What happens when you cross wine grapes with a brewery? No, that’s not the setup for a joke—it’s a question I’ve been intrigued by in recent years, as beer/wine hybrids have quietly become a small part of the microbrew scene, both globally and here in Seattle. Combining quality wine grapes with beer-making techniques allows a brewer to expand the palette of flavors he or she has to work with, and can create a truly delicious beverage that brings together the strengths of both. Or, like any other bold venture, it can fail spectacularly.
The most ambitious venture on the horizon is a partnership between Epic Ales and Long Shadows Winery. Long Shadows provides the grapes and the inspiration, while Epic Ales’ master brewer Cody Morris is providing the know-how.
Traci McFarlane, the hospitality manager at Long Shadows, was the impetus behind the project. “I had read quite a bit about Epic and it appeared as though Cody was getting a lot of positive press, so I arranged a meeting with him and tasted through his lineup,” McFarlane tells me. “I was particularly fond of his ‘Party Time’ sour, and was intrigued how he used that base and added a variety of other things: fruit, oyster liquor, lime, salt, etc. So I asked him if he would make some beers for us using our juice. We reached an agreement, and so during harvest I brought him some fresh-pressed riesling, sangiovese, and syrah [grapes] to make three different styles of beer.”
Epic sold those beers at the brewery and its adjoining restaurant, Gastropod, but Long Shadows also purchased kegs, which it’s getting installed in its Woodinville Library Tasting Room, offering visitors an expression of Long Shadows’ grapes they’ve probably never encountered before.
As for Morris, working with wine grapes was a chance to expand the already vast boundaries of what Epic Ales is doing with beer. “I hadn’t done a project like that before,” Morris says. “I have in the past gotten used wine barrels, which I use for barrel-aged sours.” But this was clearly a different sort of undertaking, as wine grapes would be one of the main flavoring agents in the beer. Morris had to carefully select which styles of beer to pair with each grape. “I wanted to do a super-floral white for the sour blonde [which ended up being riesling]. For the old ale, I wanted something earthy [the sangiovese], plus I thought the acidity of the grapes would add that classic vinous flavor found in old ales. For the Belgian, I wanted something fruity and spicy. It would’ve been fun with a zinfandel, but I think the syrah worked well.”
Due to their unusual nature and expensive ingredients, beer/wine hybrids are still mostly a novelty, a way for brewers and winemakers to experiment. For now, most breweries that want to add a wine-like flavor to their beer will stick with aging their beers in used wine barrels, but if partnerships like the one between Long Shadows and Epic Ales take off, more and more of Washington’s wine grapes might find their way into Washington’s beers.