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Beer Versus Wine, or a Cooperative Relationship?
By Jim Clarke
Mar 15, 2016
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California is densely packed with craft breweries, as is Oregon, to the north, and Washington, more northerly still…the whole West Coast of the U.S., really.  As it happens, those three states also make up most of the U.S.A.’s wine industry (the other major wine-producing state being New York, actually).  Are wine and beer competing?

Perhaps a bit; but the notion that they’re cooperating would be more like it.  After all, there’s a saying among winemakers:  “It takes a lot of beer to make a good wine.”  Being able to get away from wine seems to be an important part of a winemaker’s day.  In fact, a winemaker friend in Washington once complained to me about not being able to keep any beer at the winery because of state regulations; he has to wait until he gets home before he cracks one open (laws are different in Oregon and California).

While winemakers seem by-and-large to be happy with having some good breweries in their midst, brewers are actually finding inspiration in the work of their winemaking neighbors.  Firestone Walker, in Paso Robles, California, decided that their brewery should be lined with barrels like the local wineries, developing their Double Barrel Ale in the process.  The moderately toasted American oak barrels add just what you’d expect:  Smoke and vanilla notes.  Co-owner Adam Firestone actually comes from a winemaking family, and worked at their eponymous Firestone Winery previous to going into brewing.  (Incidentally, Moa Brewing Company, in New Zealand, was similarly founded by the son of a winery founder, Josh Scott.)

A desire to ferment the beer inside the barrels, the way much Californian Chardonnay is made, led Firestone Walker to create the U.S.’s only Burton Union system.  During primary fermentation, beer foams a lot more than wine, and would burst out of the barrel if the brewery didn’t interconnect all the barrels with tubes to catch the overflow.  This system was used by many brewers in Burton-on-Trent in England for a long time, but has mostly fallen out of use.

Korbel founded Russian River Brewing in 1997, but changed their mind five years later, selling the brewery to Brewmaster, Vinnie Cilurzo, who also comes from a winemaking family.  Today, Russian River buys used wine barrels from local wineries to age three of their beers:  Consecration, Supplication, and Temptation.  They are aged in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, respectively, and the residual wine soaked into the barrel does seep into the beer.

However, Vinnie does do something else with these beers that makes his winemaking neighbors nervous; he inoculates them with Brettanomyces yeast (and some acid-creating bacteria).  “Brett,” as it’s known, plays a part in several traditional beer styles.  Most winemakers these days go to great lengths to avoid brett and the earthy, horse-blanket aromas it creates, though, and some winemakers avoid visiting the brewery or are at least careful not to get near the brettanomyces-brewed beers there out of fear of bringing the yeast back to the winery.

Once you get into Oregon and Washington there’s no lack of great breweries -- in fact, there seem to be even more -- but the influence of wine seems to fade.  The Willamette Valley, in Oregon, is just a half-hour drive from Portland, and is known to many American craft beer fans as “Beervana” for its huge number of breweries, brewpubs, and bars.  However, few local brewers seem to look to fermenting grape juice for inspiration; a barrel-aged beer appears here or there -- at Hair of the Dog or Full Sail, for example -- but in both these cases those are bourbon barrels, not wine. 

The influence of wine on craft beer has reached past wine country, and beyond the barrel, too.  Dogfish Head, in Delaware, has made a number of hybrids, brewing together grape juice and wort (as the fermentable liquid flushed from the grains is called).  They brew their “Red & White” by blending together a Belgian-style witbier with Pinot Noir juice, fermented and aged together.  Owner Sam Calagione calls their “Noble Rot,” which includes must from botrytis-infected Viognier  grapes, “The absolute closest to equal meshing of the wine world and the beer world that’s ever been done commercially.”

Many Italian brewers have also made grapes part of their toolkit.  One quarter of Birra del Borgo’s is Malvasia must, sourced from Tentua di Bibbiano in Chianti, and their L’Equilibrista is 50% Sangiovese.  Both are fermented with champagne yeasts.  Nonetheless, drinkers are not going to mistake any of these for wine, even though the L’Equilibrista has a definite tannic edge; the textures are very much those of beer.  Probably the most vinous of the bunch is Beerbera, made with 50% Barbera must by the oddly-named Loverbeer outside Turin.  Not only does the grape’s contribution come through clearly, the beer is brewed with not just yeasts but also lactic bacteria, making it a “sour ale” with a supporting thread of acidity.