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Why Beer Is Starting to Look Like Natural Wine

July 26, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, July 26, 2019

Though they might appear worlds apart to the casual observer, winemakers and brewers have been influencing one another for quite some time. In some cases, that manifests in borrowed techniques, such brewers throwing Videl Blanc and chardonnay grapes into a batch and then aging the resulting beer in wine barrels. In other cases, the inspiration is more conceptually based—brut IPAs invite comparisons to dry, bubbly Champagne, while blush-pink beers tinted with hibiscus and other botanicals are a clear attempt to cash in on rosé wine’s enduring popularity.

So it makes sense that natural and pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat, wines, the hottest trend in wine right now, would have an impact on beer brewing. Simply put, pét-nat wines are produced via an ancient technique by which the booze is bottled before it finishes its first round of fermentation. As the natural fruit sugars ferment in the bottle, they create a pleasantly subdued effervescence and a distinct flavor. They tend to be unfiltered and come topped with bottle cap rather than a cork. 

They also look a whole lot like the kind of beers coming out of breweries such as Jester King in Austin, Texas, which released Cerveza De Tempranillo, Birra De Sangiovese, and Blanc Du Bois late last year. All three of these barrel-aged wild American ales are made with wine grape varietals and boast the funk, subdued carbonation, and nuances associated with pét-nat wines.

“Pét-nat is a vibe—a summery, care-free, unpretentious vibe. It’s the kind of wine you can take to a barbecue,” says Samantha Lee, co-founder of Hopewell Brewing in Chicago. That’s exactly the kind of vibe that Lee and her colleagues wanted to translate into beer. “We find ourselves turning to wild fermented beers that have the same kind of fun acidity and bubbles.”

Pét-nat is a vibe—a summery, care-free, unpretentious vibe. It’s the kind of wine you can take to a barbecue.”

The result was Neon, a bottle-conditioned, mixed-culture sour ale with an electric red hue from raspberries and plums. From its cloudy, unfiltered appearance to its zingy flavor with just a touch of funk, Neon could almost pass for a pét-nat if you squint.

“It’s one of those things that it doesn’t quite look like beer, but people get it. It’s fun, it’s easy to drink and share. It’s also why pét-nat wines are so fun too,” Lee says. “Wine and sour beers can both be hard to get into, but if you present it in this light-hearted, whimsical way, you don’t have to pontificate about it.”

Other breweries that share her sentiments, including Half Acre Beer Co., Transient Artisan Ales, and Whiner Beer Company, will gather on at Chicago’s Sleeping Village on August 10 for the inaugural Act Natural: Natural Wine & Beer Festival. Lee hopes that the event, which highlights a curated mix of heavy-hitters from the wine, cider, and sour beer spheres, will be a fun celebration of lightly funky flavors. While she says she loves to nerd out over the nitty-gritty of brewing these boundary-blurring elixirs, at the end of the day, the point of it all is to enjoy drinking them.

Courtesy of Hopewell Brewing

“I think we’re just responding to the way people drink,” Lee says. “You go to a great restaurant and you’ll find great beer lists and great wine lists and people will toggle between the two over the course of an evening. It seems natural. People don’t stick to one thing anymore.”

Brewery Bhavana, one of the participants at Act Natural, has been experimenting with beers that imitate elements of pét-nat wines for some time now. 

“There are many similarities between natural wines and wild or mixed-fermentation beers. In natural wines, winemakers are actually using the native flora and wild yeast available to them directly from the grape skins,” says Patrick Woodson, head brewer at Brewery Bhavana. “At Bhavana, we developed our own wild or natural culture by harvesting wild yeast and bacteria from various locally grown fruits.”

The resulting culture contains a mix of Brettanomyces for an understated funk, Lactobacillus, which adds tang, Pediococcus for a touch of acidity and Saccharomyces, which has been used in wine-making for centuries. Woodson starts off his mixed fermentation beers in steel vats, then finishes the process in wine barrels with a little help from that magical wild culture. 

The resurgence of interest in natural wines and mixed-fermentation beers is about people exploring styles that have existed for hundreds of years.”

One of Brewery Bhavana’s most popular examples of the style is the Saison Blanc, with a light carbonation and peachy, floral undertones. The beer starts off life as a Belgian saison with small quantities of passion fruit, guava, mango, citrus zest, and grapefruit. Woodson originally created it in honor of his mother, who has a fondness for crisp, dry wines. It has since developed enough of a following for the brewery to bring it back every year as a seasonal release.

“It’s directly inspired by New Zealand sauvignon blanc and the natural wines of that region. It is a beer that takes over a year to make, but the results are lovely,” Woodson says. “Over the course of a year, the sugar from the fruit and beer fermented completely, leaving behind a dry saison with a light acidity. We then bottle-condition it with Champagne yeast to give it a beautiful effervescent finish akin to pét-nat wine.”

Pét-nat wines may be having a moment, but Woodson doesn’t view his work as especially trendy. Wild-fermented beverages boast a complexity impossible to create by other methods—and whether you call them natural wines or sour ales, they’re delicious nonetheless.

“I would argue the resurgence of interest in natural wines and mixed-fermentation beers is about people exploring styles that have existed for hundreds of years,” Woodson says. “I hope the natural fermentation movement is here to stay, because it results in beautiful, eloquent flavor profiles that aren't achievable without wild yeast.”

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