Vine to stein

Wine is the latest ingredient in the craft-brewer’s pantry

Winemakers are faithful to the vine—and that’s it. Besides grapes, they cannot use any other ingredients—fruit, vegetable, animal or spice—in their product and still be allowed to call it wine. Well, they have a few hundred organic and chemical additives at their disposal, but you get the point: Wine, at its heart, is wine, and nothing more.

But for brewers of beer, the world is their pantry and playground. They can add just about anything they want to the stuff they make and still sell it as “beer.” Honey, figs, bacon, coriander, bull testicles, oysters, bananas, tree bark—you name it. All these and more find their way into batches of commercially made beers, which proudly feature such specialty ingredients on their respective labels. While winemakers have been excluded from this creative process, more and more brewers are now, in a way, inviting them into the game by doing something novel—adding wine to their beer.

“Ten years ago, nobody would have thought about combining beer and wine,” said Steve Dresler, brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. “Now, if a brewer can do something, he’ll probably try it.”

While adding varietal grape juice to a fermenting beer is a relatively tame trick compared to other craft-brewing techniques involving barrels, strange fruits, and animal parts, beer-wine hybrids have appeared only recently in the craft-brewing revolution—almost as though such a simple marriage was largely overlooked throughout the height of early 2000s brewing creativity. In the past half-decade though, Dogfish Head, Allagash, Wynkoop, and several other brewing companies have added grapes or grape juice to their brews.

But Blue Moon Brewing Co., one label of the beer giant MillerCoors, took an exploratory stab at the technique 20 years ago, when the Colorado-based facility released a blonde ale with chardonnay juice in the blend. Craft-beer craziness was not yet in full throttle, and the beer, only lukewarmly received, went on hiatus before being reinstated into Blue Moon’s lineup in 2012 (as Vintage Blonde Ale). More recently, Blue Moon released two red-wine ales called Impulse and Crimson Crossing, and a pair of white-wine renditions, called Proximity and Golden Knot.

Allagash has made a pair of similar concoctions since 2006, one with chardonnay, the other with cabernet franc. Called Victoria and Victor ales, respectively, these beers appear each spring on store shelves. Dogfish Head, the East Coast’s biggest weird-beer brewery (making “off-centered ales for off-centered people”) has made Red & White—a Belgian-style witbier fermented with juice of pinot noir, since 2007. More recently, Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot paid homage to the sweet Sauternes wines of France, made using grapes smoldering with a type of fungus called Botrytis cinerea.

In Colorado, Wynkoop Brewing released a beer called Brewjolais Nouveau in the autumn of 2011 on Beaujolais Nouveau Day. The beer was a 50-50 blend of cabernet sauvignon grapes and a brown ale, according to Wynkoop’s brewmaster Andy Brown. The grapes were added after they had begun to ferment.

“We didn’t even add brewer’s yeast,” Brown noted. “It was basically a cabernet with some beer in it.”

Wynkoop made another rendition of the same beer in 2012—a Brewjolais Nouveau using gewürztraminer grapes.

At Sierra Nevada, the closest to a beer-wine blend that the brewery has released is the Ovila Barrel-Aged Dubbel, now available in the brewery’s gift shop. The beer was aged for more than a year in unwashed red-wine barrels, says Dresler, which gave the Belgian-style ale a “winey character” and some subtle tartness.

Dresler notes that brewers, only loosely restricted by industry regulations, are free to explore and expand the boundaries of what we know to be beer.

“In the craft-beer industry, more so than in almost any other beverage industry, there is a phenomenal level of creativity,” he said. “There is so much you can do with beer, and so many things you can add. Wine is such a narrow band in comparison, and there is only so far you can go.”