The famous quip by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich that Italy is a mere “geographical expression” still rings true today: look no further than South Tyrol. Previously governed by the Habsburg Empire before being ceded to Rome following the First World War, the primarily German-speaking province atop the country’s thigh-high boot in the Alps is an anomaly of sorts when set against Italy’s other regions.
Mitteleuropa influences are still seen everywhere from restaurant interiors to trains that run with Teutonic precision. Menus differ here too. Pasta dishes compete with dumplings for diners’ attention, while sliced Parma ham is often swapped for the smokier speck variety. Perhaps the most telling detail is the choice of drink. Chianti and barolo are dismissed by locals who instead quaff pints of lager in steady numbers, seated in taverns where dirndl-attired barmaids coyly suggest to undecided patrons that “there’s nothing better than a refreshing beer to go with your schnitzel”.
Cellina von Mannstein couldn’t agree more. For five generations her family has made sure no one in South Tyrol goes thirsty by building up a brewing empire of lagers and pilsners sold under the Forst label; for good measure they even bottle and sell mineral-water brands to rehydrate customers after an evening of the good stuff. Their hard work has been rewarded to the tune of €110m in annual sales and the company logo, a trio of Alpine trees set on a moss-green field, is as unmissable as the mountain peaks. Coasters; door handles; signage big and small in cafés, hotels and restaurants; kit deals for various sports clubs: the Forst crest is emblazoned wherever you turn your gaze.
“We have become part of the scenery,” says Von Mannstein as she entertains monocle in the brewery’s boardroom, where walls are lined with photographs of hockey, basketball and football teams that have been sponsored by the firm. From the window there’s a view that looks out on the village of Forst, the company’s home since its inception in 1857 (and the source of its name, of course). While the brand has sought to promote its name up and down the peninsula with sports from cycling to horse racing to get its product imbibed in bars – Forst is responsible for 5 per cent of beer sales in Italy so it has been a successful effort – the Heidi-like lands of South Tyrol account for the lion’s share of its business.
Dressed in a white pant suit, Von Mannstein gives off a vibe that’s more art director than corporate manager; her first love was photography and her career took her to New York to work with the likes of Terry Richardson. But then Forst, like South Tyrol itself, stands out from its peers. In a world dominated by drinks conglomerates that have amassed stables of beer brands from several countries, cut costs by cross-brewing under one roof and pumped out what critics label as mass-produced swill, Forst has been steadfast in its belief that family knows best.
“We have never looked at what the others are doing in our industry,” says Von Mannstein when asked about the decision taken by rival Italian beer brands Peroni and Moretti – whose origins also date back to the mid-19th century – to cash in on deals presented by foreign buyers. “Our history is rooted in this place; we’ve had families working in the plant for generations. It’s not something we want to give up overnight.”
Von Mannstein’s mother, a baroness, is the ceo, and her sister and aunt are also stakeholders in a female-first management team that is nothing new for the region. “Women in South Tyrol traditionally have looked after the maso [farm] so why not the brewery?” says Von Mannstein in a matter-of-fact tone. She believes that regional customs are worth protecting – the region is stoutly Catholic so no brewing takes place on Sundays and crucifixes abound in the workplace – and her business outlook is one that takes the long view. “The corporate world wants results now and at times that’s bad for quality. We see ourselves as part of a community here; it’s not just a business.”
This same message is driven home in the brand’s advertising. On television one sees a troupe of animated mugs of frothy Forst beer ambling across Tyrolean pastures and snowy fields beneath the Dolomites with an accompanying tagline: “Good because it has always lived here.”
Part of that goodness is down to the mountain springs used in the brewery. Its water sits in the Goldilocks sweet spot of being “just right” for making a variety of beers. “Its optimal because it’s very pure and between the very soft water you see in a Bohemian pilsner and the hard carbonate water in Munich suited for dark beers,” says the company’s brewmaster Christian Pircher. “If we moved our plant closer to big markets then that would mean using a different water source. But then we couldn’t call our beer Forst.”
