The Regeneration of Birra Messina: From “shout down” to agreement with Heineken

The story of the Birrificio Messina cooperative is a positive example of “regeneration,” where workers rescue struggling companies through the cooperative formula. The local community has played a pivotal role in this success, supported by the Messina Community Foundation. This experience represents a ray of hope in the industry, challenging large multinational corporations. The new generations carry forward this spirit of determination and sacrifice, shaping their futures while upholding tradition.

In the complex and diverse landscape of Sicily, the story of the 15 master brewers of Messina is one that deserves to be told. In the city that stretches along the Strait of Messina, the Presti-Faranda family inaugurated a brewery in 1923 that would give birth to the renowned “Birra Messina.” While the brand spread primarily in Southern Italy, in the ’80s, due to growing competition, it was sold to Dreher, a subsidiary of Heineken, which gradually shifted production to Massafra, in the province of Taranto, leaving only bottling operations in Messina.

In 2007, the Faranda family acquired the Triscele facility on via Bonino in the heart of Messina from Heineken, ensuring job preservation for five years. However, in 2011, the new owners announced the closure of the plant, leading the 41 employees to receive termination letters. A protest ensued, with workers incessantly picketing the entrance gate for 18 months, transforming the erected tent into a dwelling. Days and nights spent enduring heat and rain to preserve the legacy of three generations of workers dedicated to Messina’s ancient brewing tradition.

The lack of job opportunities in Messina, especially for those over 50, equates to falling into the abyss of unemployment with no way out. For the Messina brewers, experience was their only asset. The craft had been passed down by fathers and grandfathers, from generation to generation. But which path to take?

In 2013, 15 of the 41 protesting workers used their severance pay to revitalize beer production in Messina, giving birth to the Birrificio Messina cooperative. In 2016, while the industrial facilities were still being installed, operations commenced. It was the redemption of the 15 members, who returned to work not as laborers, but as entrepreneurs.

The new facility in the Asi di Larderia area initiated the production of “Birra dello Stretto” and “Doc 15.” Domenico Sorrenti, a third-generation master brewer and president of the cooperative, shares: “For all of us, it was an overwhelming emotion, because after years of protest, uncertainty, and regret, we were finally realizing the dream of bringing beer production back to our city. We launched an all-Messina brand, creating job opportunities for ourselves, but with dignity.”

In 2019, the ultimate redemption arrived: Heineken signed a partnership with the cooperative to bring “Birra Messina” back to its homeland. Thus began the agreement to produce the renowned “Birra Messina Cristalli di Sale,” characterized by the sea-themed label of the Strait and a Baroque motif. A pure, unfiltered malt beer, prepared with sea salt from the salt pans of Trapani. The agreement also encompassed the distribution of artisanal beers produced by the cooperative through Heineken’s network in Italy. A modest investment for the Dutch giant, but an opportunity to double production and further grow Birrificio Messina.

This story exemplifies regeneration as it illustrates how a struggling company underwent profound change and was revitalized through the joint efforts of its workers, the local community, and cooperation with a major multinational company like Heineken. Here are the key points:

  • Rescue from Abandonment: The company was on the brink of closure, with workers facing layoffs and losing their livelihoods. However, the employees reacted and played a crucial role in preventing the company’s failure. This effort prevented the demise of the company itself.
  • Community Involvement: The local community actively participated in the regeneration process. The Messina Community Foundation played a vital role in catalyzing financial resources from citizens and other entities, showcasing how the entire community embraced the idea of keeping the company alive and preserving jobs.
  • Change in Management: The workers, instead of passively enduring the closure of the plant, took initiative and used their severance pay to become entrepreneurs, founding the Birrificio Messina cooperative. This represented a fundamental shift in the company’s management, with workers now actively participating in decision-making and sharing the outcomes.
  • Collaboration with a Giant: The collaboration agreement with Heineken injected new momentum into the company. This partnership allowed Birrificio Messina to access resources, expertise, and distribution channels that would have otherwise been challenging to achieve on their own. The cooperative was able to increase production and spread its beer nationally.

What can we learn from this story of conflict which turned into collaboration? The cooperative model can create a space for business activity where the corporation cannot compete. This is one of the key messages of our book – REGENERATION: The Future of Community in a Permacrisis World.

Enrico Foglia is the director and co-founder of the Regenerative Marketing Institute, a collective promoting regenerative practices based in Rome.