Experimenting to find the perfect meld of beer and wine
“Beer is made by men, wine by God.” So said Martin Luther.
Though probably the sodden words of an ecstatic wino, we can still grasp what ol’ Luther was babbling about back in the 16th century. Beer has always been a drink for the people, while wine has long been aligned with the elite; one historically slurped shoulder to shoulder from battered steins, the other sniffed from fine crystal on the far edges of the upper crust.
History and a whole lot of classism have driven a wedge between two of civilization’s oldest alcoholic beverages, but now that we’re spoiled with more great things to drink than ever before, upholding that division seems outdated and, frankly, dumb. Why identify as a wine person or a beer person when you can drink best by being both? Even if you don’t agree, an emerging hybrid might help convince you otherwise. As more brewers and winemakers look to each other for inspiration, beer-wine is flirting with its own bastard category.
Last summer, Toronto’s Burdock Brewery [pictured above] released a saison rosé called BUMO, a collaboration with maverick Niagara winery Pearl Morissette. Made from 40 percent Pinot Noir juice and 60 percent saison beer, the strange brew underwent mixed fermentations with wild wine yeasts and bacteria from Niagara and choice saison and brettanomyces cultures before being bottle-conditioned for three months.
BUMO defied classification and flew out of fridges – fresh and rosy with lively acidity and a touch of funk, it was deliciously different.
The animated response to BUMO was testament to the open-mindedness of modern drinkers, but its existence points to the curious and collaborative spirit blurring the lines between the once staunchly divided worlds of beer and wine.
“Why keep things separate? It’s silly,” says François Morissette, winemaker and partner at Pearl Morissette.
“[BUMO] is a nice satellite or a UFO experience, if you will, that keeps us on our toes and on the experimental edge, which is the way we like it. It’s one way of questioning and I think it makes us, at the end, better brewers and better winemakers.”
The craft beer boom has set an industry-wide precedent for playfulness. An arms race for the most monstrous, hop-logged IPA has evolved into what feels like a creative free-for-all. At the same time, a swelling niche for natural, biodynamic, minimal intervention and “alternative” wines is loosening up perceptions about what a good wine should be.
Between the proliferation of wacky fruit beers and sour and spontaneous ales, increasingly experimental barrel-aging programs and the newfound trendiness of microbial persuasion and low-intervention fermentation, beer and wine have more parallels today than ever before.
Brettanomyces, its barn-yardy character generally considered a flaw in wine, has been embraced by craft brewers as a microbial character enhancer along with a flurry of other, friendlier wine yeasts. Barrels that formerly cradled Pinot and Chardonnay, Port and Madeira are being snatched up by brewers looking to make a vinous impression on their ales. Beer is even being served like wine, poured from elegantly labelled large-format bottles into stemware.
Wine and beer have been inching closer together for a while – taste a Flanders red ale like Rodenbach and tell me it isn’t reminiscent of Pinot Noir – but the fermentation of mash and must to create something entirely new is by far the most exciting development in the union of these two very different – and very proud – beverages.
The contemporary commingling of beer and grapes, as far as I can tell, started in Italy about a decade ago when Italian brewers took full advantage of their geography, hatching the imaginative but organic notion of mixing Old World wine with New World brew.
Nicola Perra, the originator of what’s now known as the Italian Grape Ale (IGA), began fermenting grain mash with grape must from indigenous Cannonau and other typical varieties like Malvasia and Vermentino at his Sardinian brewery, Barley.
Small breweries across Italy like Loverbeer and Birra del Borgo began experimenting with wine grapes and in 2015, the IGA was officially recognized as a style of fruit beer by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).
The IGA’s classification is vague, befitting wine-beer’s whimsy: “Many interpretations are possible,” read the BJCP’s flavour guidelines. “As with aroma, grape character (must or winey like) must be present but may range from subtle to medium intensity.”
Considering the spectrum of “wine-like” flavours and the fact that Italian brewers are working with grapes and wild yeasts typical to their region, it’s impossible not to ponder whether an IGA, like a wine, isn’t reflective of terroir.
A sense of place exists in the beer world – lambics are brewed with yeasts indigenous to Belgium’s Zenne valley and Pilsner is named after its birthplace in what’s now the Czech Republic – though provenance has never been taken as seriously as it has in wine. But the rise of craft brewing industry has kicked up perceptions of beer by innumerable notches.
