For more than a decade, wine and beer culture have been inching closer. First it was brewers aging wild ales and imperial stouts in pinot, cabernet, or syrah barrels. Then, some of them started incorporating wine grapes and grape must into their recipes. Meanwhile, a handful of wineries experimented with dry hopping their wines to punch up the citrusy, tropical fruit notes and—borrowing at trick from their brewing brethren—aging other vintages in bourbon or rum barrels.
Today, a handful of breweries are taking the next step by making their own wine. In Denmark, Mikkeller offers several Rieslings, including a pét-nat and another dry hopped with Eukanot. Virginia's Garden Grove, Ohio's FigLeaf, and California's Abnormal all serve their own beers and wines on tap. Jester King in Texas recently planted an estate vineyard and intends to release its first wines next year. Not to be outdone, Colorado’s Odell will introduce its Odell Wine Project this summer.
So have brewers completely forsaken the hop bine for the grape vine? Hardly. Crossing over into winemaking has taught them new things about fermentation and flavor though. And, at a time when some 8,000 breweries are vying for attention and market share, a diversified beverage business can seem like a safer bet than a specialized one.
“Our mantra was to not do what everyone else was doing,” says Chris Sarnoski, the general manager at Garden Grove Brewing and Urban Winery, which opened its doors in early 2015. Initially focusing on ales and lagers, Garden Grove acquired a winery license in January 2017 and by the end of the same year, was also selling wine in its Richmond taproom. Today, roughly 30 percent of production is wine. According to Sarnoski, the interest in fermenting grapes largely originated with the company’s co-owner and head brewer Mike Brandt, who had experience as a viticulturist and a winemaker. Brandt passed away suddenly in November, but his creative spirit continues to inform the direction of the business.
“There’s overlap in everything we do,” Sarnoski says, noting that Garden Grove’s small vineyard grows petit verdot and chardonnay varietals. “Everything we barrel age is done in wine barrels. One of our most award-winning beers is called Death. We crafted this Belgian Quad that also had 10 to15 percent petit verdot grape juice that fit right in with the fig, raisin, and red currant flavors.
Besides stoking the imagination of the brew team, wine affords Garden Grove the potential to appeal to a broader audience than it might have with beer alone, a fact that isn’t lost on the company’s general manager. “There’s a whole world of beer, wine, and cider out there—we don’t need to stay in boxes,” he says.
There’s a whole world of beer, wine, and cider out there—we don’t need to stay in boxes.”
On the other side of the country in San Diego, Abnormal Beer Company started making wine in 2012, before adding a brewhouse—and a restaurant—several years later. Despite its later introduction, beer now leads wine in volume at Abnormal, although DeLoach says the company is “working to get the wine caught up in the coming years.” In the meantime, the two maintain equal footing at the Cork and Craft, the elegant dining space with seating for 150. It is here where the culinary team alternates between elaborate, multi-course wine and beer dinners that often feature guest chefs, breweries, and wineries alongside Abnormal’s own food and drink. Plus, the restaurant also offers something called "The Abnormal Experience," a four- to ten-course chef’s tasting menu that can be paired with wine and beer. For DeLoach, the Cork and Craft makes both beverages more approachable, and it offers a place for fun dual releases on special occasions, like the dessert wine made with candy cane peppermint and the imperial porter brewed with candy cane dust that simultaneously debuted before the holidays.
As with Garden Grove, the desire to push creative boundaries played a part in the decision to experiment with both wine and beer, but owner Matt DeLoach was intentional about establishing the only winery-brewery-restaurant in San Diego county. He firmly believes that Abnornal’s diverse range of drink options is helpful in today’s competitive market. “Our demographic in Rancho Bernardo is extremely diverse. We are able to cater to the craft beer crowd as well as a more wine savvy clientele. In addition to offering Abnormal Wines, we have curated a by-the-glass program and a wine list that supports smaller, boutique wineries and offers a unique array of wines from across the world. We also offer draft beer from different craft breweries from around the U.S.”
Jeffrey Stuffings, founder and owner of Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas agrees with DeLoach’s rationale. “As beer becomes more local, being able to appeal to multiple preferences—while still having a core philosophy—is important,” he says. “We market our beer/wine hybrids and guest wines very similar[ly] to our wild ales. People usually try them both, and we often see wine drinkers discover that there's beer they like.”
Back in 2016, Jester King announced that it had purchased 58 acres of land surrounding the brewery with the intention of planting an orchard and a vineyard. Two years later, Stuffings and his team planted 3.5 acres of wine grapes, primarily blanc du bois and black spanish or lenoir, and have carefully maintained the vines and the land in the time since. Drawing inspiration from French wineries that take a minimalist or natural approach to winemaking, as well as La Cruz de Comal, a small estate vineyard in Texas producing low-intervention natural wines, Jester King will begin making wine this year, but won’t release its first bottles until 2021. To Stuffings, whose brewery gained notoriety for its complex ales brewed with fruit, native yeast, botanicals, and wine grapes, part of the goal is to blur the lines between wine and beer.
“A major sensory aspect is fermentation character, which isn't unique to wine or beer,” he says. “It's fun and enjoyable to portray unique fermentation character regardless of whether the source of sugar is coming from grains or grapes. Winemaking feels like a natural extension for us, and we love wine almost as much as beer. Our wild and spontaneous beers are highly influenced by winemaking. The flavors and aromas we get from wild fermentation often parallel the characteristics of wine."
In Colorado, Odell Brewing is arguably the largest independent beer business making moves into grape territory. And like Jester King, Odell has built a reputation on innovation. For years it has experimented with oak aging and blending to create beers such as Amuste, an imperial porter brewed with tempranillo grape juice and aged in red wine casks, and Crossover, a sour blonde ale aged in chardonnay and sauvignon blanc barrels. So when the innovation team made the suggestion to consider wine production a little over a year ago, the rest of the employee-owned company enthusiastically embraced the idea.
“We actually saw this as sort of blazing our own trail,” explains marketing director Alex Kayne. “It felt unique but also true to our passion. We love all things fermentation [and] we’re leveraging 30 years of experience. Hopefully our beer making makes us better at winemaking”
Although the wine cellar and tasting room in Fort Collins are still under construction, Kayne says the first four Odell Brewing Company (OBC) Wine Project brands—a rosé, a sparkling rosé, a pinot gris blend, and a red blend—will launch this summer. The blueprint, however, will differ somewhat from that of its smaller peers. Odell won’t have a vineyard of its own, choosing instead to approach grape selection in the same way it deals with hops—by traveling the country to find the best available. And when the first four wines do appear, they’ll be in cans, not bottles. For all of the collective excitement Kayne wants to convey, he is nonetheless careful to add that the size of the project remains to be seen, and that the months ahead will be an education process for business and consumer alike.
“We’re going to put the work in to explain why we’re going on this journey and how much fun we’re having,” he says. “For us, the expansion into wine was really about opening up our community. We want help designing our next great wine.”