As I have increasingly become a predominantly wine drinker, I find co-fermenting grapes with a beer, or even blending wine with a sour to be quite tempting. Lambic brewery, Cantillon, has been adding grapes to two of its seasonal brews for years and one of them, Vigneronne, was a favorite of mine when their products were more readily available in Portland.
Sour beers and grapes can be joined to create a unique beer in a variety of ways, including co-fermenting the grapes with the beer, adding grape juice to the fermenting beer, or adding a portion of finished wine to a completed brew.
My favorite Portland brewery, Upright, has been releasing a number of grape-incorporating bottles recently, and I purchased two of those to taste.
The 2017 Oregon Native uses estate pinot noir grapes from the Patton Valley Vineyards to co-ferment in Upright barrels. Intriguingly, the beer was fermented with yeast indigenous to the Patton Valley orchard, which introduces a natural wine touch to this creation. I poured the beer in a Cantillon glass and it boasted a translucent, Burgundy red color in the light. With a very pleasant aroma and what I would be inclined to call a classic Upright nose at this point, it had mild brettanomyces character and oak. My bottle was quite tart by Upright standards, with notes of lemon, cassis, slight bitterness, and some residual sweetness accompanied by light tannins from the oak and grapes, consistent with the use of the leaner pinot noir. It was a dry (but not bone-dry) beer with medium carbonation ditton on the mouthfeel.
Going Gris takes another step on the road of blending the philosophies of natural wine making and wild ales. This collaboration between Upright and natural wine experimenters Minimus Wines was made for the 10th anniversary of Bailey’s Taproom and features orchard yeast, a blend of beers (including one with rose petal), and the rare savagnin rose grape matured in an acacia wood cask. The beer looked extraordinarily clear and Pilsner-like, with a rapidly declining head. I observed spice and grain on the nose with a whiff of brett. It was tart, vinous, and herbal, with a pronounced bitter-lemon like note, and quite carbonated. The light mouthfeel gave this elegant and very drinkable beer a sophisticated and cerebral touch.
I had high hopes for these two beers and was not disappointed. Both brews were excellent but Going Gris was particularly fascinating. An obvious question is whether these grape / sour blends are more than the sum of their parts. I think it depends. I had another wine / sour blend by the glass at Upright which did taste more or less like beer blended with wine, mutually diluting each other’s likable characteristics. Other attempts, such as the Cantillon brews and the Upright bottles reviewed here do something more and open a world that cannot be fully captured with wine or beer alone. As this beer style is a subset of an already smaller craft style it will probably still take a considerable amount of time to understand the behavior and outcomes of using different kinds of grapes, fermentation choices, and aging regimes to identify the most attractive combinations and styles. These experimental brews do indicate this will be a fruitful journey.