Last year, I wrote on beer-wine hybrids or “vinales” in The Globe and Mail and talked to Amsterdam’s brewmaster Iain McOustra. One of the first in the country to put barley and grapes into the same brew pot, McOustra is truly a pioneer in this area. His experimental process, local inspirations and focus on ingredients when creating wine-influenced brews was enlightening and informative, so I’m sharing it with you here. See you at Bar Hop to taste his latest vinales.
So tell me how you got started brewing beer-wine hybrids?
It was about two years ago. I’ve been going to the Beamsville Bench area for six or seven years now and I’ve always really liked the culture up there. They have such reverence for their ingredients and that’s something that I was always kind of drawn to and talking to winemakers and getting to know them, I just kind of thought it would be a good idea to use some of their ingredients in beers.
I started trading beer and wine back and forth with Ross Wise, a winemaker for Flat Rock, who paid his way through wine school by brewing. One day we were walking through the winery and he asked if we wanted some barrels. Then once we started understanding the flavours a bit more and it was a natural progression to asking him for half-fermented juice and lees.
So you were an early adopter of the wine-influenced beers. I was wondering if you took inspiration from the beer-wine hybrid trend that’s popular in the U.S., like Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot?
No, not at all. It just happened as a result of going to Niagara and falling in love with wines and being interested in wine making in general.
You’re a pretty big wine aficionado, especially Ontario wines right?
Almost exclusively Ontario. I do appreciate other wine regions but we have one of the world’s great wine regions on our doorstep, especially in the styles that I really love. I like a lot of minerality, I love Rieslings, and the Beamsville Bench area is great for those, and there are some really exciting reds coming out right now.
I’ve been a member of Thirty Bench’s wine club for four or five years now, Tawse is incredible, Flat Rock is great—so yeah some really incredible wines out there right now.
When you look at doing a hybrid, how do you choose the beer style? And what comes first, the wine flavour or the beer flavour?
We always say, “brew the beer for the barrel,” But a lot of it is experimenting. You can kind of construe what flavours you’re going to be able to get out of a barrel, but it’s much more difficult when you’re using wild yeasts. So we had a really robust yeast strain that was harvested off red grape skins. We blended it with our framboise and it actually gave an opposite flavour than what I had thought. I was thinking it would kick in some tannins, wild notes and perhaps a bit of dark fruit, but it actually gave the beer more body than sourness and a tannic mouthfeel.
I like the mouthfeel on the hybrids more than almost any other beers that I’ve made.
Since you want to use some of the leftover yeast (or lees) that is in the wine barrels that you get, how quickly do you need to put the beer into the empty wine barrel?
That day. We organize it with the winemaker so that when they have an empty barrel we pick it up right when it’s emptied—that day—and we have a beer ready to put it in it that day to minimize the lees being exposed to oxygen.
So how many times are the barrels used before you get them?
Typically the barrels we get can be three to five years old, it depends on what the winemaker wants.
So you put the beer in straight away because you don’t want to risk infection?
Yes. You can get acetaldehyde in your beer and some complicated compounds form if you allow it to sit for too long. So we try to get it as fresh as possible and go directly in on top—it’s pretty interesting because there’s going to be a lot of different wild yeasts and bacteria in the lees.
You’ve been working with biodynamic wineries does that mean the barrels will have some wild characters, like using a wild yeast strain?
Well, there isn’t Brettanomyces in these wines, but wineries like Southbrook are biodynamic and the yeast in those barrels does give a different flavour, for sure.
So what kind of effect does this type of yeast have on the beer?
You get a real fullness in the body from it and the natural flavours from the oak as well. So that’s why some of these beers might not be as dry and thin as some other sours, and using the lees almost gives it a touch more body and a nice background flavour.
So besides lees and barrels, what other methods are you experimenting with to integrate wine into your beers?
We use the grape skins once they’re finished doing their job. The first time I asked a winemaker for the skins she gave me a look, because they throw them all away, right? But it works. Really interesting flavors. For Rip n’ Run we used the wine skins the whirlpool and we actually pulled them out after five minutes because their flavors were so crazy that the whole place just smelled unbelievable and we didn’t want it overpower it. Plus wine skins have a lot of seeds and stems so you can get astringency if you leave them in for too long.
Cool. Anything else?
On Saturday we went to Thirty Bench for a tasting, and the host mentioned that they had just cleared out a bunch of their stumps, so I harvested a whole bunch of the stumps. I’m going to try and do a Gratzer—an old school smoked wheat beer, low alcohol. It could be interesting because I know that they do use vines in smoking certain foods, it’s an old world technique.
I wonder if it imparts more than a woody flavour, like do you get any fruitiness?
Apparently it’s really nutty and has a sweetness to it. Typically the Gratzers back in the day were made with 100 percent smoked malt, lots of hops, really low alcohol. With this one I’m hoping for a really nutty, sweet smoke, noble hops and a wheat malt finish. I’m not going to do anything else—I was going to finish in a barrel, but I think that’s enough.
Yeah, it must be hard to say when enough’s enough because there’s so many things you can do: you can put it in a barrel, you can add grape musts, or wine yeasts, or two different kinds of grapes, it’s like where do you stop?
But there is a line: Are you using the ingredient because you think it will impart something good, or are you using it because it’s a new trend? We’re always trying to focus on the ingredients.
I’ve noticed with your beer-wine hybrids, the wine flavours aren’t that discernible: there’s something different about the beer, but I’m not sure most people would be able to pinpoint what it is.
That’s the goal. We want all of our beers to be really easy to drink but you also want someone to spend time with it and go through all the different layers. With these wine elements hopefully all the beers are easy to drink, nothing hits you over the head.
You made a wine-aged beer with 100-percent Brettanomyces yeast but the wild character is really subtle. Why is that?
When you use 100 percent Brett, the beer is always less funky, like way less. I think it has to do with the esters that are formed—Brett burns through the wort so quickly in fermentation that it doesn’t necessarily form the horse blanket or lambicus flavours that we’re used to. I kind of dig it for that. I dig that it’s a whole different side of Brett that a lot of people don’t know about.
All the 100 percent Brett beers that I’ve done have either been aged in a wine barrel or have some sort of wine influence. It’s interesting because winemakers can not stand Brett— if there’s one thing they’re really afraid of it’s having Brett in their wineries, but I find in beer it goes really well with wine barrels.
And I really dig the 100% Brett fermentations because you wouldn’t even know—you might think it’s a Belgian Saison yeast, but it’s there if you want to delve into it.