Every Friday, at one of America's most beloved purveyors of cult IPAs, staff wind down not with the latest hop-forward haze, but a glass of wine. To beer enthusiasts who shower praise on pints being poured at Philadelphia's Tired Hands Brewing, it may seem strange, but co-owner Jean Broillet sees many of his company's new projects as a reflection of an evolved appreciation for non-beer options. His team's "Cool Wine Friday" isn't just an opportunity to reflect on the past week and bond together, but rather, to gain deeper understanding of fermentation, generally through natural wines.
“It’s such a big, wide world of beer right now, and I worry sometimes our culture is now favoring excess as a form of creativity,” Broillet says. “I think that’s pretty fucking boring and that is sort of the norm now.”
Sure, there’s some irony for a statement like this coming from a brewer responsible for popularizing the idea of Milkshake IPAs in the age of haze, but look further at Tired Hands’ Fermentaria tap list, and it’s easy to spot a balance of modern styles and historical romanticism. There has been SaisonHands, aged in French oak foeders, SEHT, a spelt Saison, and an entry in the brewery’s Frequency Illusion series: a Saison made with oats and Pilsner malt, fermented on oak and used Pennsylvania Merlot grapes. It was in contact with the fruit for four months.
“I can't help but think about what comes next,” Broillet says, “and I don't think that answer has to be confined to one type of beer.”
Therein lies the beauty of this new project, placed somewhere between “now” and “next.” It represents new intent as much as new skill. To escape the threat of boredom, brewers are embracing other aspects of alcohol for inspiration. It’s not uncommon for breweries to double as distilleries, and even some make wine, but in this latest wave, some of beer’s highly-regarded producers are melding the latter to push their own boundaries.
As many “out there” beer concoctions go, it’s easy to point toward Dogfish Head as part of the effort to mix wine and beer. Founder and CEO Sam Calagione, meanwhile, points at the debut of his brewery’s Raison D’Etre in 1996, containing beet sugar and raisins to mimic red wine, as inspiration toward beers like Sixty One, made with syrah grape must, and Noble Rot, which used viognier grape and pinot gris must. This winter, as part of a new variety pack, Dogfish will include Sixty One and a new brand, Viniferous IPA, to cover a white and red wine-centric version of beer. The most ambitious combination from the Delaware brewery is Mixed Media, made with 51% fermentables from grain and 49% from grapes.
That’s the same ratio Broillet is using for his Frequency IIlusion series, which has focused on wine grapes, but has also used heirloom apple varieties for a cider-beer hybrid as well. Brands in this series represent a new way for Tired Hands to excite its fans, but there’s also professional development involved as well. In creating his first batches, Broillet says he learned more about his Saison yeast thanks to interactions with Merlot and Riesling grapes, which “awakened sensibilities of what our Saison yeast is capable of.”
“After a decade of doing this, both planning a brewery and operating a brewery, it’s like, well, what are we excited about at this point?” mused Jester King co-founder Jeff Stuffings in a a February 2018 episode of the Good Beer Hunting podcast. “The one kind of constant that runs through all of this is we haven’t gotten tired of fermentation.” Winemaking is in the future for Jester King, too, which will grow grapes on its property in Austin, Texas.
For Stuffings, it’s no surprise that some of his peers are looking to wine for inspiration toward beer. Some of the most celebrated American brewers have backgrounds in wine, or have expressed a direct kinship with that category, he says, naming brewers like Trevor Rogers of de Garde, Walt Dickinson of Wicked Weed, and Cory King of Side Project, who, on his own “About Us” page, notes that his “first love in the beverage industry was for wine, and that passion can be seen in his oak-aged beers at Side Project.”
In a 2014 Q&A for TalkBeer.com, Rogers noted that he originally thought his career was going to be in wine, adding that at the time he was likely to have more wine in his cellar than beer.
“Just like our beer is a true representation of where we are because of the type of fermentation we do,” he says, “we like to work with grapes expressing a strong individual character and sense of place, effectively melding the two locations.”
