Vicenza is no stranger to breweries. One of the first Italian craft breweries is nearby in Padova and opened at the dawn of the movement, Vecchio Birraio, owned by Stefano Sausa. Vicenza was where six brewery owners in 1997 came together for the first meeting of Italian craft brewers. This would lead to Italy’s most important association, Union Birrai. There are now five breweries in Vicenza and Simone Dal Cortivo and his brewery, Il Birrone is leading the way.
Simone is no stranger to yeast and fermentation. He and his family own a bakery. But there was a calling that Simone couldn’t ignore and this is how it unfolded.
“The first brew kit I saw, I told my wife, Sabrina, I need that. She told me no, you already drink too much beer. But then, for Christmas, when I opened my gift, she had bought me the kit. And that’s where the adventure began. That following morning, I began to brew.
“But soon after I bought the kit, I brewed a batch and found it terrible. A friend of mine gave me a pint of malt to use, I went home and immediately set to brewing. Sixteen days later, I found that batch foul as well. The beer I was making from the kit wasn’t what I had in mind. So I went out and bought a larger vat.”
“For years I worked on my recipes.”
“As a home brewer I was very monotonous, I brewed for 10 years the same beer, the helles. I did make a pilsner or wiezen from time to time, but 80 percent of my concentration on the beer I made was the helles. Mainly it was to reach a quality helles which isn’t easy to make.
“In the beginning they used to tease me, ‘Oh, you want to become German making your simple beers.’ But what they didn’t understand was, those were the most difficult to make. In Rome, that fad for IPAs is curving more towards low-fermented beers with low ABVs in the style of Franconia. The Italian palette is returning to the German lagers. My beers, lagers, have never faded as a fad, being of high quality.”
During his 10 years as home brewer, seven times he attempted to start his brewery. Each time, he had to throw out the beer along with his idea of a brewery. He gave up, but after a month, he had to return and try at it again.
“It’s a passion from the heart. Many of today’s breweries are coming in for the business reasons. It’s not the same.”
Simone continued to create better machines to form his ideal brew. “At my brewery, I have a museum with all my home kits.”
The final kit brewed 400 liters (about 3.5 barrels). At that point, it was no longer for personal brews. That’s when Il Birrone was born.
“I had already bought a large cooler.”
In 2008 Simone invested in a 12 hl (10 barrel) system. He had made up his mind and in April Il Birrone opened. By the end of the year Simone had made 370 hl (315 barrels) of beer—a pretty sizable amount for a new comer in the Italian craft beer world. In the beginning, though, he still had to work at the bakery. So he brewed at night, after work. After a year, brewing had become his job. In 2010 he left the bakery to his brother to run Il Birrone full time. That year they made 1,280 hl (1,090 barrels). By the second year, Simone was well into the business of brewing.
Ninety percent of Italian breweries struggle; you can’t make it with passion alone. “It does take some luck, but in the end, luck alone won’t keep you in business. Last year Italy’s brew scene had a growth of more than 37 percent, something like 45 percent this year.”
This year Il Birrone brewed more than 3,000 hl.
Growth means travel
For the last six months Simone’s not had time to brew. He’s been busy traveling to festivals and events. A move that isn’t easy for Simone. For the first 2,000 hl (1,700 barrels) he had made them all personally, including observing them in the lab. He watched over every drop and found it very difficult to hand over the reins to an assistant. But when he returns, he immediately goes to the brewery to check on his ‘daughters’.
“One of the most important reasons to go to beer festivals is you can gauge how things are changing. Those that don’t go to festivals and stay home lose an opportunity to see what is going on. For example, last week at the Festival of the Beers in Tuscany there were five sours made with fruit. In short, it means that this is a style that is coming into its own here. Not going to festivals, you lose a great opportunity to understand your movement’s direction. You can never say you’ve learned enough. You’re always learning. But when you are fully and passionately into a movement, there’s also fun.”
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