Iain McOustra’s “ah-ha” moment happened over a few glasses of Riesling when he was touring the Beamsville Bench appellation about seven years ago. “The winemakers I met there had such reverence for their ingredients and that’s something that I was drawn to,” says McOustra. “After I got to know some of the winemakers, I just thought it would be a good idea to use some of their ingredients in my beers.”
McOustra, a brewer at Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing Company, is a pioneer in an emerging beer style in Canada, beer/wine hybrids, or as I like to call them — vinales.
Crossovers in beer and wine aren’t new. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of ancient beverages that incorporated grains, grapes and honey. In the mid-1700s the English invented vinous barley wines in part because supplies dried up during wars with the French. Sparkling ales often use champagne yeasts and techniques.
Today’s modern day vinale movement was inspired by looking to these ancient ales. The beer style first got noticed in 1999, when Delaware brewery, Dogfish Head, released Midas Touch, an ale brewed with Muscat grapes, barley, saffron and honey. The beer was based on a recipe created by the brewery’s founder Sam Calagione and archeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern, after investigating trace ingredients found on crumbling, 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from King Midas’s tomb. Today, the beer is widely available in the US as one of Dogfish’s year-round ales.
Here in Canada, brewers and wineries are just beginning to explore vinales. And rather than chucking in every wine ingredient they can find, or looking back to the ancients for inspiration, these oenophile beer makers are partnering with nearby appellations and tapping into ascending wine trends to create vinales with deliberate restraint, subtlety and elegance.
McOustra started out simply — aging different styles of beers in wine barrels from biodynamic vineyards in the Niagara region. He favours barrels with traces of funky, wild bacteria that impart horsey, puckering sour notes coveted in wild beers. McOustra wants the barrels fresh, so when Ross Wise — who is now an independent consultant and the winemaker at Keint-he Winery and Vineyards in Prince Edward County — sources a spent wine barrel that fits the bill, he gives McOustra a call.
“When Iain approached me about collaborating, I was really keen,” says 34-year-old Wise. “In winemaking, we only get to make one product once a year, but brewing is like coming up with a recipe; you just try it and just see how it goes.”
“I pick up the barrel that day and have a beer ready to put right in,” says McOustra. “It’s pretty interesting because there’s going to be a lot of different wild yeasts and bacteria in the lees,” says McOustra.
His philosophy? “Brew the beer for the barrel.”
“Sometimes I’ll brew a beer a little sweeter knowing that the lees and the wild yeast will dry it out. But sometimes you want the drying effect — I brewed a rye peppercorn saison for a Cab Franc barrel and it was meant to be bone dry.”
These days McOustra’s experimenting goes way beyond barrel aging. Ontario vintners are sending him half-fermented grape juice, lees harvested from the barrels, oak chips and grape skins. The 32-year-old brewer uses them to create hybrids like Rip and Run, a boozy, full-bodied porter with swirling notes of cherries and prune, hints of tobacco and bacon with a subtle tannic finish thanks to Coyote Run Pinot Noir grape skins thrown in for a few minutes near the end of the beer’s boil. This month, the brewery will release bottles of Domestic Disturbance, in collaboration with Steam Whistle brewer, Erica Graholm. For a Belgian ale fermented with 100 per cent Brettanonymces yeast, the funky flavours are subtle; aromas of ripe, juicy melon and pineapple, lemon rind and pepper dominate. The wine skins, which were added in the secondary fermenter for just three weeks, make their appearance in the full mouthfeel and silky vanilla finish.
Most brewmasters don’t get this much freedom to play around, but as the head of Amsterdam’s Brewery’s Adventure Series of beers McOustra has the enviable job of experimenting on one batch of beer after another. He spends most days at Amsterdam’s new brewpub, which opened at Queen’s Quay, on Toronto’s waterfront this June (they’ve usually got a vinale on tap).
