Brewers and winemakers are reaching across the (liquor store) aisle to achieve that "trifecta of hazy cider, funky beer and natural wine that’s so popular now."
On a recent visit to the Finger Lakes, I came across Wagner Valley Brewing Company, a Lodi, New York-based craft brewery that shares a campus with the award-winning Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery. They were pouring a fuschia-hued Berliner Weisse called Skin Deep, brewed with Cabernet Franc grape skins from their neighbor’s rosé. The first sip was surprising—complex yet crushable, its lively sour bite balanced with a delicate white wine fruitiness. It was like the Shania Twain of beer, a crossover that managed to elevate, not muddle.
Luckily for anyone as interested in this hybrid brew as I was, Wagner Valley Brewing Company is not alone in its unorthodox pours. Wineries and breweries across the country— from major players to upstarts—are experimenting with franken-beverages with great success. And blurring the line between wine and beer isn't just a delicious endeavor; it represents a more innovative, creative future where both producers and consumers are free to reach across the (liquor store) aisle.
“When we started in 2008, the idea was to disrupt an ancient, stodgy industry,” explains Ben Parsons, CEO and winemaker at The Infinite Monkey Theorem, an urban winery with locations in Denver and Austin. To achieve this, Parsons looked to craft breweries like Oskar Blues, which broke the craft mold by canning their beer in 2002. “We were the first to keg wine and the first to put it in a 250 ml can. We live in Colorado—everyone’s camping, skiing, climbing. You need something you can pack in and pack out and wine is perfect for that.”
As expected, their low-key Denver facility fits right into its hip, brewery-ridden neighborhood. “To me, it's a logical progression to embrace a taproom vibe rather than a pretentious tasting room,” continues Parsons. “There's beer on every corner, so why not have wine on every corner?”
IMT’s Dry Hopped Sauvignon Blanc, a zesty refresher bursting with tropical fruit, embodies the company’s ethos. “It’s another maneuver,” says Parsons. “We wanted to develop something that utilized the natural aromatics of both the Citra hop and the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which is grassy and citrusy.”
“It’s very unique, and it’s going to take time for people to accept it, but so far, so good,” he says of his IPA-tinged creation. “We're never going to stop trying to make wine fun again.”
Jim Koch, founder, brewer and Chairman of Boston Beer Company (a.k.a Sam Adams) is all about thinking outside the box too, as evidenced by the Sam Adams Utopias series, now in its 10th year. To create this annual crossover release, the team carefully blends different barrel-aged brews, some having lingered on the wood for upwards of 24 years. Sourcing beer from Bourbon, White Carcavelos, Ruby Port, Aquavit and Moscat barrels, 2017’s 28 percent ABV release is more akin to a bold fortified wine than any beer.
“As big brewers were making their beers lighter, I was curious about the other end of the spectrum,” says Koch, recounting his decades-old entry into barrel-aging. “My original idea for Utopias was to brew an extreme beer unlike anything any brewer had conceived. By aging in Ruby Port barrels, among others, the beer takes on those rich notes of dark fruit and subtle sweetness.”
One of the world’s most coveted beers, Utopias has wide-reaching appeal. “People who perhaps don’t consider themselves beer drinkers may enjoy Utopias with its Sherry, Cognac and Port influences,” says Koch. “It challenges what people traditionally think of as beer but it’s definitely a beer—that’s what’s so thrilling!”
New Belgium Brewing specialty brand manager Andrew Emerton sees a lot of the industry itching to chase that thrill. “Some brewers are getting bored of beer,” he admits. “When we hang out, we often drink wine. It's this new frontier that we're all really curious about.”
The Colorado-based brewery was among the first American breweries to age sour beer in foudres, massive oak barrels used for winemaking. Today, they maintain a forest of foudres, and the puckery, funky brews gurgling inside them have developed a strong following. Because they’re subject to the barrels' distinct, unpredictable microbial makeups, these beers have a lot in common with wine. “Like with vintages, there’s an understanding that this year’s release will be slightly different than last year. A lot of beer is seen as a commodity, something that should always be the same, but with these, variability is part of the romance.”
At New Belgium, there’s something for every wine-tuned palate. “The Sour Saison is the gateway. It really hits that trifecta of hazy cider, funky beer and natural wine that’s so popular now,” says Emerton of their latest Champagne-esque release, a zippy farmhouse and foudre-aged Golden ale blend. “The Wood Cellar Reserves are much more aggressive, especially the dark sours. They’ve got that big Barolo-like red wine character.”
Field Recordings winemaker Andrew Jones knows a thing or two about that trifecta. His Paso Robles winery puts out single vineyard releases from otherwise overlooked sites, often incorporating natural and unconventional processes. Fun, of course, is a major motivator. “We’re trying to make soulful wines and do some unique things from time to time,” he says. “Keeps things fun in the cellar.”
Much like his fellow innovators, Jones isn’t worried about alienating wine’s old guard. “We’re trying to bring some of that craft beer energy into boutique wine,” he says. “You get some funny looks, but they typically come from people who aren’t my ideal client anyway. They’ve most likely been drinking the same Chard or Cab for the past 20 years.”
Field Recordings’ 2017 Dry Hopped Pét Nat stands out among its many category- defyiers . To make this hazy, lemony bubbler, Jones added Nelson Sauvin hops, known for their pineapple, melon and white wine notes, to a sparkling Chardonnay made in the ancestral pétillant- naturel style. He got the idea years ago while working on a hopped cider. A quote on the label reads, “Best experiment ever.”