There is a classic saying, “It takes a lot of good beer to make great wine.” That is certainly true here at Channing Daughters and many other local wineries. Usually our beer consumption goes up toward the end of the growing season, spiking by the end of harvest and then tailing off during the winter months. But these past couple of years, beer seems to flow all year round.
The quality of the craft beer movement, in the last five years especially, is partly to blame. So is my own interest in the convergence of the grape and the grain, and the revival of old styles that veer into the vinous side of suds. In addition, the new and renewed interest in barrel-aging beer and marrying elements in wine production with beer production has led us into a project with B. United, an importer and distributor of world-class beer in Connecticut where we have sold barrels and lees—the dead yeast that collects at the bottom of barrels—for their aging program. (See our barrels in the above images from B. United.)
This is not new for our area. “We have been blending the grape and grain for many years,” says the Southampton Publick House’s head brewer Evan Addario. In some cases this means aging beers in wine barrels. Other batches include blending merlot, cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay into beers, and even using chardonnay juice as the sugar source to “re-ferment” an existing beer.
The brewery has aged its imperial porter, a winter seasonal, in cabernet sauvignon barrels from Macari, dubbing the beer “VIC,” referring to the Victorian Porters of early English style. Another merlot barrel-aged beer, the Homage, is a Trappist style IPA, similar to an Orval, whose hop characteristics are “muted” by being aged in merlot barrels from Osprey Dominion. The brewery’s first move in this direction was the complicated Peconic County Reserve Ale, first made in 1998. The beer starts as a French farmhouse-style saison, which is then put in chardonnay barrels. When harvest comes in, three gallons of freshly pressed chardonnay grapes are added to each barrel for a secondary fermentation that adds bubbles, more yeast character and also allows for the grape flavor to infuse in the beer. “Much of the flavor profile of this beer was a result of the grapes and barrels more than the original beer,” says Addario, of this beer that sits in barrels for one and a half years before being bottled.
The most recent barrel-aged beer from the Publick House is the Black Raspberry Lambic, a wheat beer aged in red-wine barrels (both merlot and cab) with fresh black raspberry fruit juice as a sugar source. “After two years of aging, the beer takes on a fruity, tart, sour flavor,” says Addario. “There is a very complex blend of flavors; both beer- and wine-related. It is a very unique flavor that people usually love or hate!” Pretty cool huh? These styles of cask-aged/bottle-conditioned beers are blurring the lines between the two beverages. While not quite wine, yet not just beer either, these elixirs attract drinkers and connoisseurs from both cults of fermentation.
In the case of B. United, the company began barrel-aging beers at its facility in Connecticut, where it receives beer shipped over from Europe in temperature- and pressure-controlled tankers. B. United (read: Matthias Neidhart) was a pioneer in barrel-aged beers, working with European breweries such as J. W. Lees, Harviestoun and Smisje as far back as 2003. These, however, were largely spirit and fortified-wine barrels, and wanting to experiment with lower-alcohol beers and styles that were not traditionally deemed fit for aging, Matthias looked to wine. Now, the importer is using barrels from Channing Daughters, specifically our Ramato and Pazzo barrels, which could possibly induce secondary fermentation and certainly add a whole new range of aromatic, flavor and textural expression to the brew. “Our inspiration in this regard was the Italian craft beer revolution,” says Matthias, “as well as Switzerland’s Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes and its award-winning Abbaye de Saint Bon Chien, a beer blended from product aging in dozens of wine and spirit barrels.” (His son Ben and their star salesman and idea guy Jon Lundbom agree.)
Jon adds, “For us, our Zymatore project is ultimately about becoming to beer what an affineur is to cheese,” noting plans to dramatically expand the number of beer-brewing and winemaking collaborators, since the current releases—poured at world-class beer bars and restaurants like the new NoMad Hotel in NYC have often sold out in a matter of days or hours. Mr. Lundbom finished by stating, “The quality of the beer so far has been in a word, outstanding; the market response has been in a word, apeshit.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.