Grape Ale: Bridging the wine–beer divide
Bringing together the best of both worlds, Italy is leading the way in the creation of beer–wine hybrids.
As a beer drinker, I’m a sucker for hops. I crave its bitterness, its aromatics, its thirst-quenching bite. So my first taste of LoverBeer’s BeerBera, a sour ale fermented with barbera grapes, was a head-scratcher. It had no discernable hops, period. Second, it was red, looking less like a beer than a mutant Lambrusco with foamy head. Then there was its taste: delicate, fruity, even—dare I say it?—grapey.
Welcome to the frontier of Italian craft beer. Without doubt, Italy is leading the way in the creation of this intriguing beer/wine hybrid. It’s a development that goes way beyond microbrewers’ other recent borrowings from the wine world. (Who isn’t experimenting with barrel-aged beer these days?) Instead, this is the Full Monty, the actual mixing of beer wort and grape must during fermentation. I’ve tried brews made with sangiovese, nebbiolo, croatina, brachetto, timorasso, freisa, malvasia, and chardonnay. Throughout Italy, new examples are popping up daily. I was never quite sure what to call these hyphenates. Bine? Weer? Thankfully, they’ve now got an official name. In 2014, the Italian brewers association Unionbirrai stopped sweeping them into the Fruit Ale category and gave them their own classification: Grape Ale.
Italians aren’t the only ones making it. Delaware’s Dogfish Head was probably the first modern brewery to do so when Sam Calagione concocted Midas Touch in 1999 as part of his Ancient Ales series. That recipe—with muscat grapes, honey, and saffron—was based on residue found on drinking vessels inside King Midas’s tomb. So the idea isn’t new.
It makes sense that Italians are pursing this category most avidly. Outside every farmhouse lies a vineyard, and Italians love local ingredients. They live and breathe a zero-kilometer mentality, and brewers are no exception. So if you’re inclined to produce a fruit ale, why not make it with grapes? But an Italian would never, ever, source grapes from far away, as their American counterparts might. Last week, for instance, I had a barrel-fermented grape ale made by Transmitter Brewing in Queens, New York. It was utterly beguiling, but its chardonnay grapes came from California via a New Jersey supplier. That just wouldn’t happen in Italy.
While Italy’s brewers and winemakers are both localists, they part company in one significant way: fidelity to tradition. Simply put, microbrewers have no tradition—at least none that goes beyond 1996, when the first microbreweries (Baladin, Birrificio Lambrate, and Birrificio Italiano) opened their doors. So they’re free to experiment. It’s this combination of unfettered creativity and loyalty to local grapes that gives Italian grape ale its particular spin.
The drive from my house to Birrificio Montegioco in Piedmont’s Tortona hills is only 17 miles, but the road switchbacks over a sizable mountain before landing in Val Grue. Here small farms cultivate volpedo peaches, garbagna cherries, and timorasso grapes. In the town of Montegioco, brewmaster Riccardo Franzosi works with all three.
From the outset, “I tried to give a touch of the territory, simply because I liked to,” says Franzosi, a burly guy with a quick laugh dressed in overalls and Arkansas baseball cap. “I was lucky: I was born and live in a territory that has many good things. It’s not well known; there’s no tourism. But for me, it was a natural idea to use these fruits—because they’re good, not because someone else did it first.”
Franzosi is one of those rare Italians who dared to reinvent himself. He started out in the family business selling constructions materials. Homebrewing was a weekend hobby. But after five years and with encouragement from Baladin’s Teo Musso and Birrificio Italiano’s Agostino Arioli, he launched Birrificio Montegioco in 2005. “I decided it was worth a try. Why not?”
Today Franzosi, his brother, and two other employees make a dozen beers year-round, plus various seasonals, working in the brick granary built by his grandfather in 1932. In a hat-tip to his nonno’s industriousness, Franzosi put a yoke on the logo. “My grandfather’s family was able to climb the social ladder with two horses,” he says, recounting an oft-told tale. “They could afford to buy one blind horse and one lame horse. The blind one was strong and pulled; the lame one saw and steered. I don’t know the horses’ names. If I did, I’d have named some beers after them. But in memory of them, I have this yoke.” With a grin he acknowledges, “It has nothing to do with Montegioco, it’s just a link to my grandfather’s story”—certainly the prerogative of a business owner who invents things from the ground up.
Beer included. Montegioco was one of the first to sell grape ale year-round, not as an occasional one-off. Franzosi makes red and white versions: Open Mind incorporates red croatina grapes, while Tibir has timorasso. Franzosi gets grapes directly from the grower—a different one every time “because I have a lot of friends, and I want to work with them all!” He seeks maximum flavor, “so it’s slightly late harvest, because I want the flavor of grapes in the beer, not wine.”
