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Beer Jim, but not as we know it

Pete Gillespie of Garage Project calls it an illicit tryst.

The Ministry for Primary Industries asked about its legality.

Other people just call it lunacy.

We’re talking about the latest deviation in the craft beer world – beer-wine hybrids. Think of it as the cronut of beverages, a mash-up that creates something better than the sum of its parts.

“I’ve genuinely lost count of how many we’ve done now,” Gillespie says of the grape-grain fusions produced at the Wellington brewery. “I call it an illicit tryst made more intense by its forbidden nature – like a romance between the offspring of feuding families.”

MPI held similar concerns. “We did get a phone call from MPI when we started doing this – they were accusing us of mixing wine and beer – saying you can’t do that, it’s illegal. And we said, ‘no … we’re not mixing wine and beer at all – think of it as a fruit beer, which is totally legitimate; grapes are a fruit’.”

If you mix beer and wine – as in taking two separately fermented beverages and blending them – it would be illegal to call it a beer; or a wine for that matter. It would have to be labelled “other alcoholic beverage”. And it would be a weird beverage. As weird as Garage Project can be, they are creatives and all their beer-wine hybrids are what’s known as co-ferments. The grapes are added to the raw beer (known as wort) and the whole thing is fermented as one product.

Of course, not everyone is aware of the rules – Soren Eriksen from 8 Wired in Warkworth admits his beer-wine hybrid, Once Upon In Time In Blenheim, probably broke the rules as he fermented his own wine, then blended it with a beer that had been aged in barrels for three years before putting the finished product in another barrel to continue aging. “Neither the beer nor the wine on its own tasted very good but when we blended them and aged them it became greater than the sum of its parts.”

Grain-grape nothing new

Creating beer-wine hybrids is nothing new in the history of beer – it was common practice thousands of years ago and one of Belgium’s most famous breweries, Cantillon, has made a grape-grain beer for 50 years.

But in an industry where everyone is looking for the next new thing, there’s been a recent resurgence in beer-wine hybrids. The modern trend can be traced to American experimental brewery Dogfish Head who worked with molecular archeologist Patrick McGovern to create Midas Touch, a recipe based on evidence McGovern found in a Turkish tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas. The beer was brewed with honey, white Muscat grapes, and saffron.

It took a while for this ancient beer foray to become more mainstream – as much as obscure craft beer recipes can be called mainstream. Garage Project made their first hybrid in 2013 with Sauvin Nouveau, a pilsner made with 10 per cent sauvignon blanc grapes. They followed with Chateau Aro, an ale fermented with pinot noir grapes, including the skins.

Gillespie admits the first vintage was a bit rough but they nailed the 2017 vintage. “You don’t want to leave the skins in there too long because you get really unpleasant tannic character. Logistically it was a nightmare. The first year we weren’t super impressed but the second year we cracked it by aging it as you would a pinot, in barrels, because the tannins mellow and the flavours come together. “The wine-maker at Escarpment, where we got the grapes, wasn’t that impressed the first year he was like ‘bloody brewers…’. The second year he phoned and all I heard was “F…, f…, f… it’s f…ing good.’ When you please a wine-maker you know you’ve cracked it.”

Yeastie Boys bend spoons

Around the same time Garage Project started their “illicit trysts” Yeastie Boys teamed up with Adelaide winery Some Young Punks to produce three beer-wine hybrids as part of their Spoonbender series. Rather than add grape juice they used the wine to create what’s known as invert, or candi, sugar. They took a dessert wine and reduced it before adding it to beer.

“It took over a year for me to navigate Customs and Excise to get the wine imported into New Zealand duty free because we were going to boil off the alcohol in production,” says Yeastie Boys founder Stu McKinlay. “And then it was close to another year before we had developed the recipes and managed to have them brewed commercially.”

In 2017 they teamed up Gladstone Vineyard to create a similar amalgam. Gladstone made a Viognier-Sauvignon Blanc blend which Yeastie Boys used to make candi sugar. Gladstone released the original wine under the name Pushmi, and the beer was called Pullyu. “Drinkers could try both the beer and the wine to see how the flavours were intertwined,” McKinlay says. Pushmi-Pullyu is, of course, a fictional two-headed animal from The Story of Doctor Doolittle.

Yeastie Boys’ latest concoction – out now – is called White Palace. It is – brace yourself – a Brut India Pale Lager with pinot gris and passionfruit. The more user-friendly (but still long) description is a strong ultra-dry lager brewed with pinot gris and passionfruit.

