Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blurring The Line Between Beer And Wine

It seems that the end of the year and beginning anew always sparks the insipient trend of “Top <fill in the blank> of the Year” lists. Some are quite enjoyable to read (Time’s Best Inventions, Metacritic’s Top Video Games), while others just give me with a puzzled expression (Top Moments Caught On Google Maps).

One list that crossed my browser got me thinking about different perceptions people have of beer. The particular list, Wine Enthusiast’s Top 25 Beer Selections of 2009 (reprinted below), demonstrates an example of how particular drinkers look for particular traits. Here we have a wine magazine - who just started covering beer in 2009 - ranking their impression of the best brewed offerings of 2009.  When you read through the list, ask yourself what characteristics wine drinkers look for when evaluating their beverages? Do any of these wine traits translate into how they perceive a "good" beer? I think you'll find that many of them do.

Wine Enthusiast’s Top 25 Beer Selections of 2009
  1. Captain Lawrence Brewing Co.’s Rosso e Marrone (American Wild Ale; 10.0% abv)
  2. Unibroue’s Maudite (Belgian Dark Strong; 8.0% abv)
  3. The Bruery’s Orchard White (Witbier; 5.7% abv)
  4. Avery Brewing Co.’s The Maharaja (Double IPA; 10.3% abv)
  5. Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s Imperial Pumking (Pumpkin Ale; 9.0% abv)
  6. Basserie de Rochefort’s Trappistes Rochefort 8 (Belgian Dark Strong; 9.2% abv)
  7. Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s Eliot Ness Lager (Vienna Lager; 6.2% abv)
  8. The Lost Abbey’s Cuvee de Tomme (Belgian Dark Strong; 11.0% abv)
  9. Nogne-O/Jolly Pumpkin/Stone Brewing’s Special Holiday Ale (Winter Warmer; 8.5% abv)
  10. Russian River Brewing Co.’s Beatification (American Wild Ale; 5.8% abv)
  11. Brasserie de Blaugies’s Le Moneuse Saison (Saison; 8.0% abv)
  12. The Lost Abbey’s Duck-Duck-Gooze (American Wild Ale; 7.0% abv)
  13. Brouwerij St. Bernardus’s St. Bernardus Wit (Witbier; 5.5% abv)
  14. Deschutes Brewery’s Jubelale (Winter Warmer; 6.7% abv)
  15. Stone Brewing Co.’s Vertical Epic 09.09.09 (Belgian Dark Strong; 8.9% abv)
  16. Allagash Brewing Co.’s White (Witbier; 5.2% abv)
  17. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ale’s Bam Biere Farhouse Ale (Saison; 4.5% abv)
  18. The Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams Boston Lager (Vienna Lager; 4.7% abv)
  19. Brasserier Caracole’s Nostradamus (Belgian Dark Strong; 9.0% abv)
  20. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Summerfest (Czech Pilsener; 5.0% abv)
  21. Smuttynose Brewing Co.’s Pumpkin Ale (Pumpkin Ale; 6.0% abv)
  22. Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Oktoberfest Marzen Lager (Marzen; 6.0% abv)
  23. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Festina Peche (Berliner Weisse; 4.5% abv)
  24. Birrifico Del Ducato’s Nuova Mattina (Saison; 5.8% abv)
  25. Victory Brewing Co.’s Festbier (Marzen; 5.6% abv)
So what stands out in this list? More than 50% of the entries are Belgian-style beers (Dark Strongs, Sour Ales, Saisons, Wits). Much of the character and complexity you might find in these Belgian-style beers (higher gravity, layering of flavors, dark fruit notes, tartness, etc) are the same characteristics desired in certain popular wine styles.  But its not just limited to complexity from 'Belgian' character - many of WE's selections go through processes that parallel wine making processes: barrel aging, blending, vintage tastings, special reserve releases, etc.  One could even get away with calling some of the above beers 'hybrids' between the beer and wine worlds.  These practices are by no means novel - many of them have been alive and thriving in today's craft beer scene.  But of those beers presented above, the list is almost over-populated with these styles as compared many of the other 'Best of...' lists out there (as an example, only 20% of the WE selections are what the general public would consider “classic” examples – all of them being lagers).

So is there anything wrong with the Wine Enthusiast list? Of course not – I’d be more than happy to be drinking any of the beers listed above. But it made me more conscious of the parallels between flavors, processes, and products of the beer world and the wine world.

As a small anecdote, it has been my experience that these hybrid-type beers are typically the best ‘gateway’ beers for turning wine-drinking friends onto beer. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be in Cleveland for Cleveland Beer Week with a co-worker of mine. The co-worker was pretty much an exclusive wine drinker, but she agreed to humor me by tagging along for a few beer dinners. The dinner that completely changed her perspective of beer was a Jolly Pumpkin beer dinner hosted at Michael Symon’s Lolita Restaurant (Symon of the Iron Chef fame). The complexity and range of flavors in Ron Jeffries’s Belgian-inspired beers were a real eye-opener and changed her perception of beer from just “fizzy and yellow” to “Wow, that’s beer?!?”.  I knew it was a success when she wanted to hit a bottle shop the next day to pick up those she particularly enjoyed.

What do you think? Have you taken any inspiration from the wine world in how you perceive beer?  Are there any selections that didn't make the list that exhibit a wonderful example of the beer/wine hybrid?  We'd love to hear about it.



“Wine gentrifies, beer unifies.”
-W. Scott Griffith

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