The grapes are destemmed, crushed, then briefly cooked, a step that doesn’t change the flavor but reduces the amount of wild yeast on the skins. “I like a small contamination of wild yeast and not a fermentation that’s completely spontaneous,” he explains. “It’s gently sour.” The cooked must is then combined with fermented blonde ale. A second fermentation occurs, triggered by the grape yeast, then everything rests, skins macerating in beer for two to three weeks. Afterward, the liquid is racked and put into French barrique for some aging (Franzosi calls this metodo cadrega, using a dialect word for chair, since “you just sit down and wait”). The unfiltered beer ferments a third time in bottle. It’s a long, laborious process. As with any brewery making fruit ale, the classic flagship beer underwrites this effort. (In Montegioco’s case, that’s a delicious Belgian ale called Runa.)
As for the hops, that’s required by law in anything labeled “beer.” But brewers can easily avoid aggressive aromatics by choosing a traditional German variety, which acts as a preservative without adding competing aromas.
Sitting on Franzosi’s porch across from the brewery, we share a zesty Tibir and the brewmasters’s own focaccia (leavened with beer yeast, naturally). “I’ve seen many friends make beer with grapes,” he says. “It’s a natural thing, and it’s growing. But this is not a type of beer, because you can add grapes to a lager, to a strong ale, to anything.” Indeed, grape ale runs the gamut from Birra del Borgo’s champenoise-style L’Equilibrista (with 50 percent sangiovese) to Birrificio Barley’s dark Imperial Stout, BB10 (with sapa, a boiled concentrate of cannonau grapes more commonly used in Sardinian pastries). “So it’s not a style,” he underscores, “but surely it’s a Made in Italy.”
At LoverBeer in Piedmont’s Roero zone, it’s my lucky day. BeerBera is macerating, and Valter Loverier lets me peek inside the stainless steel vat as he manually punches down the barbera skins. It looks like fermenting wine, but the biscuity scent of barley gives it away.
The brewery too is a hybrid, with oak casks and barrel racks standing beside beer gear. Sacks of grain flank a fridge containing 1000ml bottles of a pinkish liquid marked “barbera yeast,” which a wine laboratory in Alba propagates from Loverier’s grapes.
Unlike Montegioco, which makes a range of styles, Loverbeer specializes in sour ale. Before the advent of refrigeration and pasteurization, sour beer was universal. Wild bacteria like Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces yeast would land in the wort, starter yeast, or oak casks, adding tartness and funk. It’s that vivid acid streak in sour beer, rather than bitter hops, that balances the sweet notes of malted barley. During the long, dreary century of industrial beer, sours all but disappeared; Belgian lambics mostly carried the torch forward. But today a new generation of craft brewers is deliberately inoculating their beer, and Loverier is one of the best.
Loverier began as a homebrewer in 2002, after his wife gave him a beer-making kit for his birthday. “She thought it was a game I’d use for two weeks, then forget,” he says, with the mild, precise manner of a science teacher. “But after one month, I bought five new fermenters and started with an idea, which today is the philosophy of the brewery: It’s to join the old recipes from northern Europe with the winemaking culture of Piedmont for a product that’s traditional but new.”
Seven years later, he opened LoverBeer (the name is a phonetic twist on his surname). “We started in 2009 with three beers with grapes: BeerBera, D’uva Beer, and Nebiulin-a,” using barbera, freisa, and nebbiolo respectively. “It’s not an experiment, but the main beer of our brewery.”
Fruit lambics are Loverier’s main inspiration. He notes that Cantillon brewery in Brussels (a touchstone for so many Italian brewers) created a grape ale in the early 1900s. “BeerBrugna (with plums), Nebiulin-a, and a new one with apricots—all were inspired by fruit lambic,” he states. With Nebiulin-a, which uses top-grade nebbiolo from Cordero di Montezemolo across the Tanaro River in Barolo, he goes a step further, emulating traditional grueze, a blend of three vintages of lambic aged in barrique.
For me, Nebiulin-a is as good as it gets: Dry like cider, it’s incredibly complex, with a pleasant sour tang, berry-vinous flavors, a touch of funky earth, and subtle oak on the finish. I don’t miss the hops one bit.
“It’s a special beer,” Loverier admits. “It’s my tribute to Barolo and to grueze.” He points out the landmarks on the label: Brussels’ central square, Barolo’s La Morra hill, his town of Marentino, and his wife, posing like a Madonna cradling a beer bottle.
Where to buy it? Ironically, all these beers are easier to find in Rome, Turin, or New York than near their source. And “they’re not in your corner bodega,” says Michael Opalenski of B. United International, importer of both brands. “Seek out bars and shops with a good international craft-beer selection.” Just be prepared for sticker shock. Once you recover, grab the best focaccia around and to ready to step into a whole new beer world.
Published in the March/April 2016 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.