Brewing with grapes can be as simple or as difficult as one wants to make it. On one hand, it’s as easy as brewing with any other fruit—cut it up or crush it, throw it in a tank, fill the tank with finished beer, give it enough contact time for the beer to pull out the flavors you want, then pull the beer off and package it. Done. But that level of engagement isn’t what gets Jeremy Grinkey, production manager for Bruery Terreux, excited about making beer with grapes.
“When you put apricots in beer, you have an apricot beer. When you put grapes in a beer, what do you have? As a winemaker I know what Viognier [grapes] are, I know what Roussanne grapes are, I know what Marsanne grapes are, and I know what Chardonnay grapes are—I drink those wines, and I know what flavors the grapes convey. So when I go to put grapes in a beer, I pay respect to the contributions of the grapes themselves.”
That respect starts not at harvest time, but usually eight or nine months ahead of the grape harvest, when Grinkey conceptualizes an idea and approaches winemaker friends about it. Grape growers and wineries are partners in the process, so he’ll walk the fields and discuss how he wants the fruit farmed—whether to prune fruit from the vines three months before harvest to lessen the fruit load so that the vines can push more nutrients to the remaining fruit. Or he’ll determine which parts of the vineyard he’d like his grapes from—North slope–facing, South slope–facing. They discuss the desired level of ripeness for harvest and desired level of acidity (high or low), then talk through the sensory characteristics Grinkey would like to see in the varietal.
“When I’m looking for Viognier, I want melon aromatics and tropical notes because those work well with the blonde lambic-style base beer.”
How the grapes are cut from the vine matters, too.
“One thing to consider when you do whole-cluster grapes—there’s a part where the grape cluster stem meets the vine,” says Grinkey. “The vine is wood, and the stem of the cluster is green wood but not full wood yet. You want to make sure when you harvest the fruit that you clip it where it’s wood, so that there’s a tip of wood at the end of every cluster. If you don’t pick it that way, then you end up with really green flavors from the vine, but if you pick it that way, you get more wood flavor. It’s one of the tricks I use—I’ll go out in the vineyard with the hand pickers, and go over how I want it picked.”
Pushing the edges of wine and beer takes commitment. It’s not for the faint of heart or those who lack the sheer stubbornness necessary to carry projects through. Grinkey’s experimentation with process results in significant labor, and results aren’t guaranteed.
“With Turo, I knew that I wanted to make a funky red-wine beer, I knew I wanted it to be still, and I knew I wanted it to be somewhat of a closed fermentation,” says Grinkey. “What I mean by that is we took the heads off the barrels, filled them with whole cluster grapes, put the heads back on the barrels, then just knocked out regular blonde wort that would have become our lambic-style beer. We put that wort on top of it, then let the grapes natively ferment the wort—we left the grapes in there for four months.”
The result—an uncarbonated, completely still yet sour beer with the body and structure of a red wine—was a unique expression of beer, grape, and process.
“It was actually not any sort of process that was learned or taught, but just an idea based on Old World techniques and lack of labor, so to speak. Sometimes in a winery, you’ll do certain things based on the product load that’s coming in, not knowing how you’ll finish it. I knew I wanted to put those grapes in that barrel, and I knew I wanted to leave it until the new year—this was the first of October—even if the project ended up killing itself. If you don’t follow those pathways, you’ll never made big mistakes you can learn from, and you’ll never make big breakthroughs that show you what else is possible.”
One thing they always have to consider, as a commercial brewery, is the limit of legality. Because they hold a brewery license, beer must make up 51 percent or more of what they produce.
“If you taste our wine-beer hybrids, they’re almost always riding that borderline of legality,” says Grinkey. “Our wine-beer hybrids are very in-your-face, they’re very high alcohol, and they’re very wine-forward. I don’t go by pounds per gallon, as I would with peaches. I look at volume equivalency—what’s my ratio of wine juice to beer, and what is my alcohol going to be?—so I don’t cross that line.”
One particular beer in their portfolio that rides that line is the imperial stout, Vindictive (formerly known as Wineification). A blend of 49 percent grape must and 51 percent Black Tuesday stout base, it’s cofermented after the components are blended, then aged in wooden barrels for another year until it reaches maturity. Grape choice has ranged from Syrah for the 2013 to a blend of 75 percent destemmed and 25 percent whole cluster Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes sourced from Grinkey’s former employer—Sans Liege—in 2016. The recently released 2017 vintage pivots to Zinfandel grapes sourced from another Paso Robles–area vineyard, Field Recordings. The 14 percent+ alcohol is exactly what you’d expect from a strong base beer and highly fermentable grape addition. The reason it’s the only “clean” beer with grape juice added comes down to safety.
“When you get a cluster of grapes, there’s Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus on those grapes, and on top of that, there’s a hundred million other wild yeast and bacteria on them too, says Grinkey. “If you brew a 10 percent ABV Belgian golden strong and throw grapes in with it, you’re just playing with fire. There’s a point in time when that beer is going to go sour or wild. The reason we play that game with Black Tuesday is that it’s the only safe beer we’ve ever made. At that high alcohol, there’s almost no way that can happen. The alcohol is preserving the product at that point.”
When working with these unpredictable natural materials, Grinkey cautions brewers to think in a contextual way. When brewing beer, there are set patterns the beer should take and time-tested solutions to fix things when they don’t. With wine grapes, solutions depend more on feel than exact science, and a certain urgency can develop quickly, demanding quick solutions.
“We don’t always know where the wine-beer hybrids are going to take us,” says Grinkey, “but we figure it out.”
Podcast Episode 23: Kathinka's Floris Delée: The Challenges of Maintaining Quality in Craft Brewing
Jamie Bogner’s guest is Floris DeLée, former Technical Director for New Belgium Brewing and former Dogfish Head brewmaster, who has helped some of the biggest names in craft brewing for the last 15 years build their brewhouses.