Grape and grain: How drinking beer taught me to love wine more
Susan Boyle, on how brewing beer gave her a deeper appreciation of wine
Wednesday 15 September 2021
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Drinking and learning about beer and brewing made me fall head over heels back in love with wine. Naturally fermented products have lots of things in common, and to me it makes sense that learning about one will deepen my understanding of others, so why do some people still hold on to a divide between beer and wine?
Getting under the hood
The first time I tasted wine, I knew I wanted to know more about it. Some people learn about wine to show off to friends. After all, wine is a cultural currency. My motivation was rather more basic and selfishly gluttonous. I just wanted something delicious in my glass, something that tasted like more. But how can something that’s only made from grape juice taste so vastly different from something else that is also only made from grapes?
To unravel this mystery, I set about reading, taking wine courses and eventually hit on the way that I learn best: tasting. Comparative tasting is a brilliant way to understand wines. Tasting lots of wines side by side grounded my knowledge. The sensory experience of smelling and tasting quickly helped me identify things I loved in those wines, and showed me wines I might, well, let’s say I’d learn to love them later.
I’m a drinkist, ever-thirsty for new delicious things (my nightmare is to have a local haunt and a predictable drink). I am indiscriminate in my quest to seek out yum, so this method of tasting and tasting more really worked for me.
I found similarities between wines from particular regions. I learned to taste the difference altitude, or a cooler climate, can have on grapes and the wines they become. I could identify a Riesling from a Chardonnay with accuracy, and now I understood why winemakers might choose to blend different grape varieties. Tasting different vintages, one after the other, helped me understand the impact of time and also how the weather and growing conditions of a particular year can influence how a wine will age. My wine vocabulary improved. I honed an incalculable list of things that wine smelled like or tasted similar to. Strawberries, tinned peaches, lime blossom, forest floor, anything that would help me categorise and remember the nuances of each mouthful.
But alas, I’m fickle, and while I was enthusiastically throwing myself into wine, I was leading a double life; my desire for new things had led me astray. I was cheating on wine with beer.
Beer is fizzy and fun. Its lower-than-wine ABV makes it incredibly sociable. It didn’t seem to take itself so seriously, and it felt less risky. Rather than being committed to an expensive bottle I might not like, if I didn’t fancy what I ordered, I could simply choose something else. New breweries seemed to pop up overnight, forming a continuous stream of delicious brews to tickle my palate, and there was a world of beers from further afield to tempt me. I didn’t have to wait a year for a new vintage or many years for a vine to grow or for a wine to mature; beer was a quick hit. But while I was falling for it, I didn’t realise that rather than leading me astray, beer was helping me understand wine even better.
More wine = good
There is a transparency about beer that I love, and people don’t shy away from the technical side of things. Vines on picturesque slopes, baking in golden sunlight, are far more romantic than wineries filled with stainless steel tanks. When learning about wine, the emphasis is on what happens in the vineyard while the details of the winemaking process are often glossed over; the specifics chalked-up enigmatically to terroir. Beer is a different brew-kettle of fish. If a beer tastes of something, there is a technical reason why and finding out that reason is often as simple as asking. Sometimes it’s an obvious adjunct: this beer tastes of mango because mango purée was added. At other times, an aroma or flavour is due to specific aspect of how that beer was brewed, perhaps a sweet-smelling, fruity ester was produced because the beer was fermented at a particular temperature and that contributed to its tropical fruit aroma.
A scientist I am not, but I am deeply inquisitive. I love to know why and how things work; understanding something always makes me appreciate it more. Seeing puppeteers animate the characters onstage in “The Lion King” or “War Horse” doesn’t destroy the illusion; it makes it all the more magical because the skill that brings the illusion to life is also on display.
Beer in the fast lane
There is a synergy between fermented products; understanding one gives an insight into many more. Ireland, where I live, is superb for growing potatoes, strawberries and barley but not a natural home for Pinot Noir, Syrah or Brunello. So learning about beer, something that can be made where I lived, was practical, speedy and economical. Depending on the style, beer takes only a matter of days to produce. Meanwhile, the opportunity to make wine crops up just once a year. This means a winemaker’s knowledge increases from year to year but brewers’ skills amass rapidly as they learn from brew to brew. The raw ingredients of beer (water, grain and hops) tend to be far less costly than grapes, so mistakes are less expensive, and it’s possible to try things yourself. You don’t need a vineyard and a winery to brew. Anyone can try their hand at making beer, and amateur efforts are supported by a vibrant homebrew community that fosters a willingness to share information, pass on skills and discuss the nitty-gritty details of temperature and yeast strains.
Now, yeast is fascinating. In 1996, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the microorganism responsible since ancient times for the beer and wine we drink and bread we eat) was the first single-celled, eukaryotic organism to have its entire genome sequenced. Since then, hundreds of yeast strains have been identified and sequenced. It’s easy to taste the influence of specific yeast strains in beer and understand the role yeast plays beyond simply producing alcohol. Wheat beer yeast strains produce phenolic clove-like aromas. Belgian yeast strains often produce esters that are fruity or bubblegum-like. Different yeast strains react differently to temperature, resulting in a fast or slow fermentation which can cause undesirable off flavours if not managed. For example, if a yeast strain does not have the optimal conditions for fermentation, the beer may have a green apple flavour, indicating the presence of acetaldehyde. Applying knowledge gleaned from beer and brewing to wine helps demystify aspects of winemaking and explain where some of the flavours and aromas found in wine originate.
Indigenous yeast strains also naturally contribute to a vineyard or winery’s microbiome; they cling as a dusty bloom to grape skins and float in the air of wineries. Utilising or controlling these microbes during the winemaking process can dramatically impact the wine. While it is true that many of the characteristics that appear in fermentation will mellow and evolve as the wine matures, understanding the aromas and flavours that yeasts can contribute gives clues to the winemaking process.
Initially, I learned about wine in a glass, poured from a bottle, far removed from the wine’s natural home. Travelling to regions where grapes grow and wine is made grounded my understanding of terroir, but terroir is not just the geographical location of where a vine grows; it is all the things that influence the wine during its creation. Incredibly, wine is simply preserved grape juice, a harvest suspended in time, all its flavours and aromas coaxed into existence in vineyards and by winemakers.
Through beer, I learned to ask questions about why things taste or smell a particular way, embracing the technical aspects of fermentation, and I then understand wine and beer as natural, agricultural products that are as influenced by the land as they are their makers’ hands.
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