Make ale-meddling grape again

Where worlds collide, magic happens, finds Sarah Sinclair


As a beer drinker, I enjoy the gooseberry vinous zing of the Nelson Sauvin hop, light spritzy farmhand saisons and grisettes. As a wine drinker (a drink I know significantly less about), please give me white/orange natural wines, especially if they are naturally sparkling. So when I noticed a growing number of beers using grapes, or being marketed as “wine beer” I wondered where my sensibilities would lie as a wine/beer drinker.

On this journey, I’ve tried a series of wine beers, grape ales, beers made using grapes, and beers with purposefully vinous qualities. I’ve tried beers that have varied from tasting just like Shloer to farmhouse ales where the Brett overpowers any use of grapes.

Cuvée ball

It is becoming a tradition to imbibe a Burning Sky Cuvée on New Year’s eve. This annual release first came out in 2016. It’s a top-notch example of a beer taking its vinous qualities from the barrels rather than grapes being used as an ingredient. Head brewer, Mark Tranter, dreamt about this beer for a long time, from days when the brewery was just a twinkle in their mind's eye. They choose their best Saison à la Provision from foudre and from a number of Chardonnay barriques each year, into which they then blend a large portion of Lambic, imported from Belgium and aged at Burning Sky. 

The 2020/2021 release was poignant, as world events made it impossible to source lambic from Belgium for ageing and blending. Last year's release came from 2020’s cuvée blend and was aged a further six months in barrel prior to bottling. It is refined, complex and contemplative. I buy two each year and keep one for the next so they can be enjoyed side by side as we think about the year passed and the year ahead.

Founder, Mark Tranter says: “I do not see our beers as ‘wine beer’. They are modern beers produced in accordance with traditional styles and presented to be shared amongst friends. The point was and is to make beers that are treated with the same reverence as wines are. The same eager anticipation of annual releases and the same sense of social occasion.

“The first Cuvée release was in 2014. It has progressed as we have progressed as a brewery, learning about our beers and processes. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and more so, Brexit, we have not been able to release a vintage since 2020. This beer relies on a portion of lambic from a small producer in Belgium that we age in our barrels prior to blending. Hopefully, we can resume this soon, with the help of a third party.”

Wet your Beak

Burning Sky also took its forays into wine beer to Beak Brewery, with a collaboration that raises a hat to Belgian agricultural seasonal workers and the drinks that keep them going through harvest time. Bière Piquette brings together clean saison from Beak Brewery, mixed fermentation saison from Burning Sky and Pressed Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from Westwell Wine Estates. Dry and spritzy with pleasing light wine flavours, this blurs the boundary between low-intervention beer and natural wine. It was incredibly sippable on an evening in my garden with the dog running wild after a long summer’s working day, though I’m firmly an office worker, not out on any fields. Dare I say you could even turn this beer into Sangria, I’m tempted to buy another bottle to do just that.

Big Shloer energy

In the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, Varvar Brew, a Ukrainian brewery, had its beers imported into the UK and I feel lucky to have got to try some of them. A complete stand out to me was Sweet Child O’Wine it tasted just like white grape Shloer but was potentially troublesome with a 7.9% ABV.

It was made out of a triple collab with Varvar, Heist from the UK and Hoppy Hog from the US. It is a fantastic Sauvignon Grape Ale. Sauvignon Blanc grapes give it a striking aroma of green apples and peaches, it is fresh, crunchy, and with a cool sweetness on the aftertaste.

Balance bar

On a recent trip to Manchester, I was lucky enough to get a guided tour around Balance Brewing & Blending, a relatively new start-up specialising in mixed-culture barrel-fermented beers. One of the beers we sampled straight from the barrel was an iteration of Balance’s saison base, which had been maturing for one year. It already has a lot of oaky barrel character, as well as fruity acidic characteristics from the saison, meaning it tasted just like a chardonnay.

Co-founder James says: “The clearest connection with wine is the barrel fermentation; all of our beer goes through primary fermentation in barrels with a mixed culture of yeast and bacteria. Despite our barrels being filled multiple times previously and then heavily steamed and rinsed before use, there is still a marked contribution of tannins from the wood and which ranges from soft vanillins to a slight coconut-iness depending on the residence time in the barrel. I think this really expressed itself in the Chardonnay-like saison beer Sarah tried that had over a year in barrel. Almost all of our barrels are ex-red wine so there may be a tiny amount of residual character left in them from the wine, although we have tried to minimise this to let our mixed culture shine.”

