Appellation Ales: Sipping on the Frontlines of America’s Hybrid Revolution

Feature by | Dec 2015 | Issue #107
Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Bill Wathen is one of the few winemakers on the planet who doesn’t love a cold beer on occasion. Yet, in the midst of fall’s harvest, it was none other than the veteran Foxen Winery vintner knocking on the back door of Barrelworks, Firestone-Walker’s barrel-aging and wild ale-making facility in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country. Inside, Wathen joined John Tevis, Foxen’s marketing manager, and longtime brewers Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks to sniff, sip and spit tart pink juice from four tiny glasses, each remarking on fruit-driven flavors, acidity levels, tannic softness and proper coloration.

The pink stuff was what had become of Wathen’s 2014 Pinot Noir rosé, which the Barrelworks team co-fermented in a 50-50 ratio with Bretta Weisse and secondary inoculations in four different French oak wine puncheons. They’d gathered to determine a final blend for this hybrid, one of many wine-beer projects that the Buellton-based brewery has explored over the past few years. They plan to treat it like champagne, packaging in 750-milliliter cork and caged bottles. What they weren’t exactly sure about was whether other techniques like riddling, tirage or dosage would be needed, too. (They’ve since decided to use both riddling and tirage.)

“These are all things we need to work out,” says Richardson, Firestone’s first brewer who returned to help launch Barrelworks after a decade-plus hiatus, “because we’ve never done this one before.”

That experimental melding of wine and beer culture is at the core of Firestone-Walker, a company Adam Firestone and brother-in-law David Walker founded 20 years ago in a barn that sat between the grapevines of their family’s Firestone Vineyards. Richardson’s first job was figuring out how to use oak barrels in the brewing process—a risky endeavor for a stainless steel-reliant industry wary of wild bacteria and yeast like Brettanomyces that fester in wood. He convinced the owners that new barrels would be safer than the old Chardonnay barrels the family winery had in vast supply, and the resulting Double Barrel Ale became the brewery’s flagship. They’ve since ridden it to steady success. And while Firestone-Walker added to its accomplishments in 2015, including a major investment from Duvel, and earning mid-sized brewery of the year at the Great American Beer Festival for an unprecedented fourth time in a decade, it also picked up its first two GABF awards for wild ales from Barrelworks: Feral One and Sour Opal.

An integral part of that award-winning consistency rests with Crooks, who took over quality control in 2001 when Firestone expanded to a bigger facility in Paso Robles. “Making clean beers is one of my favorite things to do, but it can get tedious and repetitious,” says Crooks, who commandeered a few barrels to experiment with in 2008 as “a way of exploring my creativity.” He kept it a secret until 2011, when the owners found out and encouraged him to pursue the sour ales in earnest. Richardson, who left to work at Sierra Nevada and then the World Bank assisting the Palestinian olive oil industry, also came back to help build Barrelworks. By 2012, they were ladling Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from David Walker’s Kingsley Vineyard into the barrels, letting the grape’s native yeast go to town on the bacteria-laden base beers.

Today, Barrelworks produces a number of wild ales and wine-beer hybrids under the Feral Vinifera label, using everything from Zinfandel skins from Thacher Winery and Sauvignon Blanc juice from Kingsley Vineyard to Chenin Blanc, Orange Muscat, Roussanne, Chardonnay, and other varietals from around the Santa Ynez Valley. And then there’s the Foxen sparkling rosé project, a beverage capable of convincing non-beer drinkers like Bill Wathen to reconsider their proclivities.

“I like ’em,” says Wathen after tasting through the lineup. “I’m not a beer drinker, but these are so wine-like.”

