Innovative brewers think outside the hops to create beer-wine hybrids
Drinkers no longer need to choose between wine and beer. As Charlie Friedmann reports, some Canadian brewers are using wine grapes, barrels, yeast and more to flavour their beers
Dogs over cats. Dive bars over clubs. Wine over beer.
Preferences such as these routinely serve as proxy for personality in today's age of social-media bios and digital dating apps. While the first two might be entrenched (and correct!) positions, Canadian brewers are increasingly looking to challenge the binary nature of the third by using winemaking ingredients and techniques to flavour their beers.
Brewers' first small step into the world of wine came with the occasional use of wine barrels to age beers in the past couple of decades, drawing new tastes not only from the wood itself but from the imperceptible bacteria and yeast left behind by the wine. In the past few years, though, producers have gone even further, introducing things like wine lees (the residual yeast left in a tank or barrel after fermenting wine), must (freshly pressed juice containing the skins, seeds, and stems that is the first step in making wine), whole grapes and even finished wine at different stages of the brewing process. Results can vary, but more often than not the beers feature increased acidity and drink more like natural wine than a typical lager or hoppy IPA. It's beer for wine drinkers.
"In the same way that terroir influences wine, more and more brewers are looking outside the normal ingredients for ones that can add a regional distinction," says Tomas Morana, one of the co-owners of Toronto's Birreria Volo and the high-end beer distributor Keep6 Imports. "And we have access to a really interesting wine scene here in Canada, so why not collaborate and do some interesting stuff with those ingredients?"
Nobody in Canada seems to be taking as much advantage of that local wine scene as Toronto's Burdock Brewery. "It really revolves around our relationship with Pearl Morissette," says Matthew Park, Burdock's co-owner and brewery director, referring to the acclaimed Niagara winery. "I remember tasting their 2013 gamay and being blown away by the parallels that it had with farmhouse funky beer. Right away, I said we need to go down there, we need to meet them, we need to swab their barrels, we need to use their yeast. That was kind of a starting point and then we just became great friends."
Burdock soon started to buy used barrels and take the lees from the Pearl Morissette tanks, both of which they used for secondary fermentation and aging of their beer. Eventually, that grew into methodical experimentation with even more ingredients culled from the winery, in every stage of the brewing process.
"We started to develop a really strong appreciation for and love of wine out of our friendship with the team at Pearl, and as beverage makers we take a lot of inspiration from it," says Park. "And sometimes take more than inspiration. We sometimes actually take their wine and use it."
That wine shows up in the brewery's flagship product, Bumo, a blend of farmhouse saison, a fruity and slightly spicy pale ale that forms the base of the majority of Burdock's beers, and wine from Pearl Morissette. The first iteration of Bumo was made in the fall of 2015 with a barrel of pinot noir rosé blended in a 40-60 ratio with a fresh farmhouse saison. A year later, the second version mixed pinot noir and a little pinot noir rosé in the same ratio, but this time with a saison aged for one year in Pearl Morissette barrels. It sold out almost immediately.
For the third iteration, Park and his team took the same blend and let it age in tank for a further four months, all the while exposing it to a controlled amount of oxygen similar to how natural winemakers sometimes make oxidative whites. "It just rounded the whole thing out, it smoothed it out and gave it a bit more sherry character," Park says. "Bumo II was much more bright acid and fruit and this one was round, elegant and nutty."
In Montreal, Brasserie Réservoir is also busy experimenting with winemaking ingredients and techniques thanks to a similar relationship with Pinard et Filles, one of Quebec's new natural wine stars.
So far, Réservoir has released two beers aged on Pinard et Filles lees, but an upcoming release represents possibly the most significant intertwining of wine and beer yet to show up in Canada. Recently bottled after eight months in barrel and set for release on April 16, this experiment combined beer malt and freshly crushed frontenac grapes right from the start.
"What happened is very interesting because they pressed the grapes for us and one of the buckets was in fermentation, so instead of adding yeast the grapes were actually our starter to ferment the beer," says Dominic Goyet, one of Réservoir's co-owners. "It's very complex, a bit winey with nice acidity."