It’s long been taken for granted that wine pairs best with food, or at least with any cuisine more serious than nachos and wings. But anyone who’s ever sipped a stout while tossing back oysters, washed down a sharp cheddar with a bright and bitter IPA or served charcuterie with a spicy, frothy farmhouse ale will tell you different.
Whether in upscale beer joints and trendy restaurants, alongside serious tasting menus or on your backyard picnic table, craft beer has secured a place at the dinner table right next to wine.
“I think that the bomber (750 ml) format for beer has really changed opportunities for pairing. Beer is much more of a sharing thing today than it was even five years ago,” says Paul Hadfield, founder of Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub in Victoria, BC.
“We’re not buying 12, 24 or 36 packs of nameless, flavourless beer any more. From a social perspective it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about flavour and experience – and that also really fits with where food is at today.”
Spinnakers, which opened in 1984 and is considered to be the cradle of the Canadian craft beer movement, brewed one of the country’s first beer-wines in 2014. Called Ortega Blonde, it was a collaboration with Vancouver Island’s Muse Winery inspired by a desire to blur the categories and introduce wine drinkers to a beer familiar enough to get behind.
“Ortega is one of those lesser Germanic varietals, typically blended in Europe. But when brought to the cooler climate of the west, they’re appreciated for what they are – hugely food friendly and great patio wines,” explains Hadfield.
“It was an example of a wine that was finding its home here [in BC] and was a logical choice for blending with our beer. Luckily, we have a couple of friendly winemakers in our neighbourhood who wanted to play and what we came out with at the end of the day was kind of like a beer spritzer – something that was light and bubbly and refreshing. Drinkability was the point.”
Spinnakers, which keeps a winemaker on staff to manage their barrel-aging program and oversee cider-making, plans to release another batch of the Ortega Blonde this spring.
We live in exceptionally thirsty times, but as the number of craft breweries and independent wineries grows, so does the need to create unique products distinguishable from those of the competition.
“There are so many breweries opening up now and they’re all doing the same beer styles,” says Justin da Silva, brewmaster at Kingston’s Stone City Ales.
“I quite often look to wine – the way they structure their flavour, balance and acidity. I think that’s something brewers don’t touch that often, but we should.”
Stone City collaborated with Prince Edward County winemaker Norman Hardie to make a beer-wine called Secret Beach, which they released late last year. Hardie had a batch of County rosé that didn’t get approved by the VQA, but he liked the wine too much to send it to be distilled, which is what often happens to batches of wine that don’t make the cut.
Da Silva, who knew Hardie and the winery’s staff well from late-afternoon excursions to the County’s “Secret Beach” to swim and sip away a long day of work, figured he could make something interesting with the rosé.
“The wine itself, which was a Cabernet Franc, was quite earthy but fruity with a cool, funky acidity to it,” says da Silva. “We figured we could make a beer that would blend well with it, something that had similar characteristics.”
He used a wild strain of yeast to lend funky, fruity and tropical aromas to his base saison, added Nelson Sauvan and Enigma hops for their grape-like qualities and bottle-conditioned the blend for three months to bring it together.
“It ended up being 8.5% and way too drinkable,” laughs da Silva. “We called it Secret Beach because the culmination of Norman Hardie and Stone City really happened there.”
Another batch of Secret Beach is planned for this year, but Da Silva is only starting his vinous experiments.
“I’d like to do some beers using spontaneous fermentation through grapes, like winemakers do,” he says. “We also use a bunch of wine barrels. There’s always going to be some sort of winemaking aspect to our beers.”
The wine and beer industries have been shackled with the rusty but persistent ball and chain of tradition for way too long. While tradition, which is especially important for winemakers, will never let go completely it might loosen its grip enough to tickle innovation and open up to the benefits of collaboration.
“One of the advantages that craft brewers have is that we in North America are not bound by tradition. We sample and we take what we like home and twist it and make it our own,” says Hadfield. “Wine makers look at us and they wish that they had that kind of freedom; they’re very, very bound by style [and] they’re bound by varietals.”
Even as a particularly progressive winemaker, Morissette agrees.
“Wine is limited, beer is not. Our journey as winemakers is a lot more monastic, let me say. We don’t reinvent the wheel. We innovate, yes, but everything we’ve done has been going on for hundreds of years.”
By working together to explore new possibilities, brewers and winemakers are, in a way, rewriting the rules and further democratizing drink. Beer from a wine glass, who would have thought?
“In the wine world, they say ‘it takes a lot of beer to make wine’,” jokes Morissette.
But that makes way more sense than divine intervention.