The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
Sometimes you want a nice cold pint of beer. Other nights it’s a rich glass of cabernet. But there are also those moments, especially for indecisive individuals like me, that you want both. Luckily, you can now have both.
Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot – beer brewed with two different white wine grapes – Viogner and Pinot Gris – is a beautiful blend of beer and wine. The beer is named for the botrytis fungus, or noble rot, which attacks moist, ripe grapes when they are exposed to drier conditions. The fungus affects individual grapes, so they must be picked by hand. Noble rot concentrates the sugars in the grapes to produce a sweet juice.
Dogfish Head uses Viognier grapes that have been infected with noble rot and Pinot Gris grapes that are naturally sweetened using a process called “dropping fruit,” where clusters of grapes are cut off of the vines to concentrate the sugars and flavors of those left on the vines. The Viognier and Pinot Gris musts produced half of the fermentable sugars and the other half comes from those traditional beer grains barley and wheat.
Noble Rot has that rich Viognier nose of flower petals and tropical fruits, and an interesting spiciness on the tongue. It is not nearly as sweet as one would think given the sugar content of the grape must used.
Of course not every brewer is making beer with grape must. Many are using old wine barrels to infuse the beer with wine-like qualities. As mentioned in an earlier post about barrel-aging, Victory aged its Golden Monkey in Chardonnay barrels to produce White Monkey, a more subtle, buttery beer. The brewers at Victory also used their Baltic Thunder as a base for Red Thunder, a wine barrel-aged beer that has strong cherry and subtle vanilla notes.
Pizza Boy Brewing is doing a Sour Chardonnay, which gets so much flavor from the barrel that tastes like it had to be made using grape juice. The sour tartness only enhances the Chardonnay flavors and sometimes you feel like you’re actually drinking wine instead of beer when you have it.
Word has it that The Vineyard & Brewery at Hershey plan to create some beer-wine hybrids, as well.
But what would a discussion about beer and wine blends be without the standard bearer: barley wine. Barley wine is not a wine, it’s a beer (made with grain instead of fruit), but its alcohol content can rival that of wine, and it has a rich fruity, yet spicy flavor that often mirrors that of wine.
Barley wines don’t necessarily have a specific flavor profile, but they often have a heavier alcohol nose and fuller body than most of their beer relatives. Barley wines often have a raisin or prune taste, similar to that of Belgian quads. They tend to be spicy, and the first sip usually packs a punch. Barley wines have great depth of flavor and are better served at cellar temperature rather than very cold. The complexity of barley wines is enhanced as the beer warms to room temperature.
Most “wine beers” are sippers because of their high ABV, but taking your time drinking them allows you to experience more of their depth and discover new flavors. I find that they are rarely the best beers to drink with food, but most of them go nicely with a good cigar.
I am thrilled that more brewers are experimenting with using grapes and wine barrels to produce beers that are rich and complex and straddle the line between beer and wine. They are definitely the best of both worlds.