Sicily can reasonably claim to be the most enigmatic of all Italian regions. Anomalous and magical, with a multicultural identity that has fused together countless civilisations, the island has an allure unto itself that has seduced travellers since the time of Ancient Greece. Sadly, in recent years, it has also struggled the most with poverty. Youth unemployment has hovered around the 60 percent line for almost a decade now, and its GDP is half that of the north.
The islanders, though, are not known for giving up. While many have been forced to leave, thousands of others have remained or returned to create new economic opportunities. One of the most unexpected in recent years has been the surge in artisanal beer. A decade ago, IPAs and Bock were barely known on the island. Now Sicily produces gallons of the stuff and, more importantly still, to an exceptional quality. Not only is the island’s produce a strong contender for the best beer in Italy, it can even stand up to the high standards set by Belgium and Germany. No really.
Bruno Ribadi is one of the most well-known of the new generation of brewers. Born in Cinesi, Bruno was orphaned at a young age, and had no formal education. Instead he travelled the world, working odd jobs – including as a journalist - while learning languages and engaging with different cultures. After travelling in India, London, Belgium and Prague he finally decided to come back to Sicily where in 2016 he set up his birrificio, based on knowledge he’d picked up on the road. The brews themselves – which include IPAs and Pilsner - reflect his various travels. In a nod to the island’s traditions, though, Ribadi also experiments with ‘special ales’. One of the most popular contains the much coveted uva passa di pantelleria,a grape usually used to make the well-known Zibibbo desert wine.
Stairway in Sicily with Bruno Ribadi, photo from Instagram.
Another young outfit to watch is the is Rock Brewery. Set up in 2017 by a group of millennial friends, the industrial, gritty design vaguely recalls the punk aesthetics of Brewdog. Make no mistake, though, this is an 100% Sicilian affair. Aside from a strong emphasis on the primary materials, the names are drawn from the island’s rich folk heritage. The Testa del Moro, a strong heavy brew, recommended as an accompaniment to grilled meats and vegetables, is named after an old legend from 12thcentury Palermo. La Saracena, meanwhile, another reference to the island’s Arab-Norman past, is a light Kölsch that far outclasses the usual Friday night lager as a standalone drink.
Some of the other producers are a little more traditional in their offerings. The Birifficio dell’Etna, for example, is an older, dustier, and more baroque affair. Located in the east of the island, in the foothills of the eponymous volcano, these beers more than any other on the island seem to capture the strange minerality that has historically been so valued by wine producers. These are honest ales, characteristic of the terroir. In a fun twist, though, the different types are named after mythological characters. In their collection you’ll find Ulysses (an American Pale Ale) Prometheus (a dark orange lager), and, of course, Polyphemus, the Cyclops (a fittingly twisted double malt concoction).
Perhaps the most unique option for adventurous palates is Minchia. While this is something of a ‘vulgar’ word in northern Italy, in Sicilian dialect it is in fact an innocent exclamation of extreme emotion. These beers made an international name for themselves following the 2015 Expo in Milan where they were recognised by the tasters as among the finest on display. Produced in Messina, which is home to quite a few breweries, the offerings are refined and, quite odd. Reviewers have often appealed to elaborate metaphors - tobaccoish notes, blueberry finish – in their attempts to describe the flavours.
The list goes on. Irias specialises in light hoppy beers while Tarì produce more refined, sophisticated brews. In fact, the market is expanding so rapidly that even Birra Moretti have tried to cash-in with a citrus-infused Sicilian ale. Emerging seemingly from nowhere, Sicily’s beer scene is a great testimony to the creativity and strange hybridity that gives this island its resilience. It’s also a small glimmer of hope for local economy.
So, if you’re looking for something new to drink this summer, why not give these producers a try? They might well surprise you with their unique Mediterranean concoctions.