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Learn More about … Wine?

11/30/-1

There’s no reason why appreciation of the taste and craftsmanship of a good beer can’t extend to fine wine.

By Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 4, No.1)

If you’re like me, you toasted the New Year not with beer, but with champagne. For some die-hard home brewers, this might be one of the few times drinking wine is really acceptable. It’s a tradition, after all, and traditions can make us do strange things. For me, however, it would be as difficult to live without wine as without beer, no matter what the occasion.

My background in home brewing actually began with winemaking. Starting with fruits grown in rural Washington state in the late 1970s, I graduated to making my own wine from Yakima Valley vinifera grapes about 1980. I learned the basics of fermentation, yeast strains, sanitation, and the aging process (not my own — I’m still not sure about that). Around this time I also began making beer from commercially available malt extracts. I got a job in a homebrew supply store, which coincidentally sold winemaking supplies as well. Some years later, I continued my practical beverage education by working for a time at a large Pacific Northwest winery. Following the adage that “it takes a lot of beer to make good wine,” I continued brewing on the side, making the transition to using all grain, fresh hops, and liquid yeasts.

Having thus straddled both sides of the fence dividing brewing and winemaking, I’ve encountered a wide variety of people over the years. When I got started in all this 15 years ago, there seemed no lack of wine snobs but few if any beer purists. This made sense at the time, since there were hardly any beers available in the United States to be a snob about. But when the first brewpub opened in the Northwest in 1982, things began to change.

It seems so long ago now. In barely more than a decade, enormous growth has taken place in the craft brewing industry. A handful of microbreweries has spawned more than 400 nationwide, a number that increases weekly. Gone forever are the days when domestic beer “styles” meant only light, dark, and maybe an occasional Bock, all of which tasted much the same. Now many breweries have at least half a dozen beers in their portfolios — pale ales, porters, stouts, wheat beers, various lagers, and even seasonal beers such as Oktoberfests, Christmas ales, and barley wines. What was once a mindless choice for the American beer drinker conditioned only by different advertising campaigns has become a true challenge of choosing from among styles as well as brands.

The growth in the U.S. wine industry has been no less miraculous. From the indistinguishable California jug wines of the past, a true renaissance in winemaking has taken place. The “noble” European varieties have led the charge, including the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon or Fumé Blanc (actually known as Blanc Fumé in its native France, but Robert Mondavi wasn’t afraid to change the name a bit for marketing purposes). Now another wave of varieties has become fashionable, including Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Vigonier, and Semillon. Red wines, once seriously in decline, have experienced a great revival thanks in part to the media’s fascination with the so-called “French paradox” — the discovery that red-wine drinkers in France and other countries have far less incidence of heart disease than their teetotalling counterparts (unfortunately, this has not been proved for moderate beer drinkers.

And so the inevitable question arises: With the parallel growth in beer and wine, why haven’t beer drinkers and wine drinkers (or home brewers and amateur winemakers) learned to get along better? Years ago, I attended a homebrew club meeting in Seattle for the first time, but felt like a fish out of water because I had committed the unpardonable sin of bringing wine (I was out of homebrew at the time.) It was wine I had made, a pretty decent Cabernet Sauvignon, and I thought that those who crafted their own alcoholic beverages might appreciate it. Sure enough, a couple of people did, but they were a definite minority. Beer was for home brewers, wine for winemakers. Suddenly, I understood Apartheid!

In reality, both groups overlap and have much to learn from each other. I remember the appalling ignorance of a famous columnist for a wine magazine who wrote a throwaway piece on American beer styles for a summer issue. This was barely five years ago, and all he could come up with were categories such as lager, light, dark, Bock, and dry (ice beer had yet to be invented). No doubt he was used to buying wine in fancy shops, but picked up the beer at a 7–Eleven.

Although it has only recently begun to be applied to beer, tasting (as well as drinking) has a long tradition in the wine world. The tasting process is remarkably similar, and brewers often miss out by not experiencing the flavors of wine that can help them evaluate and enjoy their beers as well. The fruitiness of many ales, for example, especially Belgian ales, has much in common with red Burgundies. And what about the crisp Pilsener-like dryness of a true Chablis, or the rich esters and alcohol in both barley wine and vintage port? In the world of flavor, all well-made beverages have a role in defining taste. As the song goes, “all God’s critters got a place in the choir” — maybe even those who sometimes sing off-key.

So I suggest the following New Year’s resolution for my fellow home brewers: Relax, don’t worry, and have a glass of good red wine occasionally. Your heart will be better for it, and your beer probably will be, too.

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