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Italian craft beer inflames passions

As Italy's relatively recent craft beer market gain followers, some worry it is becoming too popular.

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.

Ma Che Siete
The oldest and smallest craft beer pub in Rome, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa.
(Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)

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. 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.