The cachet that comes from being based in the idyllic environs of South Tyrol is not lost on Von Mannstein. “We are surrounded by nature. There’s pure mountain air, the forests. It feels almost like living in a fairytale,” she says, gesturing to the collection of family heirlooms that adorn the company’s headquarters. There are hand-carved wooden thrones and other Tyrolean antiques dotted about the office. A soothing scent of pine can be detected throughout the sprawling complex, which has been built piecemeal over the decades. Images of foxes abound in honour of the company’s founder. In place of shiny corporate digs, there’s a genuine Alpine cosiness.
To mimic surrounding hamlets the Forst’s brewing facility even boasts its very own bell tower; the coat of arms of South Tyrol and the Forst emblem vie for space on the campanile’s clock face. Evidence of being on Italian soil is decidedly subtle, with terracotta tiling from Tuscany in entranceways and at the brewery’s restaurant. Pride of place goes to a modestly sized medieval castle. The region has scores of ageing forts and keeps but this particular example belongs to the family and sits witin sight of the brewery.
“Our heritage is quite unique,” says Von Mannstein as she removes an evocative black-and-white photo from the wall behind her desk. It’s an early advertisement for Forst from the 1930s featuring a rugged Alpinist mid-sip, a dimpled pint glass to his lips. “Many companies have to come up with a brand story nowadays but we have all the material we’ll ever need right here in our archives. It’s authentic. It’s not something to just give away to the big multinationals.”
A visit to the brewery’s restaurant and beer garden confirms that there’s plenty of appeal in pushing the Alpine origins of the brand to a parched public. Scores of German tourists in Nordic walking kit have plopped down for a plate of sausage and a litre of draft beer to shake off the aches of a recent hike. Von Mannstein oversaw the renovation of the traditional Tyrolean stube, whereby patrons eat in an interior that is a rococo riot of woodwork chiselled by carpenters from the nearby Vinschgau Valley. There is also a touch of faux gold-leaf on the coffered ceilings, carved geometric patterns and the Forst logo popping out at diners from staff uniforms and seat upholstery. On the menu there are fresh takes on classic dishes, including a tiramisu prepared with beer and served with a Forst doppelbock-style brew.
Given the crowds of Italian and German drinkers that frequent Forst’s collection of taverns in South Tyrol, the brand is now eyeing a push to expand its hospitality business further south into Italy. Its new Spiller restaurant chain has five outlets from Milan to Verona in operation and has an expanded menu, with pizza and hamburgers to accompany traditional fare. In its choice of decor Forst sought an updated, slightly more cosmopolitan version of a Tyrolean eating place to woo clients. “Everyone today is forced to sit on plastic and look at white walls; nobody wants to put in nice wooden tables and make people feel more at home,” says Von Mannstein.
Catering to female customers with a wide variety of foods to pair with beer has been a particular focus for Forst as said demographic has become more beer-friendly of late. Annual reports from The Italian Malters’ and Brewers’ Association are filled with promo photos of twenty-something ladies sipping ale in wine glasses and nibbling on slices of pizza. With wine consumption at historical lows in Italy, Von Mannstein recognises that there’s an opportunity. “Women are the ones who buy for the family at the supermarket and are keen to experiment with recipes, using beer to make bread and so on. It’s only fitting they should be paid attention.”
Mindful of the potential growth at hand, the family has made a big investment to update its equipment, including a €4m bottling plant and a sleek all-glass structure to house its giant stainless-steel brew kettles. Beneath it are kilometres of pipes laid out in a spaghetti-maze; they feed freshly prepared batches of alcohol into tanks where the brand’s seven types of beer are aged for up to two months. Adds Von Mannstein: “Here, we don’t take shortcuts. Beer matures for as long as it’s needed. You can’t rush quality.”