere, Marciana
You come to Elba for its beaches, but hidden in a hillside chestnut wood just outside the island's prettiest village is this creative microbrewery. The fruits of those woods combine with a natural mineral spring (that Napoleon swore by when he ran the island in 1814–15) in its best beer, a rich, dark brew called "9 Marroni" that is infused with chestnut-flower honey. You can taste (free) and take away any of its eight ales, or perch at one of the tables and work your way through a rotating range of four on tap.
• Loc. Ponte Vecchio, Marciana, Isola d'Elba, +39 0565 918879, lecotinere.it
• An InterRail Italy pass valid for unlimited travel over a specific number of days within one month costs from £104, or £68 if you are aged under 26. It is available in the UK from International Rail (0871 231 0790, internationalrail.com) and other agents listed at trenitalia.com (click "Timetables and purchasing")
Donald Strachan is the coauthor of Frommer's Florence, Tuscany & Umbria, John Wiley & Sons, £16.99
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