Back to the land

Duration Brewing’s The Land I’m Bound To is a great example of a clean, smooth farmhouse style growing in complexity with local grape products. It has a shimmering golden hue with a delicate white head, aromas of fresh grape, summer fruits and a light grassiness. This beer was aged in foeder using local, East Anglian Chardonnay grape pomace to add local yeast cultures to a classic farmhouse saison, bursting with tart tropicality and oak.

Duration’s co-founder and Head Brewer, Derek Bates says: “I think wine really compliments beer, especially when stored in wood. It’s like picking hops for a beer; the tartness and flavour of the grape varietal can work really well when considered in conjunction with the overall recipe. 

Wine beer as a concept is great, but you really need to know what you are doing. You can’t just bang it all in a barrel; you need to do your due diligence. Both malt and grapes can oxidise combining them without both considering what they will bring from a flavour perspective to taking the correct care can be a double whammy of disaster.”

My partner treated me to a bottle of Wild Beer’s Pressed For Time, a white grape sour showing how grape and grain can work together. In 2019, Wild bought a large amount of locally grown Chardonnay grapes and foot-pressed them before fermenting a beer on the skins. Similarly, in 2020, it bought some local Reichensteiner grapes that were a lot riper, therefore sweeter, and repeated the process of foot pressing and fermenting on the skins. They then blended these two grape-fermented beers together in one of their oak foeders for four months and added wine lees to further the maturation and flavour development.

Co-founder Brett says: “We have been making wine hybrid beers for at least five years using local Somerset grapes, from within 20 miles of our brewery. At Wild Beer, we are always determined in making sure our beers pair well with food. As we are located next to a dairy, so it made sense that we produced beers that pair perfectly with cheese. We’ve taken on the age-old pairing of wine and cheese, but adapting this to beer by elevating wine flavour and style in our brews. We harvested yeasts off the skins of grapes and have spent time foot-stomping in coolship vats for beers such as Pressed For Time.”

The most modern beer in this venture of mine is Verdant and Duration’s collaboration If We Must. It’s the haziest of all the wine beers I’ve tried and the only one packaged in a can. It’s a heavily hopped beer with El Dorado, Ella and Nelson Sauvin, a holy hop trinity if I’ve ever seen one, giving it notes of gooseberry, candied pineapple and bitter tropics. The addition of fresh pressed Italian white grape juice elevates this IPA into a winey wonder.

Collaborative partner Duration’s co-founder Miranda Hudson says: “We brewed If We Must as a collaborative beer with Verdant and have rebrewed it with slight variations a couple of times since. As a double IPA entirely on the clean side, the pomace was asceptic - pasteurised to kill any wild yeast.”

The final hill

For the last stop in my wine beer escapades (for now!) we’re popping over the pond to Canada’s Sonnen Hill. I’d selected three key beers from across their larger-than-life range of wine beer: Riesling, Blush and Pinot Noir.

Riesling comes second after Balance’s in-progress beer for being the most winey of all the beers I’ve tried on this journey, so thoroughly up my street. This wine beer was made by blending oak-aged saison with Riesling from Hinterland Wine Company. It had classic Riesling aromas of pome-fruit and pineapple with natural, prickly carbonation and a juicy acidity which gave a quenching finish.

Blush with its pink colour and fluffy pink foam it's a spritzy number I’d come back to again. Fuzzy peach, cherry and pear aromas dominate, and a spicy nature came in as the beer warmed. This beer is a great representation of what Canadian ingredients local to Sonnen Hill can create.

Pinot Noir is the only still beer in my venture, further blurring the lines between wine and beer. It was made by blending Beamsville Pinot Noir with Sonnen Hill’s cherry beer. Think of spicy cherry bakewell tarts with a hint of woody pepper coming up as it warms. Its juicy soft tannins add an extra layer of complexity.

As a beer drinker, as a wine drinker, and just as a drinker, these beers and this adventure have shown me that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all of what wine beer is or what to expect if a beer is made with grapes or blended with wine. It’s a testament to brewers' ongoing creativity and working in tandem with local produce and different ingredients to come up with something new for us. I’m fascinated by these experiments and I consider this only the first chapter of my wine-beer adventures.

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