Food writer and brewer Daniel Tapper on how beer and wine can be much more similar than you might think
Six o’ clock on a Friday evening in the Tuscan town of Lucca, and the still-warm central piazza is thronging with a crowd of 20-or-30-somethings, many of them queuing for a drink at local craft beer emporium De Cervesia.
But you won’t find any pints of bitter here. Almost all of those soaking up the last of the day’s sun are clutching impossibly delicate flute glasses containing something that looks a lot more like prosecco than pale ale.
More confusing still, they swirl, sniff and savour every mouthful with the kind of reverence usually reserved for a Speyside single malt, or a corpulent, aged vintage wine. Itching to try this mysterious-looking elixir myself, I approach the group armed with my finest pidgin Italian.
The drink in question, it transpires, is not wine but a seasonal beer called Limes produced by local artisanal brewery Bruton. Definitely not your average brew, this hay-coloured, gently carbonated ale is made with the addition of organic vermentino grape must, sourced from an organic vineyard in the small hilltop town of Magliano.
It is as complex and dry as the best champagne, as crisp and minerally as an albariño and it might just be the most fascinating, unutterably elegant drink on earth.
I could go on. But thankfully, as special as this beer is, it isn’t the only one to bridge the beer-wine void with magnificent results. Indeed, although much is made of the supposed fray between grain and grape, the two drinks are closer than you might think.
Dry brut style beers, for example, are finished ‘a la methode champenoise’, meaning they receive a second fermentation before being conditioned over yeast, creating the kind of smaller, softer bubbles usually found in champagne.
And like soave, chianti or chateauneuf-du-pape, many of the world’s best beers are in fact blends, most notably Belgian lambics and gueuze—the latter of which is ingeniously made by combining young and old spontaneously fermented beer to create a drink with juicy barnyard-like aromas and flavours reminiscent of vintage cider and natural white wine.
More common still, an increasing number of craft breweries are embracing barrel ageing for the same reason as winemakers. Depending on the type of wood used, barrels can imbue beer with the kind of soft, woody notes of vanilla or tobacco usually found in oak-aged chardonnay, or can be used to heighten flavours of spice and smoke.
Blurring the lines
Further blurring the lines between wine and beer are those brewers who age their beer in barrels that once contained wine, sherry or port. Standout examples include Buxton Brewery’s Oersoep, aged in red wine barrels for an impressive 10 months, Moor Brew Co’s Fusion, matured in sherry barrels, and Siren Undercurrent, made by re-fermenting the brewery’s flagship pale ale with a wild yeast strain in ex-chardonnay barrels.
Let’s face it; like Bruton’s wonderful grape-ale hybrid Limes, these beers don’t just look, smell and taste like wine, they sort of are wine. But will vineyards one day repay the favour? I don’t much fancy finding any lager in my lugana, but a drop of smoky porter in a pinot noir? Yes please.
Wine-like beers from Utobeer
Bosteels Deus Brut des Flandres
This lively, dry and flowery golden ale shares a number of similarities with wine: it comes in at a heady 11.5%, is served from 75cl sharing bottles and is secondary fermented in the champagne region of France where it undergoes a similar fermentation process to bubbly.
Savour Brut Sparkling Beer
A tribute to champagne, this 10.5% Belgian style golden ale is produced in collaboration with the award-winning Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex, where it undergoes six weeks of primary fermentation and an impressive 100-day maturation in the bottle. Expect mouth-tingling effervescence and complex aromas of spice and elderflower.
Orkney Brewery Dark Island Reserve
£9.50 (330ml), £19 (750ml)
Much like a full-bodied red wine, this rich, jet-black, oak-aged beer (10%) is brimming with spice, fruit and roast wood flavours—a perfect partner for game pates, red meat dishes, dark chocolate and strong cheeses. No wonder it’s one of the highest-rated beers produced in Britain.
Brouwerij Verhaeghe Duchesse De Bourgogne
It might only be 6.2% but few beers can claim to be more wine-like than this deep auburn Flanders red ale. With its soft tannins and bright vinous acidity, this beer makes a great bedfellow with venison, lamb or a rare rib eye.