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A Roman beer holiday

Rome is famous, of course, for its food and wine. But a new generation of Italian has developed a taste for birra artigianale, giving rise to a new reverence for beer across the city.
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Tourists flock to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City

Walk into any of Rome’s dozens of beer bars, and you’re likely to see some recurring motifs. You’ll notice the usual formation of shiny taps standing at attention, mainly pouring fresh Italian birra artigianale. On either side of those, you’ll probably also spot two or three hand pumps for British-style cask ale. On the walls, in fridges or simply on the beer menu, there is a decent chance you’ll find bottled gueuzes from respected producers like Belgium’s Cantillon or 3 Fonteinen. Finally, among those draft or bottled beers, there is a fair likelihood of finding lager from Upper Franconia, the region of northern Bavaria best known for flavorful rustic kellers and smoked beers.

In short, these bars show a reverence for the very best the beer world has to offer. And doesn’t this appreciation of classic brews seem especially appropriate in the city that gave us, well, the Classics?

Much of the credit for this state of affairs goes to Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, an influential beer bar in Trastevere. Just across the Tiber from the heart of Rome, the Trastevere neighborhood is a labyrinth of cobbled alleys packed with cafes, pubs and pizzerias. Once a rundown area, the crowds these days are a mix of locals, expats, students and tourists looking for food and fun. Establishments compete to attract passersby with signs that promise WiFi, air-conditioning, cheap aperitivo, wines and, more often than not, birra artigianale.

It was a different context when Manuele Colonna opened Ma Che in 2001. Back then, as a tourist in the city center, your choices were basically Peroni or Peroni, so, you drank wine. But over the years, Colonna’s pub became a focal point for the local beer scene. Later, other bars would also feature hand pumps, lambics and interesting German lagers—just like Ma Che.

Inside the pub, there are tables in a back room and a few more in the cellar, but the main stage is the small front barroom. A dozen taps line the bar, with four hand pumps squeezed into the corner and the occasional cask tapped directly on the bar. Colonna appreciates the lagers of Upper Franconia so much that he even wrote the book on it, “Birra in Franconia.” As I watch on a Saturday night, he hoists an anstich—a German-style lager cask—of fresh Lieberth Kellerbier onto the bar and prepares to vent it.

“Stand back,” he shouts. “Last time it went everywhere!” Thankfully, it goes smoothly this time; he hammers in the spile and begins filling krugs with rich, foamy, bittersweet kellerbier from the spout. “You have to respect Franconian beer,” says Colonna. “We treat the beer like our babies.”

Another way to put it: The Italians treat other countries’ beers like they wish everyone else would treat their food. Yet ironically, food—surely a top reason for visiting Rome—can be a problem when it comes to beer bars.

“This is really tough,” says Katie Parla, a food writer who has lived in Rome since 2003. “I actually don’t think you eat very well in most of the craft beer spots.”

Ma Che, for example, only has potato chips. Many other beer bars have perhaps followed an Anglo-American path and offered burgers. Even when they’re good (they’re usually not), they’re not exactly enticing to visitors seeking local cuisine.

In the foreword of Parla’s latest book, “Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City,” Chef Mario Batali refers to her as “my dear friend and expert on all things Rome.” And we know she likes her beer, so when she speaks on this topic, we listen.

For starters, Parla recommends a few highly regarded pizzerias with wider interest in artisanal beer: Tonda, Sforno and Sbanco. The latter two are run by Stefano Callegari, known locally as someone pushing the pizza envelope. And thankfully, he’s into beer. Callegari also invented trapizzino pizza pockets, available at his new pub, Be.Re.

What about that great Italian tradition, the aperitivo? The idea is to have a snack— some slices of cold cuts and cheeses, perhaps— and a drink, not to satisfy the appetite but to stimulate it in the hours before dinner. Usually the drink is a spritzy cocktail or sparkling wine. So why not beer?

“Totally works for me,” Parla says. “And if you go to any of the Italian craft beer-oriented places, you’ll find that they do have a ton of people sort of rush the place at 6:30, 7 o’clock.”

Parla says there is a younger generation of Italians more interested in beer. Their parents are devoted to wine, but the kids travel abroad to work and return with a taste for variety. “And yeah, young people when they go out, they want to be with their friends and eat and spend time, and they can’t necessarily afford to go to restaurants where wine certainly is more prominent on the menus. So, they go to pubs.”

The gradual seeping of beer into the Roman mainstream means that there are, inevitably, some options for combining great beer with great food. It helps to know where to look, though, so we’ve compiled eight sure bets.

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