New Frontiers
Firestone-Walker is not the first or only American brewery to use wine grapes in beer, nor is it the only brewery with intimate ties to its surrounding wine country. In fact, there’s a growing wine-beer movement across the country, from the coasts of Oregon to Midwestern prairies and even Texas hill country. Brewhouses stacked high with barrels are increasingly looking and acting like wineries, and brewmasters are spouting romantic notions once championed most vocally by winemakers: a back-to-earth reliance on farming, the variance of vintages and the idea of terroir, or a sense of place, in which a given batch expresses location-specific qualities. In tune, these wine-beers and other fruit-driven wild ales are causing consumers to think differently about beer altogether, even prompting the market to pay higher, wine-like prices for one-of-a-kind, exclusive bottles.

Of course, no one would be making these sour-leaning beers if they didn’t taste good, which is where wine grapes play a particularly enticing role. “What makes wine-beer unique is honestly what makes wine unique,” says Adrienne Ballou of Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas. “It’s not like you’re eating a grape. The beer, just like wine, evolves beyond the fruit to into something completely nuanced and interesting.”

Like many on the frontline of this trend, Ballou came to brewing from the wine industry, having studied viticulture at UC Davis and worked a harvest in France. To date, Jester King has made four wine-beers, the Bière de Syrah and Cerveza de Tempranillo (both with California grapes) and the Blanc du Bois and Bière de Merlot from grapes grown just outside of Austin. But more are on the horizon—next spring the brewery will plant a few acres of Blanc du Bois and Black Spanish wine grapes on its property. “I love the idea of harvest,” says Ballou. “It ties beer back to agriculture, and that’s something brewing has become disconnected from over time. It’s a great opportunity for breweries to have relationships with farmers in the area.”

De Garde Brewing is bringing a similar sentiment to Oregon’s burgeoning beer culture. After running trial batches to test native yeasts up and down the coast, Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher decided to site their brewery in Tillamook, close to the Pinot Noir-packed Willamette Valley and not too far from southern Oregon’s hardier Tempranillo and old-vine Zinfandel grapes.

“So much of what we do, even stuff that doesn’t feature grapes, has a lot more to do with wine processes than it does with what people consider standard brewing practices,” says Rogers, also a wine industry refugee (but on the sales side). “There’s a good overlap, and most of our favorite wineries are also promoting natural fermentations, natural agriculture and biodynamic farming. Since pitched yeast doesn’t play a role in our brewery, a lot of winemakers and growers are very intrigued by what we’re doing.”

Few people know Missouri is home to one of America’s oldest wine regions, which Cory King tried to tap into after college by applying for an assistant winemaker job. He didn’t get it, turned to homebrewing instead, and wound up with a job at Perennial Artisan Ales, where he quickly became enamored with barrel-aged beers. Soon, Side Project Brewing was born, and now King—who lives with his wife in the heart of Missouri wine country—makes wine-beers with Chambourcin (or Punchdown) and Chardonel (or Blanc de Blancs) grapes, both hybrid varietals developed to withstand rough winters.

“I’m always striving to produce White Burgundy with beer,” says King, who is also developing relationships with producers in Oregon and the Napa Valley. “We produce a house flavor that is truly unique. No one can replicate that. We taste nothing like anyone else.”

Transporting barrels at Libertine. | Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Transporting barrels at Libertine. | Photo by Jacqueline Pilar

Raw Regionality
Back on California’s Central Coast in San Luis Obispo, about 30 miles down Highway 101 from Firestone-Walker’s main brewery, Tyler Clark recently opened a new facility for his Libertine Brewing Company, which he started as a “raw beer” brewery in the basement of a seaside pub in nearby Morro Bay. “Everyone thinks we are a winery,” laughs Clark of his new digs.

At Libertine, Clark’s methods are primitive: he uses hot lava rocks to warm but not boil his beer and then, like many wild ale brewers, he transfers it into a shallow, open-top coolship, where the cooling wort is exposed to the yeast-filled air around it. The resulting ales are truly regional, so much so that he “seasoned” his new facility with Morro Bay cultures to ensure similar flavors between batches.

Clark believes a great deal of what makes his house culture unique came from the native yeasts living on century-old grapes he harvested from an abandoned vineyard in Templeton. The best guess as to varietal was the historic Mission grape, and his young daughter foot-stomped them all before they were added to a beer, leading to the name “Babyfeet.” He’s since worked with Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, and other grapes, in one case, mixing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with blueberries for a “Red, White & Blue” bottling that will release on the Fourth of July.

