Bière a la Chàtaigne: chestnuts and beer, a love story

Chestnuts are, even iconographically, one of the unquestionable symbols of fall and winter. But how much do you really know about this love affair?

Simone Massenza
Simone Massenza
birra e castagne

Chestnuts are, even iconographically, one of the undisputed symbols of fall and winter and, though we may have forgotten it, were historically one of the cornerstones of the diet (and above of all of the survival) of half of Europe.

Man has been eating them since, erect, he walked into to the world.


The first to appreciate the enormous potential of the chestnut tree were the ancient Greeks. An abundant production of fruit, a significant source of calories and nutrients, high quality wood on par with oak and olive, and leaves and flowers that could be used for everything from medicine to filling pillows and mattresses. The Greeks developed a true culture around this “Tree of Bread” (similar to beer which was called “liquid bread”), selecting the best varieties and constantly experimenting with new ways to use it in the kitchen.

Could the Latins, the Greeks’ number-one fans, observe this and not rush to include chestnuts in their feasts as well? Never! It was, in fact, under the Roman Empire that the chestnut experienced its greatest geographical expansion. Originally a Mediterranean plant, it was exported to the four corners of the empire, from England to Portugal, becoming omnipresent especially in central-southern Europe.

birra alle castagne


During the Middle Ages, the ubiquitous Cenobitic Monastic Orders (aka the founding fathers of beer), led by the Benedictines, from Italy, improved the plant’s cultivation, reforested foothill areas, and studied preservation and transformation techniques.

The (inappropriately called) barbarian invasions, following the sack of Rome, forced people to abandon rural areas while the concurrent Medieval Agricultural Revolution created a significant demographic surge. In other words, it suddenly became necessary to feed a lot of people… and in the mountains!

The heroic chestnut came to the rescue, growing abundantly and generously where grains struggled and faltered, almost entirely replacing the scarce wheat and the hearty rye. It was nutritious and high-calorie, in a world based heavily on physical and manual labor, and, above all, it was available year-round: fresh in autumn, dried or ground in the other seasons. That’s right, because chestnuts can produce a delicious flour, which is used in all kinds of recipes. Furthermore, contrary to wheat, they could be ground directly at home, after a lengthy drying period, thus allowing the humbler classes of the population to avoid paying the mill tax. It was even possible to make bread or polenta from this fruit when grains were scarce.

Chestnuts thus became, for a long time, the primary food of the lower classes. This dietary habit was exported by the Europeans to the New World as well.


The chestnut, especially in Italy and France, was so important that, like wheat, it was used as money for payment or as a product to be traded with.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, chestnut cultivation alone represented almost 50% of Italy’s fruit production and was one of the most important crops for our neighbors north of the Alps. Chestnuts were now exported worldwide and continued to be used abundantly in cuisine, from royal feasts to everyday meals.

Then, aided by WWII and the subsequent reconstruction, industrialization, and post-war boom, the European population began abandoning their small mountain towns and foothill villages looking for stability and better living conditions, causing the chestnut’s rapid decline and fall, in terms of both its production and use. It took only a few decades for us to completely forget how important the chestnut had been for centuries.


So it remained until 1992, when a beautiful love story, in true “love at first beer” style (don’t say I’m not romantic) was born; a story which is definitely worth telling.  Dominique Sialelli was a proud Corsican, but, like many islanders, he had to emigrate and abandon his island for economic reasons.

He got a job in Paris, the glittering capital of the French-speaking world, where he met a Norman named Armelle, whom he fell in love with and married. Every summer the two would return to Petra Serena (or Pietraserena), in northern Corsica, a small town with a population of only 76 and where the Sialelli family had its roots. And every year, in September, it became harder and harder to leave. A sort of Call of the Wild, à la Jack London, was consuming Dominique.

But what was there to do in Corsica? Especially now… with a family. Corte (or Corti), historic and cultural capital of Corsica, summer 1992, exterior evening. I Muvrini are performing, one of the most well-known world music and Corsican folk music groups. It’s a hot, August evening…very hot. The music is loud and it’s crowded. Dominique and Armelle are thirsty. They sit down on a bar’s terrace and order a beer. That’s when they realize, for the first time, that… Eureka! There are no Corsican beers! No brewery exists (or has ever existed) on the island! Like true, young and foolish dreamers… maybe this is their chance!

birra alle castagne


But what kind of beer should they make to produce a truly Corsican product, one rooted in this region and capable of embodying its identity?

Corsica is a rugged mountain in the middle of the sea. There aren’t many spaces dedicated to agriculture: along the coast vegetables and towards the summit olives and chestnuts.

Grains (essential for beer production) are lacking. Thus an ancient French-Italian tradition, of which the island is a perfect amalgam, comes to the rescue: the chestnut! If it was possible to make bread and polenta from its flour (common throughout Corsica), then why not try to brew it? Chestnut flour has a significant amount of starch (50% in the form of fermentable sugars, if converted to simple sugars), and protein (6%, essential for the foam), almost comparable to that found in grains.


A year to get organized, two years of research, recipes, and trials, and finally, in 1995, the first Pietra wort (in honor of the town of origin) was produced. A chestnut Amber Lager with 6% ABV and an #Intriguing character (and if you still don’t know what I’m talking about, hurry and take the Taste Test): amber, clear, full bodied, well-balanced, delicately bitter, and with notes of chestnut flower and honey. 

The first chestnut beer in history was born, the Bière à la Châtaigne, on which the Americans then based the dictates of the new “Chestnut Ale” style (improperly called such as it is bottom fermented). Chestnuts do not entirely replace the use of malt (otherwise it wouldn’t be beer), but are blended with it in variable percentages, from 2% to 50%.

The following year Dominique and Armelle opened their brewery, the Brasserie Pietra, in Furiani, Haute-Corse. The chestnuts which are used come from a single chestnut grove in Castagniccia (true to its name), located in the north-east of the Island at more than 1000 meters above sea level. Here the fruits are gathered entirely by hand, transported to the facility on the back of a donkey (it’s more traditional that way!), and selected one by one, to obtain an extremely high quality flour that’s 100% local and natural and has zero impact on the environment. The care and attention that the two dedicate to their beloved Corsica and to the environment is, to this day, the project’s defining trait, so much so that, having been recognized as a Production Facility that Safeguards the Environment by France, Pietra is also among the first breweries to invest in, as early as 2011, the creation of a CO2 recovery system that reduces the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The facility is able to recover almost all of its annual requirements, thus eliminating not only direct emissions, but also direct emissions related to transport.

birra e castagne


Today, with its 50,000 hl (2,500 when it first started), 50 employees, and a revenue of €16 million, the brewery is one of the island’s most financially significant projects as well as one of the most virtuous for the planet. When it’s the right season, chestnut beer can be obtained directly from the fresh fruit, as long as it’s cooked. These can be boiled (maintaining neutral characteristics) or roasted (which adds a smokey aroma).

As compared to a normal lager, in addition to the primary aromatic qualities, chestnuts add bitterness, soften the body, and make the foam delicate and creamy. Aside from Corsica, and France in general, chestnut ale has truly taken root in only two other countries: Italy and the US. Without negating its origins, Italy is proud to be the number one producer of chestnut beer since 2011, when Birra Busalla (Savignone, GE) began selling Castagnasca, in authentic Bière à la Châtaigne style. Today Italy is the only country in the world to have dozens and dozens of chestnut beers, both stable and seasonal, and, though it fully acknowledges the paternity, is the country that is most representative of this style.