This idea of fermenting beer with the indigenous yeasts found on wine grapes is fairly new worldwide. According to Keep6's Morana, the first notable version came out of Italy just a few years ago with the Piedmontese brewer LoverBeer leading the way.
"The Italians have been infamous in the beer world for sort of colouring outside the lines a bit and they've really done a unique job of taking ingredients around their landscape like wine grapes and incorporating them into beer, especially with this technique of co-fermenting wine grapes and beer," Morana says. "When we brought LoverBeer into the market a lot of local guys were like, 'Holy crap, this is how they're doing this?' So I think that's inspired some people here."
At Vancouver's Brassneck Brewery, head brewer Conrad Gmoser doesn't use grapes to spur the fermentation of his bi-annual wine grape-infused Changeling sour, but he does add them very early on in the process. After a day or two fermenting with yeast derived from wasp guts, the beer is immediately blended with grape must that makes up about 20 per cent of the final beer. In the fall a mix of grenache and cabernet sauvignon to produce a rosé beer, and in spring a combination of white grapes like viognier, riesling and gewürztraminer.
"It doesn't really taste like beer. It's a little more in between wine and cider in terms of the way it drinks," Gmoser says. "With sour beers having a real niche now, I think grapes are a perfect fit. If you look back 10 years ago, fruit beers were really just a kind of flavoured beer. But if you're willing to bring some acidity to the table then that's when you actually get something interesting."
Réservoir's Goyet also notes that their wine-beer hybrids appeal to a different swath of the drinking public. Prior to joining the ownership at Réservoir, Goyet was a co-owner of the now-shuttered high-end Montreal restaurant Hôtel Herman, which was noted for its natural wine list. "Since we were dealing more with wine there, I see with our old customers following us here that these beers please the wine drinkers a lot," he says. "Those guests might not enjoy a nice IPA the same way, but there's definitely a different crowd for these because of their drinkability and facility to pair with food."
Burdock's Park sees a similar reaction both at their on-site bar and restaurant and in the fact that their beers are now featured on menus alongside wines from Pearl Morissette, even making appearances in wine pairings at top Toronto restaurants such as Actinolite and Alo. "Especially because of the connection with Pearl, we get a lot of people who are fans of theirs wanting to try our stuff," he says. "It really is like the bridge for a lot of people between wine and beer."
Those new beer-wine fans were sated once again with the fourth version of Burdock's Bumo, which was released on Feb. 24 and quickly sold out, although it's available to drink on-site at Burdock, and in other select restaurants and bars in Toronto. This time, three different components of Pearl Morissette's cabernet franc were used. "We've kind of dissected it and brought it together again," Park says. This latest combination is of saison, aged for one year in two cabernet franc barrels – one on the lees and the other on the skins – and the actual cabernet franc wine.
The result is a mulberry-shaded beer with a scent that recalls walking through an active winery – full of red currant, green pepper, tobacco, violet and yeasty aromas – and a palate reminiscent of pét-nat gamay with wild and dried strawberries balanced by the complex, tart beer. "This is to me the most intoxicating Bumo," says Jason Stein, Park's partner at Burdock. "It's erotic."
Ultimately, Park believes Burdock's relationship with Pearl Morissette allows them to keep making better beers across the board. "It really is a collaboration, it's not just us making a product with their product," Park says. "We've learned a lot in talking with them about these ideas in making beer or making wine. We're now even having conversations where I try to influence how they make wine."
And that collaboration keeps growing. In just the past few months, Burdock has released Leela, a saison aged on cabernet franc skins; Saison Du Must, aged with pomace from Pearl Morissette's orange wine, and Auko, a sour dark ale aged in cabernet franc barrels with raspberries, sour cherries and cabernet franc skins. Projects with riesling, chardonnay, cabernet franc and pinot noir skins, lees and juice are all currently in progress as well.
"We're continuing to invest more into our beer-wine hybrid program," Park says. "This is something we love. We love Bumo, we love this concept of beer-wine hybrids, and we're over the moon that people love them as well."