Blending Red Wine With Porter Ale: A Crossover Beer Worth The Buzz?
If you're a beer lover and your significant other tends more toward wine, is there a drink that can satisfy both of you?
How about a beer-wine mashup, combining two of mankind's oldest beverages?
"To me, it's kind of the magic in the middle," says Sebastian Zutant, sommelier and owner of the D.C. restaurant The Red Hen.
Zutant has partnered with his friend Jeff Hancock of craft brewery DC Brau to blend a chocolatey porter ale with a touch of Bordeaux.
"It really has distinct red wine characteristics, as well as beer" ones, says Zutant as he sips the frothy, dark-brown mashup out of a wine glass. It has rustic notes that Zutant describes as "pruney" (as in prune), almost like dried cranberry.
"It's fun stuff, it's weird stuff, and I think it works," Zutant says.
The idea came to Zutant when he learned that winemakers usually toss out the tannin-rich sediment known as lees. A waste product of winemaking, lees are basically the stuff that falls to the bottom during the fermenting process: bits of grape skin, seed fragments and dead yeast cells.
It's of no use to the winemakers. But as the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.
During my visit to DC Brau, where Zutant and Hancock make their wine-beer fusion, Hancock showed me how they pour the lees, which is viscous, almost like cough syrup, through a funnel into the top of an old wine barrel. The beer and the wine lees then age together inside the barrel.
The result? The tannins, which give red wine its complex flavor, are pulled into the beer.
And how do customers respond? When John Vorhees and Alicia Boyce sat down to dinner at The Red Hen a few weeks back, they were intrigued.
"You like wine and I like beer," said John Vorhees, talking to his wife. "So this could be it!" — something to satisfy both of them. And after tasting it, Vorhees proclaimed, "I'm sold."
Alicia was still warming up to the drink after her first sip. "It's good," she said hesitantly. "It's different!"
Zutant says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive: "It was definitely a crapshoot. We rolled the dice, and it seemed to work out nicely."
It's the novelty that people are drawn to. And that's exactly what Zutant and DC Brau's Jeff Hancock are going for.
"The further the competition grows, the further you have to distinguish yourself," Hancock says.
He says if you want to stand out as a craft brewer, you have to be willing to take some chances — and push the frontiers of brewing. Especially now, with more than 2,400 breweries across the country.
Hancock isn't the only brewer experimenting with wine-beer crossovers. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery makes a beer made with grape must, called Sixty-One, as well as Kvasir, a sort of Nordic grog that blends beer, fruit wine and mead in a re-creation of ancient recipes. And there's Oculus Dexter #1 by Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project in Denver.
The wine-beer crossover is part of a broader trend in barrel-aging beer. And there are lots of examples of this trend, from Fernet Aged Porter from Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., to Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout from Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River, Ore.
And let's not forget all the fruit beers, such as Raspberry Tart from New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus, Wis., and the chocolate beers, such as Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout from Brooklyn Brewery.
It's truly a time of experimentation, and of expanding beer-drinkers palates.
"I think the brewers are fearless," John Holl, author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook, told us. "They're not afraid to try new things and keep pushing boundaries."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For beer drinkers, there's an explosion of choices out there - what with the boom in craft brewing. Besides the Pale Ales and Stouts, there are now dry hopped double brown ales - even chocolate and fruit infused beers.
NPR's Allison Aubrey has this morning last word in business. Actually, a bunch of words, on yet another frontier in the world of brewing.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like a lot of couples, John Voorhees and Alicia Boyce do not have the same preferences when it comes to drinks with dinner. Alicia tends towards wine. John's more of a beer guy.
JOHN VOORHEES: Usually she encourages me on wine anyways.
AUBREY: But when they sat down to dinner recently at a restaurant in D.C. called The Red Hen, they were intrigued to be offered a drink neither of them had ever heard of. It's best described as a wine-beer mash up.
VOORHEES: This could be a good combination, you like wine, I like beer, so this could be, this could be it.
AUBREY: Bartender Victor Dooley Red pours the drink.
VICTOR DOOLEY: We serve it in a wine glass, kind of to remind people that's the whole idea - the whole, there's a touch of wine.
AUBREY: And as he pulls back the tap, what streams into the glass looks like just a just a dark ale, it's foamy and deep brown.
But what else is in there?
DOOLEY: It's almost like a hidden secret.
AUBREY: That secret? A red wine grape slurry called lees. It's basically the stuff that falls to the bottom of the barrel during the fermenting process. It's bits of grape skin and seed fragments, dead yeast cells.
And Red Hen owner Sebastian Zutant says blending it with beer creates a completely novel taste.
SEBASTIAN ZUTANT: It has a really distinct, kind of, like red wine characteristic as well as a beer characteristic. It has this like really kind of like rustic, pruney(ph), kind of like dried cranberry. It's cool stuff, it's weird stuff, it's funky stuff, but I think it works.
AUBREY: Sebastian says what sparked his interest in this wine-beer cross-over, is that he was talking to some friends in the local wine industry and they told him that they usually just toss out the wine lees. It's considered a waste product.
So he approached another friend, Jeff Hancock, who owns a local brewery called DC Brau. And, as the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.
JEFF HANCOCK: What we are looking at right now - that's the active brewing down in the brew house.
AUBREY: The brewery looks like a cross between a garage and a warehouse, and it is filled with steam.
It's like a vapor of bear.
HANCOCK: Right. Yeah. Unfortunately, since we have neighbors above us, we're in a basement unit, we weren't able to vent the steam outside. Traditionally, that is what you would have.
AUBREY: So they've just gotten used to all this aromatic steam, and for now it, kind of, adds to the charm.
HANCOCK: And now I think you can start to smell the hops a little bit.
AUBREY: What's in the tank is a porter ale. Now usually the process ends here. But for this new cross-over, the partners take the wine lees they get from two vineyards in Virginia and blend them with the beer.
So as the mist of hoppy steam drifts to the back of the brew house, we go to a wall that is stacked with old wine barrels. This is where the wine-beer fusion takes place.
The wine lees is a viscous, almost like cough-syrup.
HANCOCK: We are pouring the lees through a funnel into the top of the barrel.
AUBREY: This thick slurry is unappealing to the eye. But it's the taste Hancock is focused on. He's looking to pull the red wine tannins that give complex flavor out of the wine lees and into his beer.
HANCOCK: When you add it to the barrel and mix it to the beers, it creates a really, really unique flavor profile.
AUBREY: Back at The Red Hen, Sebastian Zutant says he's been serving this a few months, and customers seem to like it.
ZUTANT: It was definitely a crap shoot. We definitely rolled the dice and it seemed to work out quite nicely.
AUBREY: John Voorhees and Alicia Boyce are about to take their first sip.
ALICIA BOYCE: It smells like an old barn.
AUBREY: But then, she tastes it.
BOYCE: It's different. Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean it's good.
AUBREY: And john's response.?
VOORHEES: I'm sold. Yeah. I would, you know, truly wine and beer together - right from the first taste.
AUBREY: It's the novelty that people seem to respond to. And DC Brau's Jeff Hancock says that's exactly what he's going for. With more than 2,400 breweries across the country now, the competition is tough.
HANCOCK: The further the competition grows, the further you have to distinguish yourself.
AUBREY: And like the owners of The Red Hen and DC Brau, Brewers from Colorado to Delaware are experimenting with all sorts of barrel aging and wine-beer combinations, fusing two of humankind's oldest beverages into one.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: And that's the business news on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.