What is it about wine grapes in particular that makes them so interesting as a fruit addition to beer?
“Wine has one of the truest senses of place, of terroir, of any product out there. It’s losing some of that among modern producers who are looking for intensity of flavor versus delicacy and nuance of flavor, but the great wines of the world are defined by where they are, more so than process or intention. You get a true singular expression of that location through those particular grapes in that location. There’s a beauty in that, I think.”
What does your process look like when working with wine grapes?
“We treat different varieties, and different vintages within those same varieties, differently depending on the character that the vintage and the grapes have given us. More often than not, we’ll destem and crush the grapes and then add them to secondary oak vessels. We use 1,000-liter oak casks for fruit fermentations, including grapes, and we’ll run mature beer in with that for refermentation.
“Occasionally, we’ll incorporate some or all of the stems, so basically do whole-cluster refermentations if we’re looking for a bit more structure to it—that’s the character that those provide. We have, on a couple of occasions for white varieties, pressed the juice off, where we felt that the skin would detract from the vibrancy of the juice.
“Going into it with an expectation of how you’re going to process the fruit does a disservice to the fruit itself. With all fruit, but especially with grapes, you need to address what the fruit is giving you and then work with that to try to complement it rather than going in with a recipe or preconceived notion of how to proceed.”
What are some of those factors you consider when deciding how to process?
“One of the easiest flavor components to consider is the level of acid. Grapes can be quite a bit variable in terms of pH and total acidity, and more importantly, because sensory is what matters the most, the perceived acidity to those. “When we look to incorporate beer into grapes, as with any fruit, we have to take into consideration the perceived acidity of the fruit itself and the measurements we have for that before deciding which beer to blend it with—which barrels, which tank. That can play into how we go about it.
“If the fruit is incredibly vibrant, which is often just a combination of low pH or increased perceived acidity plus a very high ripeness (usually those don’t go hand in hand, but sometimes you get that), we have gone two different ways. One is blending from older stock with a more complex Brett character to match that—basically adding more complexity to it. Or going in the completely opposite direction—finding a beer that is more similarly vibrant and cleanly lactic that will let the fruit carry the show to underline what’s already there.”
What does that secondary refermentation look like, typically?
“We get an explosive secondary fermentation, particularly when we crush or just add the pressed juice to it straight from the winery. The available yeast and bacteria will, because of all that easily available sugar, just go nuts. That’s typically, for grapes, what we want to go with. In the presence of a high amount of fruit that often has a very significant potential tannin contribution, we want to be able to have the fermentation side of it done quickly so we can monitor tannic contribution, the tannin extraction, and the evolution of the beer and be able to pull it off when it’s ready versus waiting until that fermentation is ready to carry on.
“For red-grape varieties, in particular, we want fermentation to be done really quickly and pull it off as soon as it’s ready, which is usually at a month or less.”
What base beer do you find works best for your grape-beer blends?
“Ninety-five percent of the beer in oak right now is coming from the same base, which is inspired by lambic. We work the most with that, and one reason we like working with that base—whether adding grapes or something else—is that I think it’s a great canvas for other flavors as well as being a great canvas on its own. There’s a beautiful perfection in that aspect, that it can be a component or be the star. “Certainly, we’ve had some luck with a sour-red base that can go well with bolder red-grape varieties. Certain spicier, more vivacious white varieties can be fantastic with a clean, light saison or wild farmhouse base. The Belgian phenolic character with the appropriate grape variety can be fantastic; you just need to have the right character and the right grape.”
Do you have a favorite of the grape beers you produce?
“My personal favorite that we have done is The Archer, which is a Pinot Noir grape beer from that golden, wild, loosely-inspired-by-lambic base. Outside of Burgundy, Oregon grows the best Pinot Noir in the world. And these grapes come from what is, in my mind, the best vineyard in the world (outside of the cru-class vineyards in Burgundy). So we are fortunate to be able to work with the fruit but also fortunate that we can match them with a base that works to its strength incredibly well. Pinot Noir, in general, unless it’s coming from California, is a delicate and nuanced variety, and that plays well with the base beer added to it.
“We continue to tweak the process on that one, to coax it in that direction and get more complexity out of it. It already takes us twenty-eight to thirty-two months from start to finish to produce the beer. We’re looking at racking it back into oak barrels after the grape refermentation for anywhere from six months to another year, to play to its wine strengths even more so than we have in the past. The idea, to us, is to make the most complex beer not just the most aggressive.”