Bread to Beer: Inside the Roman Brewery Teaching Inmates How to Brew

December 11, 2018

By Elizabeth Heath, December 11, 2018

Paolo Strano has a hand-rolled, half-smoked cigarette in his hand at all times. Once in a while he lights it, takes a drag, tips the ash into his cupped palm, then stubs out the smoke. It may be a nervous habit, but Strano—“Doctor Strange” as he’s jokingly known at work—appears most at ease, both with his surroundings and his colleagues. He’s the director of Rome’s Vale la Pena Brewery. His peers and charges come from the edges, the frays of the city’s social fabric. They are current and ex-cons, drug dealers, petty thieves and vandals, as well as developmentally disabled youth and adults. At craft brewery Vale la Pena, they’ve found a home and a haven, a judgement-free atmosphere where they can learn a trade, contribute and be valued, and, for many, make the difficult transition from long-term incarceration to uncertain, fragile freedom.

In the city suburbs, amid mostly abandoned farmland and faded industrial buildings, the modest Vale la Pena Brewery was founded in 2014 as part of Semi di Libertá (Seeds of Liberty), a non-profit dedicated to fighting recidivism. At Vale la Pena, recently released inmates from Rome’s Rebibbia prison, non-incarcerated convicts just sprung from house arrest, or those guilty of small infractions who are sentenced to community service come together. The brewery also partners with a school for autistic youth and a program for developmentally disabled adults. These individuals gather to help, befriend, and support one another: Convicts summon their patience and compassion to teach and supervise autistic teens, while those young people, as well as first offenders who have not yet been incarcerated, learn tough life lessons from those who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell.

Almost everything at Vale la Pena is a play on words that alludes to the brewery’s links to the penal system. Vale la pena translates to “worth the effort,” but pena also means penalty or jail sentence in Italian. Their schwarzbier, a smoky stout named ‘a Gatta Buia, plays on Roman dialect “gatta buia,” which means “dark cat,” but “gattabuia” is a slang term for jail. Their gluten-free bitter, Gnente Grane, or no grain, plays on “niente grave” or“nothing serious.”

Massimo, 34, spent the last nine years of his life in prison for drug trafficking. Released just a few months ago, he’s been coming to Vale la Pena every day since September to make beer, learn skills that might land him a job, and find some structure in his life post-prison. The brewery, he says, “does what the state won’t,” by providing practical skills and a real shot at rehabilitation. “They give their time, and the chance of a future to people who have lost everything,” he says. “It’s impossible for me to find work now. But I hope that in six months or so, I’ll find a stable job.” Though he says he has an excellent relationship with his coworkers, he allows that the “limits imposed by the system” make it hard to legally earn money to support his himself. And while he’s paid a stipend for completing the brewery’s training course, he is still paying heavy fines for his past crimes.

Alessandro, 50, just completed nine months of house arrest for getting caught with a pound of marijuana, which he was intending to sell. “Nine months,” he emphasizes, “I couldn’t leave the house, not even to go to the doctor.” As a condition of his release, he had 30 days to enroll in a community service program—it was that or jail time, which he has done before, all for marijuana-related offenses. While he’s enthusiastic to help at Vale la Pena, he too laments a criminal justice system that does little to combat recidivism. “Most of the people I met in jail, they don’t deserve to be there. They’re young and they did something stupid out of need or circumstance.”

For many who pass through Vale la Pena, their run-ins with the law were related to alcohol abuse. Strano and his team teach them an “appreciation of beer, its taste, perfume, ingredients, to transfer their enthusiasm for over-consuming into connoisseurship.” It’s also why the brewery makes Buona Condotta, a near-beer that translates to “good conduct” and features the image of a bird soaring over a barbed-wire fence. Still, Strano admits that there have been situations which wouldn’t have been tolerated in a “normal” work environment, like the time two work release participants locked themselves in the walk-in fridge. “Getting them out,” he says, “was fairly interesting.”

As a boss, Strano may be a little too forgiving. But a clear, perhaps unquantifiable benefit of Vale la Pena is that Strano has created a safe space—a place to belong that provides an alternative to the temptations of idle hands and Rome’s streets. Andrea, 49, lives at a halfway house. His social adjustment disorder has, as he puts it, caused him to “lose everything.” At Vale la Pena, he is a valued member of the team, assisting in creative efforts like label design and, he says, doing “everything [he] can to lead a straight life.”

Vale la Pena’s efforts have also resulted in a partnership with the Rome Cavalieri, a 5-star Waldorf Astoria Resort, in the hills about Rome.  n cooperation with social services agency  Equoevento, the hotel donates its leftover bread to the brewery, which uses it to produce Recuper-Ale (another play on words), a pilsner with the tagline, “the beer that recuperates food and people.” The beer is sold in the the hotel's Tiepolo Lounge and Terrace, which results in reduced food waste and high-profile product placement for Vale la Pena. Plus, says Fausto Ciarcia, Human Resource Director at Rome Cavalieri, “we are making our small, but important contribution to reintegrating prisoners into our local community and by doing so restoring dignity and hope to these individuals.”

Strano says that among current or recently released inmates, those who find productive work and a place to belong in programs like Vale la Pena’s work release, experience 2 percent recidivism, compared to Italy’s typical 70 percent recidivism rate. “There’s an enormous social and economic impact of our work,” says Strano. Apart from helping felons find the straight and narrow path, it’s simply cheaper to keep them out of prison than in.

The brewery produces 40,000 liters, or about 121,000 bottles a year, which Strano says does not nearly meet the demand. “We need a system where we can make at least twice as much,” he says. Those bottles move out the door at a much quicker pace now that Vale la Pena has opened up a beer pub in central Rome. Set right near a Metro stop in the working class San Giovanni neighborhood, the pub opened in October 2018 and has gotten off to a brisk start, with customers enthused with both the beer offerings and the brewery’s social mission. The pub employs two inmates, who come to work during the day and return, on their own recognizance, to Rebibbia each night. Incarceration is the theme at the pub, where the staff pass pints through a set of prison bars that have been bent open. Booths are decorated with steel bars and handcuffs.

Strano hopes it’s the first of more pubs to open up, both in Rome and across Italy. After spending time with “Dr. Strange” and his band of well-intentioned misfits, it’s hard not to root for Vale la Pena’s success, and for a positive future for all who pass through its doors.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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