Blurring lines between wine and beer

Mar 02, 2021

As part of Burum Collective’s Wayfinder residency, we asked Burum’s Rachel Hendry to write a piece for us looking at beer’s relationship with wine. Traditionally, there has been little crossover between the two - and perhaps even conflict - but Rachel believes they are actually perfect partners.

Did you know that yeast can grow naturally on the skin of a grape, and that this yeast is actually brewer’s yeast? So that dulled, almost waxy, sheen you sometimes see on the skin of a grape is actually saccharomyces cerevisiae in its natural habitat. 

It was a fact excitedly shared with me, a predominant drinker of wine, by my friend, a predominant drinker of beer, via Randy Mosher’s book, Tasting Beer. A fact that said hey, I may be a beer lover whilst you may be a wine lover, but look, the base ingredient for our differently beloved drinks can be found in the same place! There’s common ground for us here! How cool is that?!

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I’ve been a wine professional working in craft beer for a little while now. To the point where I’m not really sure I should call myself a wine professional anymore, although I don’t feel I quite count as a beer professional yet either. I’m okay with this though, I like having a foot in both camps. 

At work I ask questions about how there are different levels of fermentation when it comes to beer and I try and apply it to my knowledge of how wine fermentation can differ too, depending on colour. Colleagues sidle up to me to ask what I would recommend to someone who hasn’t always seen eye to eye with red wine. In turn, I ask for suggestions on what beer I should pick to drink after work, depending on my mood. Whilst I still grasp at names and terms and styles, I can articulate taste and qualities and make pairings as good as anyone I’m working with that day. 

Prior to beer I worked in fine dining (for want of a better word). Going from a drinks list consisting of page after page of wine to a bar with thirty-plus taps and six fridges crammed with carefully-curated beer options has raised some questions. 

Why is it that, in my past role as a sommelier, my options to pair dishes with beer have been practically non-existent, reduced to a mere afterthought? And why is it, now I work for a craft brewery, I have access to some of the best beer being brewed in the UK, but when I want a glass of wine after my shift I’m faced with commercial mediocrity? 

I’m going to attempt to answer some of that today, but in order to do that I need to start at the beginning. And by beginning, I mean the 7th century BC, where the fragmented origins of beer and wine are being slowly discovered, not apart, but together. 

Remnants found in what is believed to be the tomb of Phyrgian King Midas, in what is now Turkey, suggest that, at that time, barley was being fermented alongside grapes and honey. An amalgamation of beer, wine and mead that, to celebrate it’s discovery, was replicated by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery with Midas Touch, the first in their Ancient Ales series.

Beer then began to progress on it’s own terms, but not without the influence of wine’s fermentation processes. Earlier on I talked about how excited I was to learn that brewer's yeast’s natural habitat is the skin of a grape, but it would seem that’s pretty old news. Before yeast was harnessed as it is today, grapes and raisins would be added to brews to kickstart fermentation. Whilst hybrids might appear to some as somewhat alternative methods of brewing nowadays, it would seem that co-fermentation is almost as traditional a method as you can get. 

As grape and barley evolved into separately fermented identities of their own, and because we are humans and can never seem to just let things just be, the relationship between wine and beer began to be a little less amiable.

The entry for Beer in my Oxford Companion to Wine (fourth edition) reads as follows:

“This alcoholic drink made, like wine, by fermentation, but of cereals rather than grapes, has impinged on wine mainly as a commercial competitor, the rivalry having ancient roots. Both beverages were enjoyed in the civilisations of Mesopotamia, Ancient Iran and Ancient Egypt, where brewing was associated with bread making, Although beer was occasionally used for religious purposes it was generally the drink of the common people, whereas the aristocracy and the priesthood drank wine.”

Back to Tasting Beer and Randy Mosher echoes this sentiment:

“The Greeks believed wine to be the drink of civilised people; for them the defining characteristic of barbarism was beer drinking… The Romans, just like the Greeks, whose culture they absorbed, never did warm up to beer. This points out a key fact of beer geography: there is a line south of which grapes grow well and wine becomes the dominant drink. North of this line, ancient Romans encountered enthusiastic beer drinkers at the fringes of their empire.”

