Part of the appeal of beer is that it seems so accessible. Everything, from price point to taste, suggests beer is the drink of the masses. It’s a beverage that typically eschews refinery—four simple ingredients and a basic recipe. Unlike its counterparts, beer doesn’t necessitate an advanced degree to understand. Wine, on the other hand, denotes a different level of craftsmanship and connoisseurship. But, more and more, beer makers nationwide are turning to the wine world for inspiration, influence and ways to craft better beer.
Firestone Walker Brewing Company brewmaster Matt Bryndilson graduated from the brewing institute at University of California, Davis. He walked away with a knowledge of how to brew beer the way most brewers in America know how to brew beer: By combining grains, hops and yeast via a formulaic expression to create something that goes into a bottle or keg.
“I came in with this black-and-white brewer mentality,” Bryndilson said. “I quickly realized this is not how we make our beer [at Firestone Walker].”
When they founded their namesake brewery, both Adam Walker and David Firestone had a vision that their operation would occupy the higher end of the beer spectrum. From the start, their world mirrored the wine world more closely than it did the beer world. This mentality was a product of both their location and pedigree. Paso Robles is a wine community and Walker is a 3rd generation wine-grower.
“They’ve spent their whole lives in wine,” Bryndilson said. “And so [Firestone Walker] can be more influenced by the wine industry than the beer industry.”
The result are offerings such as Parabola, an imperial stout; Bravo, an imperial brown ale; and Sucaba, an English-style barleywine—all of which are barrel-aged and sit more comfortably at the dinner table than of the couch during Sunday football. Wine’s stronghold as the premier high-end beverage is on shaky ground. Firestone Walker is not the only American brewery putting stake in that claim.
Operations like Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine and Casey Brewing & Blending in Glenwood Springs, Colorado not only use wine barrels to help ferment their beer, but also rely on the Old World technique of blending to create unique beers that can vary even from batch to batch.
“Blending is very personal,” said Jason Perkins, brewmaster at Allagash. “That’s why it’s hard to explain. It takes a lot of tasting and trial and error to find what it is you’re looking for.”
Belding allows each to remain not just passive observers of what’s happening within a fermentation tank, but also an active participants in what ultimately ends in a bottle. According to founder and brewer Troy Casey, it’s a skill that’s developed over time in order to discover which beers are best suited to blending and will best interact with each other to create a sum better than the parts. In other words, it’s a balance between repetition, skill and guesswork.
“That’s the thrill of the blend,” Bryndilson said. “You have to be creative. You almost have to create complexity. The goal is to find some harmony, so that one plus one doesn’t equal two, but three or four.”
Bryndilson went on to explain that the process of blending beers included the realization that he could take two beers that “were interesting” (in this case the Imperial Stout Parabola and an unnamed Barleywine) to create different flavor profiles. The process is not that dissimilar from what a winemaker would do with varietals of a different—or even the same—grape.
But blending can be fickle. Try to blend too many elements and, like a painter trying to combine too many colors, things become muddy. To combat this, Casey blends only three to six barrels in every batch of beer. The thrill of variation is one of the key motivators for Casey.
“We’re always finding something new. Having a beer turn out exactly the way you intend it to, it scares you. You don’t know if you’d be able to do it again,” Casey said. “There’s more than a handful of beers that I say, ‘Damn, I hope I can replicate that.’”
But what Casey ultimately creates is exactly what consumers want: A unique beer-drinking experience more akin to popping an expensive bottle of wine, complete with variation and nuance. There won’t be aggressive flavors or adjuncts and, just like a bottle of wine, these beers can provide a sophisticated drinking experience.
When comparing wine and beer, the most critical common denominator may be time. It is a luxury many craft or independent breweries simply don’t have or cannot afford. The aforementioned breweries are part of a small group that has afforded themselves the luxury to blend and bottle at their convenience or when the beer says it’s ready. The barrel-aged beers in Allagash’s portfolio, for instance, average 18 months in barrels, according to Perkins.
However, they are not aging these beers in the popular charred oak bourbon barrels that are commonplace in the brewing world as a way to provide beer with rich flavors, including smoke and vanilla. They use wine barrels for a different purpose. Both Allagash and Casey seek neutral wine barrels, which don’t impart too much residual flavors, but rather to enhance the micro-oxidation happening within the beer. It’s a way to coax the flavors and function out of the yeast.
Beer-makers such as Casey take inspiration from another wine term to add nuance to beer. That term is “terroir” and, for Casey, it means relying on locally sourced ingredients to make his beer. The same wine winemakers rely on estate-grown grapes to make their signature wines, Casey turned to Colorado grains and hops. “We only use 99% Colorado ingredients,” he said. “We make beers from what we have. We want to specialize in what Colorado has to offer.”
So, it’s about blending, barrel-aging and terroir, but it’s also about optics. How these highbrows beers are presented and served not only mimic not only the wine world, but also take cue the masters of beverage production in Belgium, Germany and France.
“It’s always served in appropriate glass,” said Perkins. “The label of glass is always facing out, giving beer the credit it deserves. It’s what feels right to us. It’s what we’ve always done: Present a beer the way it should be presented.”
Beer may be the beverage of the people, and it likely will stay that way. However, it is also possible that certain beers will gain the esteem of the beverage community and become the new norm of what is served at the dinner table. Maybe, one day, it’ll reven eplace that bottle of wine from which is took its inspiration.