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From grapes to grain

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Beer gets a new dimension with a little help from vino.

By Christopher Staten

If you’ve been to a beer dinner, you’ve likely endured a heartfelt plea for beer’s place at the dining table (“It goes just as well with food as wine, sometimes even better!”); and if you’ve double-sipped your way through a “beer versus wine” dinner, you’ve undoubtedly tasted a refined stein that handily outwits the stemware. But to approach the emerging batches of wine-barrel-aged beer, it’s best to set aside all of the beer/wine rhetoric. The trend isn’t about elevating brew or converting wine drinkers; it’s simply about harnessing vino’s lovely subtleties to bring another taste profile to the table.

“It’s pre-experimental because no one has nailed down the flavors, so we’re flying by the seat of our pants.” That’s Sam Rose, cellarman at Asheville, N.C.’s Highland Brewing. The story of Highland’s foray into wine barrel aging is fairly common: A local winery—in this case, the Biltmore Estate Winery—can only use its barrels two or three times before the tannins dissipate. With barrels too weak for wine but still imbued with vinous nuances, local wineries are tossing them to nearby breweries.

Here the experimenting begins. There’s no “right” barrel-beer combination, but there are some fledgling rules of thumb: The bold tannins and rich dark fruit flavors of red wine barrels marry best with malt-heavy beers like stouts, porters and barleywines, while white wine barrels, like Chardonnay, impart complementary oak and tropical fruit flavors well-suited for pilsners, pale ales and tripels. As with any barrel-aging project, the purpose isn’t to steal beer’s spotlight, but to brighten it.

“One thing you have to remember is that the barrel-aged beer’s flavor is never going to be standardized,” says Rose. “You’re going to see variation from one barrel to another, just like wine. And that’s the interesting thing, the variation.”

The variety of beer on shelves is also a product of the brewers’ whims: Rose has played primarily with red wine barrels, both American and French oak, to experiment with Highland’s IPA, stout and porter. In the heart of California’s wine country, Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson has easy access to the spent Chardonnay, viognier and Sauvignon Blanc barrels from area wineries; he aged his Belgian farmhouse-style ale, Little Opal, in all three resulting in a spicy saison kissed with light oak, tropical fruit flavors and a hint of acidic wild yeast. And at Nebraska Brewing, President Paul Kavulak discovered that reusing Chardonnay barrels with different beer styles allows him some control over the flavors that materialize in the brew. For example, Mélange à Trois, his Belgian blond ale, enters the barrel first, soaking up the majority of the barrel flavors like oak and buttery chard, while Hop God, a hoppy Belgian tripel, is aged in the same barrel next, benefiting in a milder way from the lessened wine character.

With the fluctuation of availability, difficulty of mass storage and variation from barrel to barrel, Rose is skeptical the consumer will see wine-barrel-aged beer in large batches. “But I can see it being a trend that’s going to stick around,” he says. “Though, as far as being a crossover for non-beer lovers, I don’t really see that happening. What you get out of a barrel doesn’t taste like wine; it tastes like beer.

Beer geeks will enjoy it most; a wine drinker may be annoyed that someone spilled beer in their wine.”

TRY THESE THREE: Taste the spectrum of wine barrels’ magic with these bottles.

Nebraska Hop God

Based on a Belgian tripel, this brew’s hopped like a West Coast IPA and stored for six months in Chardonnay barrels. The result is a fruity swallow with smooth oak notes and hints of buttery chard.

Allagash Interlude

Brewed with farmhouse yeast and Brettanomyces, then aged in Merlot and Syrah oak barrels, this complex beer delivers spicy, earthy notes alongside rich plum and drying tannins.

Grand Teton Tail Waggin’ Double White Ale

This double white ale slept four months in Chardonnay barrels, lending sweet, fruity pear scents and a gentle astringency to the spicy beer.


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