An Ale, with Grapes!
There's no agreed upon definition of a Grape Ale. In the brewing vernacular there are grape ales, Italian grape ales, beer-wine hybrids, grape-beers, beer-wines, Oneobeers (OH-KNEE-OH-BEERS), Italian Grape Ales, skin contact beers, vinobeers, vinocervisia, bières au vin, wine-ales, and the list goes on. So, today in this edition of The Learning Zone and in celebration of self-proclaimed Grape Ale Month, we’re going to dissect the world (and words) of Grape Ales and break down the many ways in which we use sweet sweet (and dry) grapes to augment the properties of beer into something unique and delicious.
First, an origin story.
The first “Grape Ale” we ever made at Burdock was born barrel of Pinot Noir Rosé that had a bit too much VA aka Volatile Acidity aka Acetic Acid aka Vinegar. Acquired from our good friends at Pearl Morissette (who are responsible for the majority of our wine related inspiration and to whom we are forever grateful and in adoration of), we took said Pinot Noir and blended it into a tank of fresh, relatively neutral, young saison. The result was something electric; something new, raw and powerful. Was it tasty? Maybe. Looking back on it, we thought it was pretty amazing, but in hindsight was actually probably pretty freaky (untappd thought it wasn't bad...). Alas, we continued experimenting and hit our next big eureka moment when we aged our first beer on spent grape skins (meaning grapes that have gone through fermentation and have been pressed). We took a relatively small quantity of cabernet franc skins (a few garbage bags worth) and put them into a modified barrel (we cut the top off and installed a drain in the bottom) to age them on beer for an indeterminate period of time. We tasted it on a regular basis and expected it to develop really strong/harsh tannins over time (like a wine would after sitting on its skins for months), but even after 3 months of skin contact it was still light, a little textural, and beautifully rosé and tart. Enter Leela 1.
Why blend beer and wine?
Beer is good on it’s own. Wine is good on it’s own. So why then blend these uniquely delicious worlds together? The answer is rooted in one of the most powerful undeniable flavour laws in the universe: GOOD + GOOD = (+/-)GOOD. Wine and beer both have attributes that can benefit the other. True, wine is objectively the best/most superior beverage in the universe. But sometimes it can be too sharp, too tannic, lack texture, or be dull. Beer in comparison (generally) is light and refreshing, but can lack fruit, acid, or body. When engaged in the act of blending, the person doing the blending (the blender) typically strives to make something that is balanced (read: no one element of the blend dominates or overpowers all the rest, and the various characteristics of the blend exist in harmonious unity with each other). Utilizing the full spectrum of components available in both beer and wine provides more opportunity to achieve this harmony and balance.
So how do we define these beers?
Here is how we classify the beers that we make in house. We’re not saying other people should use these definitions, but based on our experience, this is how it makes sense to split the definitions of these beverages. A Beer-Wine hybrid is definitely a Grape Ale, but all Grape Ales are not beer-wine hybrids.
GRAPE ALE: A beer made in the spirit of wine using wine making techniques and or ingredients.
BEER-WINE HYBRID: A blend of both beer and wine made more or less independently of each other then blended together.
The Family Tree of Grape Ales
There are so many different ways to utilize wine making techniques / ingredients in beer making. Here are just a few of the ones that we regularly employ.
Skin Contact Beers:
These are beers where beer is aged on pressed grape skins (what is usually discarded and composted by winemakers). They can be made with young/fresh beer, barrel aged beer, sour beer, light beer, dark beer, whatever the desired outcome is.
1. White/Rosé Skin beers
These skins often have a significant amount of residual sugar on them because they go straight from the vineyard to the press and don’t undergo a fermentation before pressing (whereas red wines are usually fermented before pressing). Making grape ales with skins that have residual sugar can be trickier because they are much more likely to be harbouring (unfavourable) yeast and bacteria.
2. Red Skin beers
We typically receive red wine skins when they are dry (no sugar), meaning fully fermented and have been soaking in low pH, 10+% abv solution (aka wine) for days/weeks/months. This means they are way more microbially stable than fresh grape skins that still contain sugar. They are safer to work with and less likely to spoil a batch when blended with (higher pH, lower alcohol) beer.
3. Orange Skin beers
Orange wine skins come from white wines that have been made like red wines (get it?). Instead of being pressed and juiced right out of the vineyard like most white wines are, they are first aged “on their skins” for an extended period of time. That time period varies from a few hours to 6+ months depending on the style of orange wine being made. After 6 months of maceration, orange wine skins can be heavy duty (intense). The skins are usually lightly brown, fairly acetic, but very aromatic and fairly tanninless. What they can impart to beer is really interesting. All the beers that we’ve made with orange wine skins become the PALEST beers we ever make. Something about the polyphenols in the grape skins strips the beer of any colour or sediment that's left in it. They also often take on a beautiful floral characteristic that we’ve only found in beers aged on orange wine skins.
These are actual blends of beer and wine. They could be blends of both finished beer and finished wine, but could also include blends of partially finished beer and partially finished wine. This is often done close to bottling and then undergoes a refermentation in bottle.
Grape must or grape juice is added to the beer during fermentation and the grape sugars are fermented alongside the malt based sugars. This is often done with fresh-type grape ales like IPAs with grape juice in them.
Fresh grapes or spent grapes can be used to inoculate a fresh tank of unfermented beer (called wort) with yeast and bacteria. The goal is to establish the wild yeast/bacterial population that is on the grapes to ferment the beer wort in lieu of lab cultured yeast that breweries would normally use. This is a pretty risky practice as there are lots of different kinds of yeast/bacteria on the skins of grapes and you’re putting them into a relatively high pH (5+), high sugar, low alcohol environment, and you don't really know what you're going to get (you could get something stinky). A safer/more reliable way to do this is to isolate the yeast/bacteria from the skins in a laboratory environment and then grow up the culture so you'll know in advance if you've got favourable smelling microbes.
In Summary, Grape Ales rule.
We've unofficially coined the weeks from mid-May to early-June as "Grape Ale Month". What does that mean? We have / will be releasing brand new grape ales from our 2020 harvest in abundance! Some of them are totally unlike our previous iterations of grape ales, many are POTENT and very concentrated (read: powerful grape energy), but we’re equally excited about all of them.
Head over to the bottle shop now and try them for yourself!