Where To Drink in Tuscany If For Some Reason You Don’t Like Wine
Beer in Viareggio
The place to be on Good Friday night in Viareggio, a small city on the Tuscan coast, is Birrificio degli Archi. Blocks back from the beach, it is the town’s only craft brewery. Blues band The Magic Bones is rocking the taproom, and a young and weird crowd spills out into the street and the parking lot across the road, clutching plastic pints, smoking, and yelling over the music.
If there are any neighbors, they must be going bananas. But the block appears dark and abandoned, the only light coming from the small taproom.
Birrificio degli Archi is one of about 1500 craft breweries in Italy, which have shoved this wine-sipping nation into the forefront of craft beer.
“It’s a new thing, but it is not to be underestimated,” says master brewer Michele Menchini, Birrificio degli Archi’s only full-time employee. He figures Italy is the third biggest country in the world now for craft beer, after the U.S. and Germany.
Though they have over 60 varieties of beer in bottles, Birrificio degli Archi can only produce three beers at a time, about six and a half brews per month. When we visited, it was the Maison Saison, Capitan Luppolo Pale Ale (Captain Hops in English), and Hempathy, a hemp-flavored pale ale.
It’s the Maison Saison Menchini is most proud of. He says it’s a classic style from Wallonia, in southern Belgium, an ancient beer that’s been passed down for generations. Bruegel the Elder’s 1567 painting, “A Peasant’s Wedding,” is one of the earliest surviving images of this beer—in the bottom left corner you can see a peasant pouring out great flagons of the stuff.
“It’s an old, country-style beer,” Menchini says. “Each farmer would make his own.” Until pasteurization, they did it without yeast, by growing wort in the oak barrels, where wild yeast would grow.
“It’s one of my favorite styles,” Menchinni says. He also notes it was nearly lost to history with World War II.
The Maison Saison is infused with red pear to sweeten it, but it’s still sour and very yeasty. “You need to take care of the yeast with the Saison,” Menchinni says. “It’s the most important part.”
Unlike pale ales, where you can experiment with a whole variety of flavors, alcohol percentages, and original gravities (how much sugar is in it), there is less room for experimentation with the saisons. But Menchinni has still managed to knock out a series of them, in pale golden, brown, red, and black. Some are as weak as 3.5 percent ABV; others are as high as 7.5 percent.
Birrificio degli Achi is owned by eight partners, but it’s more of a hobby for them than an investment. Viareggio is one of the few places in Italy that is booming, thanks to the yachts that pull into the ports here, and the businesses that serve their owners and workers. The rich keep getting richer, and they keep buying bigger boats.
Most of the rich folks stay on the beach though—the folks who work for them are the ones knocking back the saison blocks back, enjoying the music, and making this small taproom into Friday night party central.