Barrel aging in wine casks is a growing trend in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. In BC, Driftwood Brewery uses wine casks repeatedly to condition styles as diverse as an Oude Bruin to a Weissbier. Kelowna’s Tree Brewing is partnering with local winery Quails’ Gate, using its clean, seven-year-old Foch barrels to age a variety of its beers twice every season. The next vintage in its Redwood Wine Barrel-Aged Ale series will be released for the Okanagan Wine Festival in October. In Ontario, Toronto’s Bellwoods Brewery usually has a few barrel-aged versions on tap or for sale, and this year they’re going into full-on hybrid territory. “We’re working with Paul Pender from Tawse at this year’s fall harvest,” says Mike Clarke, co-owner and co-brewer. “We’ll most likely be using Gewürztraminer and Merlot musts in two separate beers. We’re also planning to propagate wild yeasts from certain barrels at Tawse to play around with mixed fermentations.” Look for these at the brewery near the end of this year.
Like Amsterdam, most of the vinales coming out remain firmly in the beer category. The vintages have more body and mouthfeel than anything else — thick, milkshake-like heads and fuller, more tannic or silky bodies — while the wine flavours remain in the background, revealing themselves in layers as the beer opens up.
When a brewery hits on a distinctive style of wine and pairs it with the right style of beer, the results will woo beer and wine lovers alike. This is the case with Le Trou de Diable’s award-winning La Dulcis Succubus, a rare and very popular sour saison released a few times each year. The Shawinigan, Quebec brewery came up with the vinale after it scored a steady supply of Sauternes barrels from a top California producer. The white wine is made with grapes that have been infected by noble rot, a fungus that shrivels them, concentrating their sweetness and creating honey, nutty and tropical fruit notes.
La Dulcis is put straight into the freshly used barrels, with traces of noble rot and lees, and aged for six to eight months. The bubbly saison smells like a heady pear cider with ripe apricot notes, snappy pepper and juniper, a subtle blue-cheese funk and a long, dry orange peel finish. The match of a snappy, dry saison with a sweet but wild white wine is a perfect marriage.
Brewers often look for complementary flavours when choosing wines and beer styles to meld together. For example, Merlot’s tannins and notes of black cherry and cigar tobacco enrich the chocolate and coffee aromas exemplified in stouts and porters. But last year, one brewer hit on the idea of brewing a pure beer that tastes like a wine.
In Toronto’s Mill Street Brewery’s summer mix-pack are bottles of its second batch of Don Valley Bench — a beer that Peter Bodnar-Rod, sales director at 13th Street Winery and industry liaison at the International Sommelier Guild, challenged the brewery to design for the Cool Climate Chardonnay Festival held in Niagara every July.
Brewmaster Joel Manning decided not to incorporate any Chardonnay ingredients. “We are brewers, so we wanted to work with traditional beer ingredients,” he explains. Instead he’d mimic the crisp, clean, fruit-focused flavours of a cool climate Chardonnay by altering brewing techniques.
He turned to 30-year-old brewer, Bridgid Young, for help because of her five-year stint working back-to-back vintages as a winemaker in Niagara and New Zealand.
The pair decided on wheat and very pale malts for a biscuity flavour and creamy body, and left a portion of the wet grain out to “sour,” dropping its pH closer to that of wine and encouraging a vibrant acidity. “We fermented it on a Burton Ale Yeast because it brings attributes of minerality, and esters of pears and apples, which are very common in cold-climate Chardonnays, and added some French oak,” says Young.
Young was understandably nervous to pour pints for a room full of her ex-colleagues — sommeliers and winemakers who had been drinking nothing but Chardonnay for three days.
“The beer somehow managed to find the freshness of a Chardonnay, its creaminess and mid-weight, with yeasty tones clearly present,” says Bodnar-Rod. Of all the beers Mill Street brought, the kegs of Don Valley Bench were drained first. “The idea was a little bit crazy, and maybe not even realistic,” he says, “but somehow they managed to do it.”