Saturday, 12 July 2008

When Brewers Take on Vintners' Airs

An article in The Wall Street Journal (no link available) discussed the recent trend among craft brewers to adapt the techniques of vintners.
In the U.S., winey beers started popping up only a few years ago. Part of the motivation is novelty: In an increasingly crowded field, a distinctive beer can be a big marketing boost for a young brewery. (Most craft brewers remain too small to run campaigns in glossy magazines or buy television spots, so they rely on word of mouth to increase sales.) But selling fancy beer in single bottles is also good business. "Everybody along the [distribution] chain loves the margins on those big bottles," says Randy Mosher, a brewery consultant and instructor at the Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago.

While some brewers like Dogfish Head are either adding grapes directly or, like Port Brewing, aging their beer in brandy barrels, others are deliberately introducing yeasts which are considered contaminants in wine:

In 2000, [Russian River Brewing] went in a new direction, releasing Temptation Ale, a blonde beer aged in barrels that previously held Chardonnay and thus impart some of the wine flavor to the brew. Mr. Cilurzo, who grew up at a winery in Southern California, said his idea was to take some elements of lambic beers -- including brettanomyces, a wild yeast that adds an earthy flavor to the beer -- and combine them with wine flavors. (Vintners, by contast, go to great lengths to keep brettanomyces out of their wine.)

Today, Russian River has a handful of winey beers, including Supplication, a brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, and Depuration, made with white wine grapes and two types of bacteria. After starting with 40 aging barrels, Russian River now has about 70, and is building a brewery that will have room for 400 (equal to about 9,600 750-milliliter bottles). "It's helped with our brand recognition, absolutely," he says.

I have tasted a few of these beers and have to admit that the results vary. Oak aging in bourbon barrels adds a nice touch of vanilla to a high gravity stout, but I've been less convinced by additions of grape juice, and "wild" yeast beers.

Thanks to Howard for the link.

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