October 23, 2018

Make Wine for Better Beer

Winemaking taught me how to brew better beer.


Now, I'm generally a homebrewed beer kind of guy. I love to brew beer for my own consumption and I rarely buy commercial beer unless I'm out at a bar or restaurant. But it's even more rare that I would buy wine, which to me just seems expensive and way too intense. I like a beverage I can drink a full liter of without a thought. After a full liter of wine I feel like I just drank an entire can of Welch's grape concentrate, which isn't really that far from the truth. The astringency of many reds and the acidity of many whites tends to burn out my taste buds after even a moderate amount.

 Sorry, I didn't mean to do all that wine bashing. To recap: I'm the type of person who prefers beer to wine. However, my first experience making wine from grapes really turned me around. I was surprised to discover that after learning more about winemaking I not only enjoyed wine a lot more, I was also starting to brew better beer. It's funny, most people tend to think about making wine and making beer as fairly separate things. But how far is making an oaked imperial stout from making a Cabernet Sauvignon if both have the same OG and lifespan?

 One of the most emphasized points in winemaking is cutting down on oxidation. Beer brewers talk about this as well, but they don't go to the lengths that winemakers do. In wine, a lot of effort is put into topping up the carboy, which reduces headspace and cuts down on the surface area of the wine exposed to air. Some winemakers will add in a bottle of similar wine to achieve the necessary volume, others will drop sanitized marbles into the carboy to bring up the level of the liquid.

Conversely, some winemakers are getting into co2 tanks to purge their carboys and bottles. A neat trick is to capture and reuse co2 produced during fermentation: just put a length of tubing into a stopper on a fermenting carboy and run it into a bottle to fill with co2. Then cap and save for future use. Since co2 is more dense than regular air, if you hold a bottle of co2 upside down in the neck of a carboy the gas will flow out of the bottle and into the headspace of the carboy, thus displacing the air inside and reducing oxygen exposure.

The use of oak aging is clear area where beer brewers are starting to employ techniques used in winemaking. Russian River Brewing, from Sonoma Valley in California, is one of the forerunners on the craft brew scene in the use of oak and long aging periods. Vinnie Cilurzo, Brewer/Owner of Russian River, grew up working at his parents' winery and has an excellent knowledge of winemaking techniques. Retired barrels once used for varietals like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, are redeployed to impart particular flavors to beer. Aging in the barrels can take place from 12-24 months, after which careful blending takes place (another trick of the wine trade that is also used in some Belgian brewhouses).

After working with oak aging, and blending in wines, I've come to appreciate them more. It was a proud moment in my homebrewing career when I could start to identify particular malts and hops in a finished beer by taste, and it will be a proud moment in my winemaking when I can taste which grape varieties are used, what oak, and the origin. For now I'm going to keep experimenting with wine, and learning more about beer in the process.

Thanks to "Brew Like a Monk", russianriverbrewing.com, and "Home Winemaking Step by Step" for information on this topic.