In a previous life, I worked a job where I was required to learn about grape and wine varietals. It is part of what inspired me to blur the lines between wine and beer. Knowing the characteristics of grape varietals has helped me, immensely, with choosing the recipes and grapes that will work best. A brewer wants to accentuate the characteristics of the grapes with a grain bill and hop selection that will make the varietal shine.
Beer-Wine hybrids are on the rise in the United States, with breweries like Firestone Walker, Side Project, Allagash, Sierra Nevada, and Trillium creating expressive beers using whole grapes, juice, and must. These breweries understand the subtleties of brewing beer using grapes: how tannins, acidity, and terroir affect the final product.
Respect must be paid to grapes. It isn’t as simple as just selecting a grape and throwing it in with the beer to age. Each grape varietal has unique and distinct characteristics. These properties should be used to inform a brewer on how to approach creating the beer that will be used with the grapes.
Our first beer-wine hybrid was a blended Connecticut Wild Ale we treated to seven pounds of fresh South African Syrah grapes. I chose Syrah because it has some interesting characteristics – it is dominated by notes of peppercorn and black pepper, a very spicy grape with residual sweetness and notes of blueberry, blackberry, and boysenberry. It is why, when creating it, I chose to blend beer from both of our barrels to create a product that would accentuate these notes.
Contact time, I’ve learned as we’ve made more Beer-wine hybrids, varies. There is no set “age X pounds for X amount of time.” Our Syrah Wild Ale saw a 12 week contact time, whereas our Old Vine Aglianico saw 3 weeks. As mentioned earlier, understanding the varietal will help with figuring out contact time. Like grains, some grapes are used for accenting a wine’s grape bill and some are used as a base grape. Knowing how delicate or strong a grape is will help a brewer determine how long contact time should be.
We’re dedicated to further exploring this hybrid style, so much that we’ve created a line of beers, titled Terroir, that will focus solely on exploring the profiles of different grape varietals and grape blends.