I’ve heard Italian beer has grown a lot in the decade since my last visit and I thought that picking up a sixer of good local cans would be an easy task. As it turns out, there are a lot of things I don’t know, and this is one of them.
My first attempt is a store in Florence that the internet recommended. We have been in transit for 36 hours, followed by a two-hour wait to rent a car. Considering our jet lag, everything is going smoothly as we steer our Citroen toward a bottle shop.
I stroll in and ask for beer. The man behind the counter points to the back, behind piles of boxes, and apologizes for the mess. I see dust, two year old American beers, and a lot of Mikkeller. I can’t find anything local. There are no prices and it’s all thoroughly confusing. I grab a sixer of Westbrook Gose (which I later learn tastes great after two years on the shelf) and chalk it up to a loss. We point the car toward Tuscan wineries and forget about beer for a moment.
After a week filled with Chianti, cured meats, cheese, and Negroni, I try Florence again. This time we visit store called Firenze Birra. We’re in a bit of a rush because we have to return our car and catch a train that is leaving very soon. Despite my panic, owner Alessio Deplano guides me with a gentle hand. He tells me Italy doesn’t really do cans, nor do they really do six packs. It’s a cultural thing, he says. Cultural differences are great usually, but this one’s kind of a pain in the ass. Fortunately he rustles up a cardboard box and six Pilsners from Canediguerra. I hurry back to the car with my bottles because the coast is calling.
Monterosso. We step off the train to the smell of frying fish. Waves lap the shoreline and tourists amble about. It’s stunningly beautiful—we enjoy wine, fried anchovy, baby squid, and lasagna alla genovese. Afterwards we get gelato and sneak into private beach chairs under the cover of dark. Warm Pilsner and gelato on the coast? Don’t let the haters tell you otherwise: it’s an ideal pairing. Recommended temperatures and proper glassware are all secondary to moments like this. The wind blows and the Pilsner is crisp. I’m quietly relieved that the beer is pretty much exactly what I wanted—no flaws, easy drinking. Perfect for sharing and enjoying the cool evening air.
We spend the next two days hiking, eating, and drinking. There’s also a bunch of great beer in Monterosso and I realize I shouldn’t have been so worried about finding some in Florence. Things just kinda work themselves out.
Unfortunately, the cleaners assume my cardboard six pack box, one of the few in the entire country, is rubbish. They throw it out, and I’m forced to improvise with my camera bag, cursing Italy’s lack of cans as I clank the bottles in.
Cinque Terre was great, but now we’re in Venice and I’ve fallen in love with the city. One moment you are overwhelmed by tourists and tacky souvenirs. The next? You’re in an empty courtyard with a fountain in the middle and a canal at the end. Tourists drift past, looking slightly uncomfortable on gondolas. It’s the perfect time to recalibrate and open another warm Pilsner—a moment of relaxation and quiet appreciation of this wonderful and confusing city. We finish it and enjoy it so much that we make a quick beer run before returning to the courtyard to make an afternoon of it. Ah, them holiday vibes.
Next up is a train to Rome. We buy chocolate on the way to the station and, as we’ve learned on this trip, warm Pilsner and sweet things are, though perhaps imperfect, still tons of fun. We pop a bottle and pass it while looking at the countryside. I’d love to say the mint in this chocolate was a great counterpoint to the hops, but that’s not the case. The bitterness is amplified by the sweetness, leading to a bit of a clash on the palate. Fortunately both pair excellently with the passing countryside.
Rome isn’t great. There, I said it. You see the sights, you wonder why it’s so dirty, and you inevitably end up paying way too much for bad food. But then your Airbnb host bakes you a delicious cake you realize that things aren’t all bad. What have we learned so far? On this trip, we eat our sweets with our Pilsner!
So we sit on our balcony and pour the beer into a glass for the first time. It’s also cold. This, reader, is an evening of firsts. As it’s poured, we notice a noble hop spice swirl from the glass. Mouthfeel is vibrant with a great spritz. The liquid is crackling and dry with grain flavors that linger on the palate and a nice bitterness. It’s a terrible pairing with cake, but once again, I wouldn’t change it for all the aluminum cans in the world.
As we sip, I formulate a plan for our last day in Rome. I will toast the city with a beer in St. Peter’s Square. It won't matter if it’s lugged around in my camera bag all day, because Rome has public fountains pouring cool potable water at every turn. I’ll wet some toilet paper and use it to chill my beer—an old camping trick. It’ll make a great contrasting photo in this historic city.
“Do you have a glass bottle in your bag?” the security guard asks the lady in front of me. She looks confused. Meanwhile, I look concerned because I realize the bag-scanner for St. Peter’s Basilica has found some glass and I’m the guilty party. I fess up, and the security guard gives me the option of leaving it in the bin or leaving the queue. He looks me in the eye, and I can see he is completely genuine when he says he’s sorry. I assure him it’s cool as I put one-fifth of this story into a big empty bin. Addio Pilsner, addio Roma, addio Italia. Gražias.
It’s more than a month since we left Rome. We’ve had a death in the family, life has been hectic and unsettled as a result, and this the first time in ages I’m in my kitchen alone, cooking a big roast for family and friends. It’s my happy place, and I remember the Pilsner in my fridge. It’ll be a nice toast to semi-normality, I think.
It’s soon apparent that following two weeks of being lugged around Italy, 10,000 miles back to Melbourne, and 30 or 40 days in my fridge, well, the beer is pretty oxidized. There is a vague hint of the crisp grain flavor I loved so much—just enough to take me back on holiday for a moment, though not enough to make it an enjoyable experience, as wet cardboard flavors quickly take hold. This is not ideal drinking conditions, of course, as everything else I’ve tried from Canediguerra was good-to-exceptional.
If I’ve learned anything from this experience, a six pack is a great thing to travel with, and beer is great in general, but having a beer to punctuate moments is better. Also, Italy? You need to get more cans, buddy.