Is it a beer or is it a wine? Two special releases from West Coast breweries straddle that line, using both grain and grapes as fermentables.
Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland, Ore., is part of a company called the Craft Brewers Alliance that also includes the Redhook Ale Brewery and Kona Brewing Co. Once known primarily for its unfiltered American wheat beer, Widmer Brothers has become a lab for more cutting-edge styles, operating a 10-barrel pilot system for trying out recipes that can be scaled up when perfected. Notes head brewer Doug Rehberg: “We’ve got a portfolio of beers we’re just getting around to showing the rest of the world.”
That includes Brothers’ Reserve Lemongrass Wheat Ale, currently available in 22-ounce bottles. Rehberg added 624 gallons of concentrated Muscat grape juice to a 230-barrel batch of beer at the end of the boil. The sugars in the grape juice helped kick up the alcohol to 9 percent by volume, but enough of the fruit flavor survived fermentation to contribute what the brewery describes as “a late-harvest grape sweetness.” The lemongrass, in the form of a tea, was pumped in as the beer flowed from the brew kettle to the fermenter, and a little extra was added post-fermentation, lending the beer a tart, herbal finish.
As an added twist, Widmer fermented the beer with two yeasts — a normal ale strain and a champagne yeast that, Rehberg believes, contributes some of the dry, nutty flavor found in sparkling wines. An alternative to Dom Perignon for toasting the New Year?
Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. premiered its newest “Beer Camp” draft-only offering this past weekend at Westover Market in Arlington. Birra Vina is a strong amber ale (8.5 percent alcohol by volume) made with more than 300 pounds of tempranillo and petite syrah grapes that were stomped by foot. It’s hopped with Nelson Sauvin, an unusual New Zealand variety said to impart a flavor reminiscent of sauvignon blanc. Birra Vina has a tangy fruit favor and a fairly dry finish from the hops and tannins.
Westover’s Devin Hicks was one of the nine-man team of industry professionals who crafted this beer under the tutelage of Sierra Nevada brewmaster, Scott Jennings. He says they picked the grapes on the grounds of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, whose monks partnered with Sierra Nevada on the Ovila series of beers. They added one other non-traditional ingredient: “We found a four-leaf clover outside the brewery, and we threw it into Birra Vina,” said Hicks.
Birra Vina won’t last long: Only three half-barrels were shipped to Westover, and Hick said he passed one along to Fire Works American Pizzeria & Bar in Arlington.
The Food section’s Free Range chat last Wednesday elicited the following query:
“So, several years ago, I sent my boyfriend to beer camp for his birthday, i.e., I paid for him to go to Shenandoah Brewery and brew and bottle beer. He had a good time, so I was going to do this again for this birthday, but am not sure of the status of the brewery. I remember reading that it was closing, then someone was buying it and was going to continue to operate it, and then haven’t read anything. Is it dead? Alive? In limbo? Is there anywhere else in the area where I can send him to brew beer? Thanks.”
Answer: Shenandoah Brewing Co. in Alexandria changed hands last summer and no longer rents its tanks to homebrewers. It’s owned by The Farmers’ Cabinet, a Philadelphia restaurant that had aspirations of becoming a brewpub but decided instead to make its house beers at an off-premise site. Brewer Terry Hawbaker is hard-pressed to supply the demand in Philly, although he did make his D.C. debut recently by tapping a keg of his Sweet Potato Imperial Porter at R.F.D. Washington’s holiday beer tasting on Dec. 12. Hawbaker plans to start bottling sometime soon after the New Year, which might give his beers (he likes to brew Belgian-style saisons) a wider availability.
Where, you ask, can your boyfriend brew and bottle a beer locally? Try the Flying Barrel in Frederick, which gives you the option of making a five-, 10- or 15-gallon batch, and where (so its Web site boasts) “we clean up the mess.”