It’s this concept of origin that drives Nile Zacherle, who, along with working as a winemaker for more than two decades, brings a self-described “winemaker’s lens” to Mad Fritz Brewing Co. He believes the function of raw materials should drive not just a recipe, but an idea of what it could be. In the same way wines are driven by grape vintage, he sees the variable of agricultural and microbiological ingredients as key to the most authentic representation of combining malt, hops, water, and yeast. At Mad Fritz, beers may use single-origin barley and hops and water from nearby springs in Napa Valley.
“The best wines in the world aren’t about the coolest package, it’s where they’re from, how they’re farmed and if it was made well,” says Zacherle, who also acts as director of viticulture and winemaking at David Arthur Vineyards. “A good vintage is when all the harmony of elements of nature come together to produce a product that is about more than process, but its origin.”
Zacherle had started his brewing career with Anderson Valley Brewing Co., but grew bored with large-scale production of a small number of brands, pumped out to the same specs over and over. “I felt so separated from the discovery of working with raw and changing materials,” he says. It led him to further explore brewing science at University of California-Davis and Mad Frtiz.
This shows up in a tangible way with Mad Fritz’ Terroir Series, which sources 100% of its ingredients from Sonoma County. Not only does it adhere to themes Zacherle learned to appreciate through making wine, but also differentiates itself from other beers on the market by embracing the unique parts of what he believes to be so important: agriculture and natural change.
“If you want a consistent beer, don’t come here,” he says. “I really wish brewers knew more about wine, because they borrow so much terminology, but may not understand the context.”
It was this kind of search for knowledge that encouraged Phil Markowski to play in this crossover space in the mid-1990s. Markowski, brewmaster with Two Roads Brewing, was serving as head brewer and co-owner of the Southampton Publick House in Southampton, New York. He had moved to Long Island and was curious to include local ingredients in his beer, making it easy to choose from one of the nearby wineries.
“Back then, using wine grapes seemed like it was something you didn’t do because you’d have two different, competing alcoholic beverages with no examples of hybridization between the two at the time,” Markowski says. “But it seemed like a logical thing to do in that location.”
It was all trial and error, and an opportunity to learn. With under-ripe Chardonnay grapes, preferred for higher acid content and lower sugar level, he added them to a base beer of what was essentially a Wheat Ale. His Peconic County Reserve Ale made several small-batch returns over the years, and proved to be a valuable experience when his Two Roads team decided to create Sauvignon Blanc Gose, which was released this spring featuring 21.5 pounds of Sauvignon Blanc grapes per barrel.
“In winemaking, there is so much more agricultural terroir to it that can be missing in brewing, and I envy that to a degree,” says Markowski, noting how vinters can be “amateur meteorologists” between the daily interaction between weather, plant, and grower. Using grapes, 20 years ago or today, is a reflection of interest and professional growth as much as it can be about making something fun to drink. These are lessons that will be particularly helpful, he says, for Two Roads’ “Area 2” production space that focuses on barrel-aged, wild, sour, and mixed-fermentation beers.
“It’s understanding how batch-to-batch and seasonal variation are celebrated,” he says. “We may have an end flavor profile in mind, but we have to be patient and occasionally nudge the product toward that end goal. It’s something I’ve picked up from wine makers.”
This is the fermentation space Markowski and others see as advantageous to their brewing skill. For someone like Stuffings, even a minimalist process is exciting.
“Mash the grains, rack to oak, let it go,” he says of barrel-aging some of his beers. Then considers something like natural wine: “Crush the grapes, rack to oak, let it go.”
“It’s coaxing nature in a certain direction rather than trying to master it,” Stuffings concludes, the coaxing offering an education, not exerting the will of a brewer over process.
That can be a powerful tool for any brewer. IPA presents financial opportunity, with its New England sub-style proving to be a real force, but as businesses look to extend some of their specialty offerings to reflect staff interests and curiosities, finding ways to combine forces of fermentation is a new way to offer excitement for brewer and drinker alike. Understanding flavors and ways to encounter them through beer may seem a little odd or unexpected, Tired Hands’ Broillet says, but it’s also needed for innovation.
“It could be OK,” he says, “and it could be the beginning of a pretty cool liquid that could evolve into something desirable.”