To put it somewhat simply and succinctly, here’s how those social beliefs have evolved and formed our drinking spaces today.

Geography leads to issues of availability and accessibility, it defines what is commonplace and what is not. At least from a northern European perspective, brewing and making beer was part of everyday life. Whereas wine’s long standing association with religion, divinity and aristocracy has informed it’s elevated exclusivity, bringing with it connotations of worth, class and morality. All of this has an effect on cost, which does nothing to break that dictation of who drinks what, and where.

Cut to today and wine has found its main home in bars and restaurants, beer in pubs and tap rooms, whilst bottle shops do what they can to combine the two. Rarely made and drunk together, one is no longer the natural fermented companion of the other.

Except that’s not quite the case is it?

The creation of the Champagne method, partly informed by cider making, in turn partially informed the blending and secondary fermentation that goes into making a Lambic a Geuze. Cantillon takes it one step further with their Vigneronne, a grape Lambic made with the addition of Muscat, named as a reminder that “while it belongs to the beer patrimony, the spontaneous fermentation, the ageing in the barrels for several years and the addition of grapes make it a distant cousin of certain white wines”. Cantillon has even started fermenting with amphora

Further blurring the lines between wine and beer Italian Grape Ale is defined as a “communion between beer and wine”. Mikkeller’s work with grapes in their co-ferments has led to them producing wine of their own. In a recent inhale of Michael Tonsmeire’s American Sour Beers I read about everything from Champagne yeast and Chardonnay barrels to Zinfandel must and Pinot Noir skins contributing to brews. 

It’s not just about fermentation either. Working with grapes gives breweries a chance to explore the seasonality and inconsistency that comes with vintage, working alongside the changes and limitations that come with a fruit formed and dictated by weather and climate. It’s a running theme in the discussions I’ve listened to between mixed-fermentation brewers. (I particularly enjoyed Pellicle magazine’s discussions on Hybrid Theory and Of Must and Graff, as well as this, from Good Beer Hunting and Beavertown, on exploring beer’s place in the realm of wine and cider.)

Breweries aren’t the only ones doing all the work when it comes to these hybrids either. Hopped wine involves the addition of hops to a wine whose aromas will “work well with that particular grape”, providing an alternate side to the co-fermented coin. 

This is all well and good, but are these mixed fermentations and hybrids the answer to the future alliance of beer and wine I’m searching for? 

Well, for me personally it was. 

The first beer tasting I went to was one for Side Project Brewing, a US barrel-aged and mixed fermentation brewery. Their 2017 Terroir Project Chambourcin had some mild reductive vibes but was reminiscent of a good Pinot Noir, the Blanc de Blancs Blend 2 was bursting with honeyed lime and a Chardonnay barrel-aged Saison de Ble tasted of peach tangfastics and apricot sherbet. It was my first real introduction to beer and whilst I was unsure of the brewing terminology, I was familiar with the wine terms displayed on the bottles and that gave me some confidence in my curiosity. 

I’m a spokesperson for no one other than myself here, but I believe there is more to gain from drinking beer and wine together, than there is separately. It’s that confidence enabling that curiosity that needs nurturing and encouragement on a much larger scale to enact the change needed if beer would like a place in those spaces that are traditionally held for wine, and vice versa.

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A term we’ve coined at Burum Collective, which is at the very heart of what myself and Helen are trying to do, is Compound Drinking. Originally it was a rushed solution to a title for our first blog piece, but it’s come to be representative of something far more important than that. 

In its essence Compound Drinking is the joy and the understanding that can be gained from drinking beer and wine (and cider!) together, instead of apart. It’s the bringing together, in equal measures, of the two and treating them with the same respect and appreciation in the hope it will encourage others to do the same. It’s the harnessing of the joy that comes with discovering brewer’s yeast grows on the skins of grapes, it’s the building of something good on common ground. 

Check out more of Rachel’s work by subscribing to her newsletter J’adore le Plonk.

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