Laura Graham

DWF Journal

Italian Beer Pilgrimage Chapter IV

After attending BEEROCK, I organized some visits to local breweries in Umbria and Le Marche. The cool thing about microbreweries and their owners is that you never know what you will find, and whom you will meet.

Our first stop was the Birrificcio Flea. Matteo Minelli's family has been in the construction business for generations and his personal reincarnation of the family business has been to install solar panels. He has made a lot of money.

That is how Flea Brewery was born. They have a brand, spanking new facility, which honestly felt more like Switzerland than Italy. They are located in the town of Gualdo Tadino about 40 minutes north east of Assisi.

Ezio and I crossed Mounte Subasio and a bunch of other beautiful hills to get there. Flea is extremely well conceived as a project. They built their facility next to the Rocchetta bottling plant. Rocchetta is one of Italy's famous bottled waters. With the West Coast drought risking to affect California's brewers, a famous and reliable water source is always a great thing to have next to a brewery. Minelli has also planned ahead and bought a tract of land that is big enough that if they want to grow really big, they will have the space. The facility was built according to LEED standards and is entirely run by solar power. Flea has begun to grow their own barley and hops in the surrounding fields. 

Flea's Master Brewer, Rolando Della Serra, is a professor from the same department of agriculture at the University of Perugia that I learned about a few weeks ago at the beer conference in Assisi. Rolando wasn't there and I didn't meet Matteo, the owner. We were given a tour by Alessandro Bazzucchi, the Flea manager, instead. Cool, professional and very serious, Alessandro carefully explained every detail about what they were doing.... to Ezio. At first I thought this was funny. Then I started to get a bit annoyed. I tried to explain that I was  the one interested in the brewery, but that didn't seem to sink in. Maybe I shouldn't have worn a dress? Maybe a suit and a fake mustache instead? Then we sat down to taste the beer. Flea produces four types of beer: Two blonde, one red and a dark beer. They are named after four characters from a local legend about Federico II in Gualdo Tadino. The beer is good. It is flavorful, yet balanced. Once we sat down and started drinking, Alessandro realized that I was the beer drinker, not Ezio. Then Alessandro was friendlier and we really started to talk. He asked me a lot of questions about American craft beer and the events and conferences that I have attended. I explained how I had ended up on the door step of Flea. Although he didn't come right out and say it, I could tell that he was intrigued by the fact that a woman would be interested in beer.

As we stepped out the door to leave, a paraglider came zooming in and landed in the field of barley next to us. I laughed with Ezio when we decided, that should be our method of arrival the next time we come to visit Flea! We loaded some Flea beer into the car and drove back over the mountains towards home.

My next stop was to Caber Beer in Spoleto. We are now in the month of August and all companies in Italy are scurrying to get things done before they close for Ferragosto, the August 15 national holiday. I had met the owner Renzo at BEEROCK, but he was not available the day that I went, so I met with his two delightful kids Erica and Alessio. Caber Beer is truly a family run business in the best sense. The kids and their parents are all involved in every aspect of the business and beer making. The kids were very knowledgeable and fun to talk with while I tasted their beer. Caber Beer makes four beers currently: two blondes, a red and a dark beer. Their stout, Secondo Me, translated My Way, is very good in my opinion. Each member of the family was allowed to name one of the beers. Secondo Me is Renzo the father's beer.

As I clinked home with more beer in my car, I began to wonder how I am going to schlep all of this beer back to Connecticut in September? 

Friday was a great day. Our first stop was Collesi, near Apecchio a small town in the Marche region of Italy about an hour and a half from Assisi. The drive there was breathtaking. Le Marche is one of Italy's least populated areas. The nature was extensive. Our GPS took us the shortest route which turned out to be a winding one lane somewhat paved road through the mountains. This road, dotted with small stone churches made our trip feel like a true pilgrimage. 

Wondering if we would ever get there, we drove over the crest of a hill and I spotted a large roof with solar panels. The fact that these breweries are often solar powered is something I find very comforting. 

I was not ready to meet the owner Giuseppe Collesi. A tiny man physically, he was a true bundle of energy! A sort of a Willy Wonka of beer. The company Collesi, originally a producer of grappa, under Giuseppe's guidance has embarked in the past two years with craft beer, and they are not looking back. They have just built two big facilities, one in NYC and one in New Jersey, and the tenuta or building and land that we visited near Apecchio was under major construction. 

