Is it Wine? Is it Beer? No, It’s Oenobeer

April 23, 2020

By Garin Pirnia, April 23, 2020

In May 2018, Rome, Italy-native and brewer Alex Liberati wrote on his blog the first internet reference to oenobeer, a type of wine-beer hybrid that, in Italy, goes by a broader category known as Italian Grape Ale (IGA). “Oeno” is the Greek word for wine and is pronounced “n-o.” Liberati also uses the easier-to-pronounce “enobeer.” “Oenobeer is the more scientific term and I use it to define the category in a more exact way,” Liberati said. “Ēnobeer or enobeer is more colloquial and I use it for any other reason.”

In November 2018, to showcase different styles of oenobeers, he opened Liberati Restaurant and Brewery in Denver, the first brewery in the world solely dedicated to that style. Unfortunately, in March 2020, he closed it, but not because of COVID-19; Liberati decided to team up with Longmont, Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing for a project he cannot yet discuss. 

Liberati may have coined the term “oenobeer,” but in 1999, Dogfish Head brewed Midas Touch, one of the first American beer-wine hybrids, and in 2013 they released IPA wine-beer Sixty One.

But because of Liberati’s inventiveness, other American breweries have delved into brewing oenobeers, including Cincinnati’s Urban Artifact. Since opening in April 2015, it has specialized in real fruit sour beers, known as Midwest Fruit Tart Ale. For Artifact chief of brewing operations Bret Kollmann Baker and sommelier Nic Pater, brewing with grapes seemed like the next logical step in their beer-ography. “That was the impetus: We love wine, and then what can we do with it since we’re already doing stuff with fruit?” Pater said.

“The beers themselves are so good,” Kollmann Baker said. “They take the best of what beer is mixed with the best of what wine is.”

Kollmann Baker and Pater compare the process of brewing oenobeers to making natural wine. The first step is buying grape must, which includes stems, seeds, and juice. They spend a day fermenting the beer and then toss in the must. 

“The beer is a like starter, and then we get all the fruit in there and we add more nutrients and let it go,” Kollmann Baker said. The beer ferments for almost three weeks, and while that happens, they start wine processes. “We’re pumping over the beer-wine at this point, which means we’re taking the liquid beer from the bottom of the tank and pumping it on top of the skins that float to the top and that punches all the skins down. It keeps them wet and prevents mold from growing and it also prevents sulfur buildup from happening.”

The rest of the process, Kollmann Baker said, follows winemaking techniques. “We let it ferment out, pumping over three times a day, for about 28 days or so of skin contact at most. Which is a lot more than the wine industry does. We have this extended skin contact because we want to pull out as many flavor and tannins as we can, because it’s only 33 percent grapes. Normally, you wouldn’t, for instance, keep the skins on a white wine. You’d just ferment the juice. We want those skins and seeds in there, especially for whites, because the flavors are so light and we want to have more of an impact.” They don’t add tannins, acids, sulfurs, or finings, and the entire process can take up to 60 days. 

Since last summer, Urban Artifact has brewed and distributed five kinds of oenobeers, or what they named Brut Fruit Tart: Malbec, Syrah, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and the Champagne-inspired Celebration Grapes, which was brewed for its now-canceled anniversary party. The beers have a 12% ABV, similar to sparkling wine.

We’re going to have to dig our heels in and we’re going to have to get as much liquid to lips as we can so people can try the products and learn what oenobeers are.”

Drinking a beer-wine hybrid might seem a bit exotic for both beer and wine drinkers, and Kollmann Baker said he’s seen reluctance from both sides. “There’s hesitancy from beer drinkers because they’re like, ‘Is this going to be like wine? I don’t know if I’m going to like it.’ And then on the wine drinking side the hesitancy is, ‘Is this going to be too much like beer? Is this not sophisticated enough?’ But what we’ve found that once people move beyond their preconceived notions and actually just try the product, both sides are loving it. It’s doing very well.”

Liberati has seen oenobeer drinkers claiming to be more knowledgeable about the beers than they really are. “I guess this is what we’re promoting in the era of Yelp or Untapped,” he said. “Some people drop the most hilarious comments without having a clue of what they’re drinking.” Liberati also said certain beer drinkers would rather stay in their “comfort zone” instead of educating themselves. “That’s absolutely fine, but ēnobeers are probably not the drinks for them,” he said.

In Greendale, Wisconsin, The Explorium Brewpub co-owner Mike Doble dipped into oenobeers in February, when he and head brewer Kyle Ciske hosted an oenobeer competition for their customers. Before he planned the event, Doble received an email from a winery asking him if he’d be interested in brewing with their excess Merlot grape juice (a concentrate with no skins, stems, or seeds), and the winery suggested oenobeer. Doble had heard “whispers'' about oenobeers, and like Urban Artifact, was familiar with Liberati’s beers. Doble was in the process of brewing a Belgian Tripel. “I thought with a little sweeter grape juice added to it, it’d turn out well,” Doble said. Ciske disagreed and felt the Tripel would fare better with a semi-sweet white wine, and the battle of the oenobeers began. Ciske used moscato juice and back sweetened it, adding grape juice to the end of the brewing process. However, Doble added the grape juice upfront. “During the secondary fermentation, we add the juice,” he said. “We allow the yeast that’s already active in the wort to attack the sugars in the fruit. For us, it’s a rather simple process.” 

Customers unanimously chose Doble’s Merlot oenobeer over Ciske’s. Doble wants to brew more oenobeers, andhe hopes these beers catch on. “I think an oenobeer could be brought into a normal rotation and not be made a big deal out of it, and people would gobble it up,” he said. 

Oenobeers haven’t quite become the next big thing in brewing, but Kollmann Baker thinks that’ll change within the next few years. 

“There’s confusion, there’s hesitation, there’s a general lack of awareness and knowledge about what sour beers are let alone fruited sours,” he said. “I think the same thing is going to happen with oenobeers. People are scared of things they don’t understand…We’re going to have to dig our heels in and we’re going to have to get as much liquid to lips as we can so people can try the products and learn what oenobeers are. I really think it’s going to be a big thing for us. In three years we’ll be like, damn, we’ll be making a lot of this.”

Photo by Scott Hand, Urban Artifact

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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