For most people, deciding whether to drink a glass of wine or a pint of beer is like choosing between a beach vacation and a trip to the mountains. Both are appealing in different ways.
For Mike Brandt, the differences between wine and beer are less pronounced. The brewer, winemaker, and co-owner of Garden Grove Brewing & Urban Winery in Richmond, Virginia is passionate about fermentation in all forms. For him, the main distinction is the sugar source. With brewing, you add the sugar source, which is typically malt. With winemaking, the sugar source is in the grapes.
Brandt’s ability to see the overlap between the two has led him to master the fermentation of both. That mastery has allowed him to use techniques from brewing and winemaking to create new and unusual creations such as a wines made with malt and yeast as well as a beer that is made with grapes and barley to create a fusion of beer and wine.
Brandt started out in 1999 as the assistant brewer at a now-defunct brewery in Harrisonburg. He wanted to try his hand at wine making too, so in 2001 he began working at Naked Mountain Winery and Vineyards in Markham, as an equipment machinery operator helping with all aspects of the vineyard. He eventually became head winemaker and viticulturist.
During that time, Brandt participated in winemaker roundtables with Jim Law, owner of nearby Linden Vineyards in Linden. “Law’s wine was always better than mine, so I asked if he would hire me,” Brandt says. When he went to work at Linden, he discovered the secret to better tasting wine was the quality of the grapes. That lesson stayed with Brandt. Anything Brandt makes—whether it’s wine, beer, mead, sake, or cider—he is careful to use the best and freshest ingredients. “We want to capture those flavors and showcase them,” he says.
One day, Brandt passed out while working at Linden, was rushed to the hospital and discovered he had mysteriously lost his sense of smell, something that is essential for any winemaker. Instead of going back to work at Linden, Brandt enrolled in an environmental studies masters program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also began studying fermentation and plant sciences.
Brandt’s sense of smell slowly started to return in 2009, and he began brewing beer again. Brandt admits he likes how much easier and less time consuming it is to brew beer than to make wine. “With beer, in two to four weeks, you have a product that’s ready go,” he says. “If you don’t like how it turned out, you can try again.”
When Brandt heard about a new brewery being opening in Richmond, he immediately applied for the job. When owner Ryan Mitchell hired him as head brewer for Garden Grove, he had no idea that Brandt had mastered both beer and wine making, but once the brewery was up and running, Brandt started telling Mitchell about his ideas for making brews that challenge the conventional definition of beer.
In addition to brewing standard IPAs, German lagers, and farmhouse ales, Brandt started using his broad knowledge of fermentation to create brews that few have tried to make before. For instance, Brandt makes a dry rosé, known as Guns N' Rosé, by fermenting wine with malt and Belgian yeast, and then aging it in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels for six months. “It tastes like a rosé with a slight bready beer character,” he says.
He also makes a fusion of beer and wine called Synthesis that boasts 16% ABV. It’s a cross between a barley wine, Tawny Port, and mead. The sugars come from equal parts barley, Videl Blanc and chardonnay grapes, and honey. After fermentation, it’s aged for 14 months in Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels.
The challenge of making of a higher alcohol beer is that beer yeast not designed to produce an alcohol content that high, Brandt says. The trick is to slowly add sugar from different sources. Normally to make a beer, a brewer adds additional sugar or wort to raise the alcohol content, but Brandt wanted to find another sugar source so, in additional to malt, he adds barley to make the flavors more pronounced. Then he adds honey until the ABV rises to 16%. “The honey is a more diverse flavor than just using malt sugar,” he says.
If you tell someone they are eating a pretzel and it’s actually a grape, they will say that’s the worst pretzel I’ve ever had. We’ve learned we need to use kids gloves to help people wrap their head around what we do.”
He also brews a Belgian ale, called Herbs are Heroes, that is infused with lemon balm and pineapple sage. The two herbs are grown in Garden Grove’s rooftop garden. Other produce grown on the rooftop include Arandell grapes, Columbus and Cascade hops, as well as selection of herbs, including lavender, rosemary, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, lemon thyme, mint, and basil. “I love having control over my ingredients,” he says. “I love helping my ingredients to grow to perfect ripeness and flavor, and then picking it the day it is used to make a beer or wine.”
Brandt is the first admit that not everything he tries to create works out the way he plans. He once attempted to make a mead and sake hybrid, but the yeast didn’t have enough oxygen to ferment. He left his failed experiment in the barrel and forgot about it for about six months. Before dumping it, he decided to taste it and he discovered it had evolved into a sherry-like product that was well-received in the taproom. Unfortunately, Brandt says can’t recreate it since it was essentially a mistake.
The biggest challenge is explaining his creations to customers. Telling customers they’re drinking a wine made with beer ingredients can be confusing. “If you tell someone they are eating a pretzel and it’s actually a grape, they will say that’s the worst pretzel I’ve ever had,” he says. “We’ve learned we need to use kids gloves to help people wrap their head around what we do. If people don’t understand what it is, they can be turn off.”
Consumer expectations about beer and wine are based on what has been made before rather than what is possible and potentially appealing to drink, Brandt says. “If we rely on what has been done before, it hinders the art of beer and wine making,” he says. “It prevents you from being creative and creating something new.”