Grapes are the inspiration behind a trendy beer style that is bringing the worlds of wine and beer together: new hybrids that are seducing hopheads and oenophiles alike.
Beer-wine hybrids – or vinales, as I like to call them – are beers made with one or more wine ingredient. They range from subtle and beer-forward versions, such as a porter aged in a cabernet franc barrel, to more grape-centric fusions, such as Dogfish Head's snappy saison, made plump and fruity with juices from viognier and pinot gris grapes. In 1999, Dogfish began experimenting with hybrids and now the Delaware brewery is at the forefront of a vinale movement, which is flourishing south of the border and in Belgium and Italy.
Crossovers in beer and wine are not new. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of ancient beverages that incorporated grains, grapes and honey. The English invented strong barley wines in the mid-1700s in part to compensate for diminishing red-wine supplies during scuffles with the French.
Vinales are on the rise today as more and more craft-beer drinkers seek out new, complex flavours. The style is just catching on in Canada, with a few oenophile brewers looking to nearby appellations to concoct a handful of homegrown hybrids.
But it could eventually overtake the wildly popular trend of aging beer in spirit barrels, which can leave the drinker choking on a mouthful of ashy peat or breathing Jack Daniels after an 11-per-cent bourbon stout. Winemaking ingredients bring a subtle finesse to the glass, adding a layer of flavour and mouth-feel to beer. They can beef up an ale's body, offer a hint of wild-wine funk or provide a silky tannic finish.
Canada's vinale pioneer is Toronto's Iain McOustra, the head of Amsterdam Brewery's experimental beer department, the Adventure Brews Series. McOustra was one of the first in the country to put barley and grapes in the same brew pot more than two years ago – since then, he has made more than 50 "vintages."
Vintners send him half-fermented grape juice, lees (residual yeast) harvested from the barrels, oak chips and grape skins. The 32-year-old uses them to create hybrids such as Rip & Run, a boozy, full-bodied porter with a subtle tannic finish, thanks to the addition of pinot noir grape skins – from Niagara-on-the-Lake's Coyote's Run Estate Winery – near the end of the beer's boil.
McOustra's vinales are deliberately restrained, using one or two winemaking techniques or ingredients at a time. "The goal is to add to another aspect to the beer, as opposed to the wine hitting you over the head," he says.
Amsterdam's Goedemorgen is a cloudy Belgian ale that spent a year in a yeasty Flat Rock Cellars chardonnay barrel. Made in small batches, this easy sipper has a hint of chardonnay flavour that would easily win over wine and beer aficionados alike.
Like McOustra, a number of brewers are cultivating relationships with local and international wineries to secure the materials they need for vinales. Le Trou du Diable, a craft brewery in Shawinigan, Que., came up with La Dulcis Succubus, a rare and popular saison after it scored a steady supply of sauternes barrels from a top California producer. The saison is fruity and slightly sour, with aromas of pear cider, ripe apricot and a blue-cheese funk, thanks to the wild yeast used to shrivel sauternes grapes, which is left in the barrel.
Complementary flavours are important 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, Mill Street Brewery hit on the idea of brewing a pure beer that tastes like a wine. This May, as part of its summer mix pack, it will release its second batch of Don Valley Bench Estate – a beer it made for the 2012 International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, during which sommeliers and winemakers from around the world tour the Niagara Peninsula.
"We are brewers, so we wanted to work with traditional beer ingredients," brewmaster Joel Manning says. To mimic the crisp, clean, fruit-focused flavours of a cool-climate chardonnay, he turned to 29-year-old brewer Bridgid Young, who spent five years as a winemaker in Niagara and New Zealand.
They used wheat and very pale malts for a biscuity flavour and weightier body, similar to chardonnay, amped up the acidity and added some French oak. The result was a soft, silky ale with a chardonnay's creaminess, zingy acidity and tree-fruit flavours. It was a hit: Mill Street brought a handful of its beers to the festival, but the sommeliers drained the two kegs of Don Valley Bench first.
"It bridged the gap perfectly," Young says. The drink has the middleweight heft of a chardonnay along with its deliberately restrained signature flavours, but it is most definitely a beer first – bubbly, thirst-quenching and refreshing. "Plus, after two days of drinking only chardonnay, the only thing you want to do is crush beers."
A tasting sample
Redwood Wine Barrel Aged Ale
Tree Brewing, B.C.
The brewery's Cutthroat Pale Ale was aged for more than 100 days in clean Foch barrels from Quail's Gate in Kelowna. Available at the brewery, and in a few private liquor stores in Kelowna and Vancouver in early May. $14.95/750-ml bottle.
Big Dog Porter
Neustadt Springs Brewery, Ont.
Made using Pelee Island Winery Merlot, this coffee-forward porter has notes of dark cherry, chocolate and an umami-like meatiness. $2.70/473-ml can at the brewery, and on tap at better beer bars in Southern Ontario.
Le Trou de Diable, Quebec
The brewery bottles fewer than 500 cases of the sauternes-barrel-aged beer each year. Look for the latest batch in finer wine and liquor stores in Quebec and Alberta, and in a handful of Ontario beer bars. Retail prices from $20 to $25/750-ml bottle.
La Tante Tricotante
Microbrasserie du Lac St-Jean, Quebec
Aged in fresh Napa Valley chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon barrels, this ale is a beauty – a full body with notes of raspberry and pear, a peppery snap, earthy backbone and a drying, lemon peel finish. At the brewery, $9.95/500-ml bottle.
Amsterdam Brewery, Ontario
Spending six months in a chardonnay barrel with lees gives this Belgian golden ale a milkshake-like head, full body and bold peach and apple flavours with hints of oak, lemon peel and barnyard funk. In Amsterdam's retail store now, $8.95/650-ml bottle.