An exclusive taste of Italian craft
Saturday 30 July 2022
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Pietro Di Pilato’s voice carries none of the stress one would expect from a brewer and co-founder whose team are collectively off sick with COVID. Italy has weathered a number of waves, but the current one seems to leave people testing positive for longer than they feel poorly. This means, at the time of my call with Pietro, the Brewfist team feel ready to go back to work but are without a negative test that would allow them to do so. In the meantime, Pietro is covering for both lab technicians, in addition to doing his own job; but for all that’s the case, his warm “Ciao, Robyn!” assures me that the world is still turning, the beer will get made, and we’ll crack a cold one with friends soon, if not later.
From the outset of our conversation, it’s clear that Pietro has his finger on the pulse of the craft beer industry both in and outside of Italy. Having studied food science at uni and clocked a year working for Fullers in London, he moved back to Italy with the scientific background needed to brew great beer, and experience of working in a brewery of renowned quality and practice. In the four years that followed his return, Pietro worked for what he can only describe as two “bad breweries” where he not only learned what not to do when running a business, but as importantly, where he met his now business partner Andrea Maiocchi. Pietro and Maiocchi both worked in production, and as the conditions and prosperity of the brewery they worked for declined, they began to talk about opening a brewery of their own.
“At that time, the market in Italy was still very young and naive,” says Pietro. “So breweries were really lacking the business point of making craft beer. So when we started to plan our own brewery, we were like, we have to go as big as possible because nowadays all our competitors are too small, they're already making good beers, they have a lot of sales, they cannot keep up with demand because they're super inefficient, and that’s why the final price is so crazy. In 2008, I could find Sierra Nevada in my local pub for a cheaper price than Italian beers were selling for.”
To understand Brewfist’s brand and approach to beer, it’s essential to understand the market backdrop of its formative years, a time and place that Pietro paints an excellent picture of. Eight odd years ago, breweries felt they had to compete with the wine market, and so were trying to break into restaurants as opposed to bars, and were taking aim at a high-end product, in fancy glassware and elaborate packaging. The result was that beer wasn’t accessible enough to maintain a market saturated with breweries all doing the same thing.
Brewfist’s approach was different; it had the skill to make as good a beer as anyone could, and the savvy to run a brewery efficiently, so the target it set itself was to deliver the equivalent calibre of beer as was circulating at the time, but at a competitive price point, and in more refined packaging. In addition to this, the first thing Pietro and Andrea did when officially opening the brewery in 2010 was purchase a large and sophisticated brew kit. They had seen breweries start out with small kits they later had to invest a lot of time and money upgrading, and so the experienced duo skipped out on costly growing pains by immediately investing in the kit they still brew on today.
Almost immediately, a fleet of exporters approached Brewfist, saying they’d been waiting for an Italian craft brewery to make the leap that would make them accessible to international markets. “I mean, 10 years ago was insane,” says Pietro. “We were selling IPAs in California. Now, you would think, what's the point in having a sales base on the other side of the world when there’s already fresh beer there? But you know, at the time there was a lot of hype around the brewery so you could sell everything to everybody. I think now things are normal across the industry as a whole; Californians drink their own IPA, and we drink ours.”
On the domestic market, Brewfist has also stolen the show, though Pietro is incredibly modest in how he tells this side of the story. “We had the right ideas at the right time, we didn’t create anything new, we just looked at the market and spotted a huge hole in it,” he says. “From there we just worked to fill that hole as quickly as possible. Nowadays, Spaceman, our West Coast IPA is probably one of the two really iconic beers we have in Italy. When people think of Italian craft IPA, they think of Spaceman; I don’t say that to be arrogant, I would never say it's because it is the best idea in the market because there are so many good ones, we just started making it in a time and place where there was no competition.”
Nowadays, Brewfist focuses more on the domestic market, where 90% of its sales come from. Rather interestingly, though the brewery is capable of producing a substantial volume of beer, it focused almost exclusively on kegging up until 2020. Pietro says that though it’s now acquired a canning line that facilitates servicing supermarkets and bottle shops, kegs are still the form of packaging Brewfist encourages, given the havoc canning issues are wreaking on the industry these days. He tells me that Brewfist has recently secured contracts with a hundred pubs around Italy, who have pledged to keep Spaceman on draft for six months; a development the team are delighted with, as that kind of contract stabilises business.
Pietro says Brewfist’s main project at the moment is sales and marketing, but not for the reasons you might expect. The brewery is not aiming to grow so much as consolidate its customer base, a move so smart and assertive that I truly believe Brewfist has the power and authority to shape the Italian craft beer market more than it already has.
“A lot of craft beer customers always want new things but it's very hard to create a constant business relationship with that. We’re heading out of two very complicated years, and we’re likely heading into many more given issues with gas, electricity and drought”, a challenge Italy is facing right now and that I was not aware of, in my naivety surrounding the challenges of living in a warm climate, in an era of global warming.
Pietro tells me that the Po River, not 10km from where the brewery is based, is now so shallow you can walk across it in places, and many surrounding municipalities have prohibited watering lawns and washing cars, to conserve the precious resource. “Right now, we’re not interested in expanding,” says Pietro. “We're just trying to consolidate and keep the business stable because we know that probably rough times are coming.”
Now thoroughly invested in the Brewfist story, I ask Pietro what constitutes the brewery’s identity, to tell me about what the brand is, as opposed to what it does. “Our core range is 12 beers. But we already have five, six beers, that probably make 70% of our production,” he begins. “This is great in terms of production managing because obviously, when your business is constantly brewing something new, it’s what people expect from you, and it becomes a chain around you that you have constantly to grow. We are the total opposite of that.
“We put a lot of effort in quality control and tweaking things, and obviously getting more efficient, also the economical side of the production. So I'm trying to make the same beer, same quality, but spending less; this is our job. Obviously, you have some new things coming out, but that's the fun part of the business, it’s not the majority of your turnover. That relies also on a different market and different customers that are really easy to change and are volatile. We like stable production and stable business relationships, both of which we’ve invested a lot in over the last couple of years.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking this emphasis on stability, and a popular core range at an affordable price point makes this brewery’s beer any less than exceptional, and its founders any less than genius. Brewfist and Pietro’s approach, for me, was most marvellously distilled in an emphatically thrown away comment regarding Italy’s adjustment to packaged beer: “We cannot stack the beer in a parking space under the hot sun, eh? You have to dedicate the same logistics you have for the mozzarella, as for the craft beer - obviously it’s increasing handling and storage prices and everything, but it’s a great product!”
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