In Orange County, The Bruery enjoys a cult-like following in California and nationwide, with bottles popping into the triple figures on the auction market. A few years ago, founder Patrick Rue partnered with Kristopher Parker, grandson of actor-turned-vintner Fess Parker, to make Wineification (a red wine-laced Imperial Stout aged in French oak barrels) and Confession (a sour Blonde Ale blended and fermented with Riesling juice). More recently, the younger Parker opened Third Window, his own Trappist-inspired brewery right next door to Potek Winery in downtown Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, The Bruery doubled down on its barrel program by hiring a production supervisor for its new Bruery Terreux facility named Jeremy Grinkey, formerly of Clos LaChance and Jason-Stephens wineries near San Jose and Sans Liege Wines in Santa Maria.

Grinkey’s connection to the wine business run deep, especially with younger, experimental vanguards like Curt Schalchlin of Sans Liege and Andrew Jones of Field Recordings, and he’s expanding The Bruery’s wine-beer options dramatically, with Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and more grape varieties coming in this year. “We’re sourcing fruit from prestigious vineyards, and I want to be able to carry that terroir through to the beer,” says Grinkey, who believes acidity in beer allows it to pair better with food. “We want to be involved with the farming, with the pressing of the fruit, all the way down to barrel and grape selection.”

But it’s Libertine that remains about as experimental and anachronistic as it gets, and wine-beer hybrids will increasingly be part of its growth, much as it is for similarly minded brewers across the country. “We’re an experimental brewery trying to figure things out with lava rocks and wine grapes,” says Clark. “We’re trying to create something that goes with what our region is.”

Participants team up to create their entries for the blend competition. | Photovby Brian Hall

Participants team up to create their entries for the blend competition. | Photo by Brian Hall

Firestone-Walker’s Anniversary Ale
In 2006, on the occasion of Firestone-Walker Brewing Company’s 10th anniversary, brewmaster Matt Brynildson invited winemakers from the surrounding Paso Robles region to participate in a beer blending battle, with teams concocting and then voting on the best mix of available barrel-aged components. The winning blend became the 10th anniversary ale (known as X Anniversary Ale), the prevailing team was fêted, and the process became an annual tradition.

This past fall, due in part to my role reviewing Central Coast wines for Wine Enthusiast magazine, I was invited to participate in the 19th competition. So one weekday night in September, as the winemakers were in the midst of harvest, Brynildson welcomed us into the taproom and introduced our five blending components: Parabola (Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout in bourbon barrels), Stickee Monkee (Quadrupel in bourbon/brandy barrels), Bravo (Imperial Brown Ale in bourbon/brandy barrels), Velvet Merkin (Oatmeal Stout in bourbon barrels) and Helldorado (Blonde Barleywine in bourbon barrels).

Sitting down in front of various pipettes, graduated cylinders, and pitchers of the dark, rich, and boozy beer, I was teamed with professional football star-turned-vintner Terry Hoage. Although he’d never won, he had always finished in the top three. “It’s all about fat and acid,” Hoage told me, and we jumped into the blending process. As other teams talked big games and studied percentages carefully, Hoage and I whipped up some quick blends that attempted to match sugar profiles on the front and back of the palate. We eventually settled on a nearly even mix that Hoage first suggested, submitted our entry, and tasted through the other handful of teams.

The result was nearly unanimous: Sherman Thacher and Daniel Callan of Thacher Winery. It made sense, as Sherman brewed for Los Gatos Brewing before getting into wine, and they wore their paper crowns with pride. The winning XIX Anniversary Ale is 33.3 percent Parabola, 33.3 percent Stickee Monkee, 16.66 percent Bravo, and 16.66 percent Velvet Merkin.

As for Hoage and I? We didn’t even make the top three. Maybe next year.