At my friend Melody Lee’s (aka Gourmet Princessa) sublime Italian extra virgin olive oil tasting event last month, I also sampled Collesi Imper Ale, a premium Italian craft beer line not yet available on the West Coast. I’m a passionate, ever-curious/thirsty craft beer aficionado; Melody knew this, and didn’t want me to miss this exclusive preview. I was not disappointed: these unique, delicious farm-to-table Collesi beers will be a welcome addition to the enthusiastic, wildly expanding San Francisco beer scene.
The family-owned Collesi brewery’s backstory is particularly interesting, as we learned from a special slide presentation that night. The Collesi family has been farming since 1870 in Apecchio, a charming medieval mountain town in Italy three hours northeast of Rome by car, in the Marche region. About twenty years ago, young Giuseppe Collesi started making grappa, a strong (70-120 proof), fragrant brandy distilled from the grape skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process. Giuseppe’s grappa was such a hit at his Mother’s bed and breakfast that he opened the region’s first distillery on the Collesi property to make more! After creating award-winning grappa for 13 years (and still being produced today), Giuseppe turned his attention to another passion: Belgian style beers. Teaming up with renowned Belgian brewer Marc Knops (who has worked with Belgium’s Achel Trappist brewery and more), Giuseppe brewed his first beer in 2007. Since that time, Collesi has further refined his craft: Collesi Imper Ales are garnering attention in Italy and the world, winning beer awards in Europe and at the World Beer Championships in Chicago.
Following traditional Belgian Trappist beer-making methods, Collesi Imper Ales finish their fermentation in the bottle, unfiltered, leaving some yeast sediment at the bottom. These colorful, hazy brews are therefore full of complex flavors, aromas and character. Adding to their uniqueness: the Collesi brewery uses fresh spring water from nearby Mount Nerone, which is high in limestone mineral content. Collesi also grows their own hops and barley on their surrounding farmland; the barley is malted nearby as well, making this a truly locally-sourced farm-to-table beer. Giuseppe has recently expanded his brewery operation, and hopes to welcome guests to his mountain top brewery overlooking the green valleys below. The Collesi brewery’s town is now reinventing itself as Apecchio the Beer Town, hoping to attract visitors/connoisseurs/brewers interested in traditional local foods, beer pairings, agriculture, and of course the beautiful natural landscape. I’m so ready: let’s go!
Back to the San Francisco preview tasting: the complete Collesi Imper Ale lineup consists of six varieties, spanning the spectrum from light to dark. Throughout the evening, we tasted four of them, which Melody had specially shipped in from Chicago for the event. (Collesi is not yet available in California, and has only made it as far west as Chicago, Dallas, and Las Vegas.) One of the four cases of sleek, wine-sized 750ml bottles actually didn’t make it (crushed in transit, how tragic!), so there was even less of this rare liquid on hand! Luckily, each bottle had a newfangled resealable plastic top that locks the bubbles inside, if we didn’t, you know, finish every precious last drop. None would go to waste, either way. Whew!
I started with the lightest of the four beers: Bionda, a refreshing golden ale that was perfect for the unusually warm SF summer night. Bionda was mildly hoppy, with nice citrus overtones, and a clean, slightly biscuit-like finish. At 6% abv, it was soft yet satisfying. Collesi suggests pairing Bionda with spicy pasta and/or seafood.
Next up: Ambrata, a copper-colored amber ale, was sweeter and maltier (with Amber, Munich and Pilsen malts) than a typical West Coast amber ale. I enjoyed the complex dried fruit flavors coming through, and the 7.5% abv kept the sweetness grounded a bit, balancing the overall taste. Collesi calls this their “all-around” beer, which pairs especially well with foods like grilled meats. During our meal that evening, I sipped Ambrata with our perfectly chewy main dish of Gluten-Free Risotto with Mixed Vegetables, and found it to be a fine match.
Then things got even more interesting, as the darker, ruby-colored Rossa filled my glass (a third of the way up, since this was, after all, just a tasting). We were now into Belgian strong ale territory at 8% abv, complete with robust caramel flavors and scents, a welcome touch of bitterness, and a lip-smacking long finish reminiscent of cherries and hazelnuts. I wanted to explore these flavors a bit longer, so I went back for another intriguing splash. This is apparently Giuseppe Collesi’s personal favorite Imper Ale. It’s won a gold medal several times at the World Beer Championships in Chicago, including this year. Collesi recommends pairing Rosso with desserts, a cigar, or of course you can simply enjoy it on its own after dinner.
I ended the night with my favorite beer out of the four: Nera, a stout, bursting with tiny creamy bubbles and tons of yummy tastes, from banana to coffee and cocoa and back again. Black velvety smooth and full-bodied (also 8% abv like Rossa), it mirrored flavors found in recent whiskey barrel-aged California porters I’ve tried. The complex tastes shifted over time with each sip, but were all highly enjoyable. I would definitely buy Nera, and um, possibly marry it. OK, maybe I’d share it with friends, served with dark chocolate-covered desserts. Maybe…
Collesi also makes Triplo Malto, a Belgian Tripel style ale (9% abv), and Chiara, a lighter, fruitier golden ale than Bionda (but also at 6% abv, like Bionda). These were not on hand for this tasting event, however.
The world of alcohol sales and distribution laws in America, and particularly in California it seems, is a complicated one. I know several smaller Bay Area breweries are trying to get our more archaic and restrictive laws changed to allow greater access to their craft beers. Otherwise, the fear is that heavyweights of the American beer industry may push them off the store shelves. I’m hoping that Melody’s friend and client, Giacomo Maggiaro, President of Agriland Italia (USA), an Italian food and wine importing/consulting company based in New York City, can help to bring these excellent Collesi Imper Ales out here. Until then, Melody has limited access to these delicious beers, and is planning future Gourmet Princessa food pairing events with Collesi beer. I recommend following her on Facebook page so you won’t miss out. Hope to see you at the next one!