Beer

For Many Craft Breweries, Winemaking is the Next Frontier

To broaden their sales base, breweries are reaching beyond the beer drinker by producing natural wines, piquettes, fruited spritzes, and more

Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing.

Several years ago, Odell Brewing sought internal input on how to repurpose an underused building. The employee-owned brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, empowers its owners to generate business ideas, and a maintenance team member proposed winemaking. 

Wine? Hmm. Odell has brewed beer since 1989, back when the brand was a pioneer in a wide-open craft market that has, over the decades, steadily become congested with competition. Making wine could widen Odell’s potential audience, building a broader customer base beyond the IPA crowd. “There’s a portion of the community that either can’t or chooses not to drink beer,” says director of marketing Alex Kayne.

In fall 2019, Odell started sourcing grapes from Pacific Northwest growers such as Oregon’s Goschie Farms, a longtime Odell hop supplier. The following June, the company debuted the first four releases of the OBC Wine Project, including a sparkling rosé and a Pinot Gris-based blend packaged in 375-milliliter cans. Both highlight Odell’s name, a handshake between wine and beer. “Sometimes these industries can be portrayed as so far apart,” says Kayne. “Agriculturally, they couldn’t be closer.”

For years, breweries have tried courting wine drinkers by adding crushed grapes, juice, and pomace to IPAs, saisons, and barrel-aged sour ales. The best examples could channel a wine’s moxie, but going halfway wasn’t always enough. (Legally, at least 51 percent of a beer’s fermentable sugars must come from grain.)

“I’ve had amazing wine-beer hybrids, but part of the reason I loved them was because they’re as vinous a beer that you can make,” says Tim Gormley, a founder and the director of development for Burial Beer in Asheville, North Carolina. “Perhaps it would’ve been better if it was just a wine.”

Photo courtesy of Burial Beer.

A Different Fermentation Learning Curve

Fruits are key to many successful wild and sour ales thanks to their acidity-tempering sweetness. Ferment beer with enough fruit, and some brewers begin to consider what could be gained by dropping grain entirely.

At Wicked Weed Brewing, also in Asheville, Jen Currier worked as head blender for the brewery’s robust sour-beer program. She used an “inordinate amount of fruit” to make them, she says, and in 2017, Wicked Weed began making natural cider fermented in oak with wild yeast. “We found ourselves drinking more and more natural wine,” Currier says, finding a “common thread between spontaneously fermented beer and natural wine” that’s also fermented with ambient yeast. Making wine seemed like “a really natural progression,” she says.

In 2019, Wicked Weed named Currier head winemaker and cellar master for its Vīdl offshoot, specializing in natural wines made from Yakima Valley grapes. Yeast is an equal-opportunity eater of sugar, but wine ferments on a longer timeline, and the flavor evolution is less familiar. “I understand drinking young sour beer and knowing where that’s going to go, but I didn’t have a ton of experience trying unfinished wines,” Currier recalls. 

Photo courtesy of Erosion Wine.

Currier’s initial releases are experimental and highly unusual, as they combine both winemaking and brewing techniques. Contact Rosé is a rosé-orange hybrid that mixes Sauvignon Blanc and Tempranillo grapes, while the lighter-bodied Blaufränkisch is slightly funky (affected by Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that winemakers generally try to avoid).

“I’m sure there are winemakers who are like, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ But for us, Brettanomyces is such a special part of our brewery and what we do,” Currier says. Vīdl wines are colorfully packaged with wax seals and labels featuring eye-catching collages. “When you see our bottles on a shelf, they absolutely stand out,” Currier says.

Burial Beer is leaning on variety with its natural-leaning Visuals line of organic wines, oak-fermented cider, and vermouth flavored with roots and herbs, such as galangal and dandelion root. In 2018, Burial began shipping Pacific Northwest grapes to North Carolina for processing and fermentation, fortifying and aromatizing the wines. But shipping grapes cross-country, even in refrigerated trucks, decreased quality. “We started off on the wrong foot,” says Gormley.

This year, Burial hired Evan Lewandowski of Ruth Lewandowski Wines as head winemaker. He makes the wines in Sonoma County with locally sourced, organic Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah grapes and finished wines will be shipped to North Carolina for serving at Burial’s multiple outlets, including a forthcoming Asheville tasting room that will serve Visuals products starting in 2022. 

“If we can make those things instead of buying them from someone else, then it makes for a richer Burial taproom experience,” says Gormley. 

Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing.

Bringing a Craft Beer Mentality to Wine

Brewery taprooms began as bare-bones showcases, liquid sales pitches sold by the flight. In time, taprooms evolved into third-place community hubs offering non-alcoholic beverages and wine. 

“For the longest time when you were at a brewery and you saw wine on the menu, it was an afterthought,” says Mitch Ermatinger. He and wife, Whitney, founded Speciation Artisan Ales in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2016 with a business plan built on barrel-aged sour ales.

Ermatinger’s interest in fermentation led to natural wines. In 2018, he launched Native Species Winery to make foot-crushed, wild-fermented wines with grapes from Michigan vineyards. The move was prescient. Ermatinger soon received a Celiac diagnosis and stopped drinking beer; winemaking meant he could still taste his fruited labor. 

In 2020, the Ermatingers brought together beer and wine at a new tasting room, also serving homemade hard seltzer. “At this point, we’re more of a bar that makes everything on site than a traditional brewery or winery,” Ermatinger says. The company primarily offers its wine through its taproom, using samples as a sales tool. One recent example is the Iron Bell, a rosé pét-nat that tastes intensely of strawberries and lychees. “Its flavors can cross over to people who really like fruited sour beer,” Ermatinger says. 

Photo courtesy of Native Species Winery.

Patrick Rue sought a break from beer. He founded the Bruery in Placentia, California, in 2008, to produce Belgian ales and big stouts, among other bold styles. In 2017, Rue sold a majority stake and launched Erosion Wine in Napa Valley in 2020.

Rue pursues a very different path than the standard full-bodied Napa Cabernet Sauvignon model. He ferments with genetically modified yeast, mixes Merlot wine with cacao nibs, and adds freeze-dried sour cherries to Chardonnay. Releases come in 250-milliliter cans. “Erosion brings a craft beer attitude to wine,” says Rue, who calls himself a “winemaker in training.” 

He opened Erosion’s taproom in February 2020, offering up to 24 wines on tap, and closed in March—another pandemic casualty. Erosion embraced direct-to-consumer shipping and rethought its model. In the Napa Valley, Rue says, winery tasting rooms are often concerned with case sales and membership clubs. They’re not places to hang out … like a brewery.

Erosion reopened its winery taproom in March 2021 and later added an adjoining space serving beer, including Erosion’s own small-batch pale ales, IPAs, and more. Surrounded by Napa Valley wine, “people really need a good beer at the end of the day,” Rue says. Erosion now attracts locals, its beer serving as a pathway to its offbeat wine.

Photo courtesy of Odell Brewing.

This year, Odell also opened a winery tasting room and obtained a license that lets guests gather in fenced-in outdoor space and communally enjoy the company’s beer, wine, and hard kombucha. Odell customers no longer needed to align themselves in drinking tribes. “Now we can invite more folks into our backyard,” says Kayne. 

Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.

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