As I picked my footsteps carefully thought the construction site, Giuseppe apologized that it wasn't yet done. He was very excited and proud. It is an ambitious and beautiful project. The entire front of the building will be glass affording the most spectacular panoramic view. The same breathtaking view that I imagine stunned the Duke of Urbino himself, Federico da Montefeltro, as he rode horseback through these same hills in the mid 1400s. Collesi plans to have a big area dedicated to social events with food and chamber music. There is a giant dining hall that will include an indoor garden of hops and barley and an indoor waterfall. 

We went to Giuseppe's office and he showed us his advertising campaign and spoke of the market for his beer in New York, California and Las Vegas. At one point he paused briefly, blushed and apologized that I might find him too ambitious. I chuckled and replied "Don't worry, I am American. Where I come from, l people are not put off by ambition." The Collesi facility is enormous. One of the largest in Italy. Giuseppe is looking at Baladin, Birra del Borgo and Amarcord and wants to over take them all. The four beers Collesi produces? Two blondes, a red and a dark beer. Sound familiar? We left with more beer and clinked our way down off of the top of the Collesi mountain noting that both sides of the country road to Apecchio were dotted with Collesi billboards.

I was really excited. Our next stop was Aqualagna to meet my friend Matteo Fastigi's friend Carlo Cleri. Carlo is the Slow Food author of craft beer in the Marche region. My friendship with Matteo is one of those little miracles that happen sometimes. We have never met in person, but we Skype. Matteo is writing his doctoral thesis on Italian craft beer for the University of Ancora. He is currently in NYC. We never would have met except by a very brief conversation with a professor at Conn College whom I met one day by chance. This professor was lamenting that he had once had a bright Italian student named Matteo who left anthropology to study craft beer. Craft beer? I quickly asked for Matteo's email address. Matteo has been an invaluable resource of info for my beer tour of Italy. I am very grateful for his help! Matteo hopes to work someday for a craft brewery in the US.

Ezio and I met Carlo Cleri at the Bar della Posta in Aqualagna about 30 minutes from Apecchio. Carlo is a big guy with a gentle smile and a deep interest in his region: the culture, the food and wine, and his latest project: craft beer. A former fire fighter with a large complicated scar on his arm to prove it, he now works a desk job at the local fire station. Carlo is a real beer guy. He knows all of the local brewers and is friends with them. A true connoisseur of food and wine, he has now turned that same refined approach towards beer.          .

At the Bar della Posta in Aqulagna the refrigerator was filled with Collesi beer, but Carlo also noted a doppel bock beer called Devastator, produced by a local brewer called Mukkeller. We started with that. Then we made plans to go to a friend's restaurant in Carlo's home town of Cagli about 15 minutes away.  Carlo went home and got three bottles of beer from his personal collection to bring to the restaurant. Oh what a fun beer experience! This beer was truly excellent and exciting! First a saison by a brewery called Le Fate from Ascoli Piceno, then we drank a Brittish style dark beer called Mild the Gap with a slight smokey flavor brewed in the town of Serrapetrona. The brewery is called MC77. Then in a nod to our upcoming travels, we finished with a beer from Torino by Black Barrels Brewery called Kriek dei Puffi. A kriek is a Belgian style beer flavored traditionally with Belgian Morello wild sour cherries. Kriek dei Puffi instead is flavored with wild cherries from Verona. Kriek is a very sour style beer, a bit like drinking vinegar... but it is very good! The restaurant that Carlo took us to was truly exceptional. It is called La Gioconda and his friend, the owner and chef Gabriele Giacomucci prepared us a real treat. Dinner featured an antipasto of fresh ovuli mushrooms. Ezio and Carlo followed with fresh pasta with porcino mushrooms and truffles. I had a carbonara made with fresh truffles. It was so flipping good! Next time in Le Marche we will definitely be going back!

All three of the beers that Carlo brough with him push back valiantly against what I have come to think of as birra noisa, or boring beer. I understand it is important to have a beer that appeals to a large audience. A beer needs to be marketable, drinkable, and go with lots of different kinds of food, but making something "marketable" is a slippery slope. In today's gorgeous, complex world of craft beer, there is no excuse to create... or drink... boring beer.

Next we head out on the road towards Torino, to a small town by the name of Piozzo, to the Mecca of Italian craft beer: Baladin.

Laura Graham