Recently, in reading through some wine news, I came across a story about brewers experimenting with aging their beers in wine barrels.
I don’t know why I should have been so surprised by the thought of beer in a wooden barrel. After all, historically, what else could a beer barrel mean?
By chance, I ran into Tom McCormick on the street one day. Tom is the executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association.
“It’s not just barrel aging,” Tom explained. “Some brewers are fermenting grapes and beer together and then aging them in wine barrels.”
Beer and wine brewed together, then aged in a wooden barrel? What could that taste like? Tom suggested we get together to try a couple.
Tom Dalldorf was the perfect person to bring in on this mission. Tom is the owner and publishing editor of The Celebrator, a magazine that follows the craft beer industry.
If anybody has a finger on the pulse of beer, it’s Tom.
Plus, Tom is one of the few guys who could open his refrigerator and pull out samples of the obscure beers I was asking about. It makes me wonder what else might be in there.
Dalldorf explained how the craft beer industry has been exploding over the last few years. At one edge of the growth is a category known as extreme beer. It’s a wide-open category.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a definition of what it is, other than extreme. Dalldorf says “extreme beers are pushing style limits and usually higher alcohol.”
With wine, if any flavoring agent other than grapes is used, the wine must be labeled as a specialty wine with added flavors, like Blackberry Merlot or Peach Chardonnay. In the eyes of many wine drinkers, that makes it more of a wine cocktail than actual wine.
With beer, it appears to be just the opposite. This time Tom McCormick explained that other than not being able to raise the alcohol level by adding either wine or spirits to the beer, there were no rules.
“There are no restrictions on adding flavorings, either natural or artificial,” he said. “That, of course, does not comply with the German purity law — but no one ever said U.S. brewers did!”
For our tasting, Tom Dalldorf brought over three bottles. The first, Vinaceous, is an ale brewed with red wine grapes then aged in French oak.
Older Viscosity is a malt beverage aged in oak barrels, and the third, Angels Share Ale, spends a minimum of nine months in oak. See the side bar for tasting notes of the beers.
Later, I was doing a little online searching and discovered it turns out to be a case of everything old is new again.
A long time ago, Egyptians were drinking a beverage made with a combination of grapes, malt and honey.
Patrick McGovern is the scientific director of Biomolecular Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. “In the popular imagination,” says his website, “he is known as the Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages.”
McGovern has created an illustrious career sniffing out the earliest known versions of both wine and beer, in some instances dating back 9,000 years.
He has pioneered the field of Molecular Archaeology, which includes the analysis of ancient vessels and chards of pottery for alcohol residue.
McGovern did the chemical analysis when University of Pennsylvania researchers unearthed 157 bronze vats, jugs, and drinking bowls in a Turkish tomb containing the remains of King Midas. He found they contained the residue of a beverage made from a combination of wine, beer and mead.
Wanting to take his scientific exploration one step further, he wondered if he could recreate the brew. McGovern partnered with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, to recreate a beer based on the ancient recipe.
In 1999, they released Midas Touch, containing a combination of muscat grapes, honey and saffron.
“The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff — olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadowsweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy.” McGovern says.
Now that sounds like extreme beer.
But could grapes be anything more than an additional source of sugar to boost the potential alcohol level? Do grapes bring any flavor to the mix?
“Generally speaking, grapes give a beer an interesting aromatic nose, as well as added complexity and dryness,” said Randy Mosher, (www.radicalbrewing.com) and author of “The Brewer’s Companion.”
Meanwhile, McGovern and Calagione have since gone on to create beers from other ancient recipes, including Chateau Jiahu which is based on residue found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese tomb.
Chateau Jiahu contains orange blossom honey, muscat grape juice, barley malt and hawthorn fruit.
When I asked Tom Dalldorf if he was familiar with the Dogfish Head recreations, he told me to check at Station House Liquors on East Main Street. Remarkably, they had a bottle of the Chateau Jiahu on the shelf.
It’s wonderful to be able to read about an obscure beer brewed on the other side of the country and then find it on a local shelf. Hats off to Station House for having such a remarkable selection.
While I didn’t find any specific grape and barley combinations, I did find an intriguing selection of barrel-aged beers by top-quality producers like Allagash, High Water, and Deschutes as well as Angel’s Share Ale. Check them out. They are definitely worth trying.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. You can find information about any upcoming Wine Classes at www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-913-3703.