As San Francisco’s Belgian Beer month winds down, it’s a good time to consider a growing trend: The small but increasing number of brewers who are flipping the old adage about how it takes a lot of beer to make a great wine. These inventive brewmasters are using wine (in the form of fresh juice or crushed grapes) to make great beers, which are mostly Saisons. The resulting genre-busting, lightly hopped, beer-wine hybrids are yet another delicious foray into the ever expanding world of craft beer.
Now that most of the 2012 grape harvest is safely percolating in winemakers’ fermentation tanks, let’s have a look at what brewmasters have done with their share of this year’s grapey bounty:
Social Kitchen’s Saison du Semillon: This seasonal harvest hybrid is the result of collaboration between Social Kitchen brewmaster Kim Sturdavant and Oro En Paz winemaker James Davids. The two friends worked out a recipe that included the addition of fresh squeezings from 600 pounds of Semillon grapes into a batch of fermenting Saison. The result is a bright, golden 7% ABV ale that seamlessly melds spicy Saison flavors with the juicy depths of Semillon. Kim noted that the food-friendly ale should be on tap at the brewpub for the next three weeks. If you miss this incarnation, there is talk of barrel aging some of the ale and either bottling it or having it available again on draft.
Allagash’s Victoria Ale: Allagash loaded over 200 hundred pounds of crushed Chardonnay grapes directly into a batch of their flagship Belgian wheat beer to create the Victoria Ale. The cloudy, straw-colored brew retains the yeasty Belgian flavor and tight carbonation, but is balanced with crisp, tart pear flavors from the Chardonnay. At 9% ABV, you can lay down a few bottles and see what other flavors the years bring.
Birra del Borgo’s Equilibrista: This hybrid is a mix of the brewery’s Duchessa, an Italian Saison, and a load of Sangiovese grapes. The beer-y must is fermented and bottle conditioned, then the residual yeast is removed and a dosage of Marsala wine, candi sugar, and Duchessa distillate is added to each bottle. Those are the mechanics, but it’s difficult to improve on Google’s Italian-to-English translation from the brewery’s own web site: “A young Chianti is renowned for its strength, a Duchess, she captivates with elegance and together they get married, creating unforgettable alchemy. Dwell in the bottle along with their little yeast that will give fragrance to their marriage. Grow old together, and then the magician Brewer gives them new life with the ritual of the mouth, adding the potion, the liqueur d'expedition, according to an ancient recipe handed down from generation to generation.” It’s like bottled Fellini!
Cantillon’s Gueuze Vigneronne Brasserie: Belgian Lambics are the wild cards of the beer-deck: A barley and wheat wort is fermented with naturally occuring Belgian yeast and a bacteria that, sometimes, adds a mild champagne-like lactic sourness. Cantillon pushed their already-famous lambic over the top by heaping a ton of Italian white Muscat grapes into the mix. The batch is fermented again and finally aged in used burgundy barrels for two years. The finished ale is 5% ABV, mildly sour with a mellow bouquet of apricots, oak, and Muscat. It’s a luscious indulgence.
Dogfish Head’s Nobel Rot: The brewery started this party with a pale spicy Saison-style ale and introduced it to some Pinot Gris must. But it wouldn’t be Dogfish Head without taking it further. For a blast of added character, they also invited Viognier which was infected with botrytis, also known as The Nobel Rot. This fungus is sometimes applied to wine grapes while they are still on the vine to raisin the clusters and intensify the flavors. The resulting 9% ABV farmhouse style ale is gold and translucent, and the rich heady taste is more white wine than Belgian ale.