Yeastie Boys’ White Palace is made with Pinot Gris juice

Yeastie Boys’ UK-based brewer James Kemp said the recipe was his way of trying to recreate the character of passionfruit Bellini in a beer. He used an naturally occurring enzyme to break down the complex sugars in order to create the champagne-like dryness and used hops with a pinot gris profile, while the passionfruit beings “a certain amount of acidity to build on the champagne character that I’m trying to create … Fermenting this beer was the main challenge with a lot of different elements to consider.”

It sounds like a lot of trouble but McKinlay says the raft of ingredients serve a purpose and the beverages are certainly food-friendly in all the ways wine can be. “I’ve always considered us more like chefs than winemakers, or traditional brewers, as we have a near infinite amount of things that we can use as ingredients in beer. In saying that, we do believe in the less is more philosophy and will never chuck things at a beer unless there’s a very specific reason for it to be there. We strive for elegance in beer and that’s something often associated with wine.”

McKinlay says White Palace has the extreme dryness of Brut champagne, and “comes across more wine-like (or cider-like), than any of the other beer-wine hybrids that I’ve tried”.

On the edge with 51:49

Garage Project’s latest beer-wine hybrid teeters right on the edge of being classified a wine as it’s 51 per cent traditional beer and 49 per cent “wine” – although that does nothing to describe the complexity of Savoir Faire.

In this case the unfermented beer was poured into an amphora – a large pottery urn – and slightly crushed grapes were added, including the stems. The brew is fermented “wild” by the yeast naturally living on the grape skins. It’s then pressed in the traditional wine-making method before aging in barrels.
The finished product delivers a real whoomph of juicy flavour that far outweighs the already promising aroma. It finishes as dry and spritzy and if you didn’t know any better you’d swear you were drinking a rich sparkling wine … but it’s a beer, albeit a whopping 8 per center. “You can’t blur the distinction any more than this,” Gillespie says, adding two more 51-49 versions are due to be released soon. One is another sauvignon blanc wild ferment that is quite a lot like lemonade while the pinot noir one is like a rose version of a Flanders Red (if that makes sense).

Judging by comments on the social media platform Untappd, beer fans can’t get enough. “Well impressed,” said one. “All the flavour of sauv without the pissy aftertaste. Instead the tarter beer takes over. With rye and funk all over the shop.”

Another added: “Amazing, this seems to be a cider made with grapes that’s actually a beer and tastes incredible!”

Garage Project founder Jos Ruffell and Marion St brewer Dave Bell sample a 51:49 beer-wine hybrid.

Why do it when beer is so complicated already?

The question is, when beer is hard enough to make on its own why go down the complex rabbit warren of adding grapes to the mix?

“It’s just fun really,” Gillespie said. “There’s an element of my personality that doesn’t mind throwing the cat among the pigeons – I like winding up people by taking wine, which is so serious, and then playing with it – but it’s more than that; when you taste it the results are so special. I think of it as a fruit beer and for me, this is the ultimate expression of that kind of thing – the finished project is just so complex and interesting.”

And Gillespie has no truck with those who would like brewers to stay in their lane and create things from just malt, hops, water and yeast. “Beer has always – unlike wine – involved taking other ingredients, things that are at hand, to try to create balance. Unlike wine, which is a single ingredient, beer has always been about combinations, whether it be coriander seeds, chamomile, citrus peel …”

He notes that hops – which came into common usage only in the past 500 years – “arrived late in the game, and have taken over and become the hegemonic addition to the point where people have forgotten that historically brewers used to add anything. And I mean anything. If they had Coco Pops lying around a thousand years they would have thrown Coco Pops in there … any plants, fruits and grains were fair game.

“It’s stupid to get mad at brewers for adding different things because that misses the point, the only thing that matters is: what does it taste like? If you add Coco Pops and it tastes amazing, then you’re justified. People can tell if it’s a stunt. Drinkers aren’t dumb – if they buy it once out of interest and it’s terrible, they won’t buy it again and they may not buy any of your products again. So, it’s not just about creative ideas – but it’s about executing it in a good way, an interesting way, a fun way, and it’s all about what’s in the bottle or the can.”

The question is: who’s drinking them? Beer lovers looking for a twist or wine-drinkers lured to the dark side? “I suspect it’s beer drinkers who are tickled by the cheekiness of it. I think it’s funny because it’s taking wine-making, something that’s regarded as sacred and pure, and some smart-ass brewers come along and subvert the process. I like that cheeky element of it.”

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