In my experience, people tend to fall into one of two camps — wine or beer. But exciting new trends in beer could lead some drinkers to reconsider their positions. Wine-barrel aging and wine/beer hybrids offer intriguing opportunities to cross over.
American craft brewers have been aging beer in used barrels for nearly two decades. In the barrel, the beer picks up the character of the vessel’s previous contents. What began with mostly bourbon and whiskey barrels has expanded to include other barrel types — most notably wine.
A wide range of wine-barrel-aged beers from local, national and international breweries is available in the Twin Cities.
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery has been putting beer in barrels since the early 2000s. Theirs is the oldest barrel-aging program in the state and arguably one of the best. Their annual Barrel-Aged Beer Week in February draws crowds to sample a plethora of wood-tinged beers.
The brewpub’s most recent wine-barrel release is a Belgian-style Quadrupel, aged in French red wine barrels. This 9 percent-alcohol sipper explodes with dark fruit flavors like plums, dates and dark cherries, backed up by ample caramel and bread-crust malt sweetness. Wine character is subtle, adding notes of berries, cinnamon and a light acidity in the finish. This delicious confection is available for a limited time and only at the brewpub, so you’ll need to get there quickly if you want a taste.
The Dude’s D’Spare from Boulder Brewing is a velvety imperial stout aged in cabernet barrels. This beer starts as stout, but finishes as wine. Rich dark chocolate and bitter coffee kick things off with underlying caramel adding sweetness. Cabernet takes over mid-palate with grape, tannin and dark berries lingering long into the off-dry finish.
For something international, look for Aventinus Cuvée Barrique from Bräuhaus G. Schneider & Sohn — the oldest wheat beer brewery in Germany. Cuvée Barrique is a blend of their strong Aventinus Weizenbock and even stronger Weizen Eisbock that has been aged in chardonnay barrels. The sweetness of the two base beers is more than offset by lemony-tart acidity and grape-like fruitiness. A bit of bready wheat still manages to eke out a presence in the finish.
The appearance of beer/wine hybrids (that is, beers made with both grains and grapes) is a demonstration of old becoming new again. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient fermented beverages were made with a mix of grape, grain and honey sugars. In the modern revival, brewers are building collaborations with vineyards to source grapes, crushing the fruit on-site and fermenting it together with beer wort.
The Bruery Terreux in Placentia, Calif., is a pioneer in blending grapes and beer. For its extremely limited Vitis Series beers, an in-house sommelier/cicerone picks specific grape varietals from select California vineyards with particular flavor profiles in mind. The resulting hybrids express complex concoctions that range from effervescent, tart, golden beers to still reds that are more like sipping a glass of wine.
The Vitis Series beers are not available in Minnesota, but you can currently get a taste of what Bruery Terreux is doing in its Goses Are Red. Drinking this gose (GO-zuh) style of beer is like sipping a sparkling rosé. It’s pink and fizzy with mouthwatering acidity and subtle floral and coriander overtones. Gose is traditionally made with salt. The hint of salinity in the flavor is just enough to push forward some balancing, bready, malt sweetness.
Indeed Brewing Co. recently released the delightful Cab Franc Wood Aged Sour Ale, a collaboration with Gamling & McDuck, the iconoclastic Napa winery known for its cabernet franc. The beer started with a base of wine-barrel-aged sour red ale. Cabernet franc grapes were added to the beer and it was refermented in cab franc barrels from Gamling & McDuck.
The effervescent brew is grapy indeed. Aromatic notes of red berries and tart cherries mingle with minty herbaceousness and peppery spice, yet some low, grainy and toasty hints of malt still come through. It’s a sour beer to be sure. But the acidity is pleasant, not puckering. It all adds up to a complex and festive beer.
In its 2017 Campo, Bent Brewstillery has created an all-Minnesota hybrid. Minnesota-grown barley, wheat and hops are combined with cold-climate Frontenac grapes from St. Croix Vineyard in Stillwater. Brewer Kristen England personally foot-stomped the grapes before adding them, stems and all, to be fermented with the wort. The combination was spontaneously fermented with the yeast on the grape skins.
The result is a complex mélange of orange peel, flowers and cordial cherries. A hint of barnyard funk and pepper/coriander spice help keep the balance. Sour acidity was kept low. It’s almost too easy to drink more than one glass of Campo.
Inbound BrewCo in Minneapolis has been making its seasonal Halucidation beer/wine hybrid for several years. The style changes with each iteration. This year’s version is an imperial saison made with cold-climate La Crescent grapes from Parley Lake Winery in Waconia.
At 15 percent alcohol, this Belgian-inspired brew pushes into winelike strength, but remains a remarkably drinkable beer, equally at home in a tulip glass or a Bordeaux stem. Fruit is the name of the game here. Pineapple, orange and passion fruit meld seamlessly with green grape. Peppery spice and a subtle hint of barnyard provide balance. It’s lightly acidic, but never quite turns the corner into sour.
These wine/grape and wine-barrel-aged beers tend to see very limited release. They’re here today and gone tomorrow. But production of them is increasing. If one is gone, there is sure to be another equally intriguing choice to be had. Ask at your favorite beer store or look for upcoming and current releases from local breweries such as Fulton Beer, Boom Island Brewing and Insight Brewing, among others.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.