Beer: Breweries Take Cues From Wineries to Appeal to Upscale Market

Deus Brut des Flandres
Deus Brut des Flandres (Artisanal Imports)
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By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Are beer and wine switching places?

While wine has been slouching in the direction of Joe Sixpack (think of Two Buck Chuck and boxed varieties), beer has been putting on airs, trying to move beyond its associations with toga parties and weekend softball games.

Beer festivals are usually jeans-and-T-shirt events, but attendees were urged to "dress to impress" for the Savor beer and food extravaganza at the National Building Museum on May 30. Private tastings matching beer, cheese and chocolate were dubbed "salons" at the event.

While some wineries are packaging their finest vintage in cans and screw-top bottles, small breweries are forsaking the plebian bottle cap in favor of cork-and-wire cages for their high-end imperial and Belgian styles. (This is despite the fact that defective corks have ruined many a vintage; in his book "To Cork or Not to Cork," George M. Taber writes that a teaspoon of a pungent chemical called TCA, a product of cork contamination, could "taint the entire annual American wine production.")

Breweries are borrowing techniques and terminology from the wine industry. The Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium, employs the methode champenoise for its Deus Brut des Flandres. The 25.4-ounce magnums (they could be mistaken for Dom Perignon bottles) are spiked with sugar and fresh yeast to spark a second fermentation, then shipped to Rheims, France, where the bottles are riddled, or slowly rotated in such a way that sediment is pushed into the bottle's neck, where it can be more easily disgorged. A lengthy maturation produces a highly effervescent pale gold ale with lemon and green apple notes. An excellent aperitif.

Estate wines -- those fermented entirely from grapes grown on the winery premises -- are common, but Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, Calif., plans to release what is probably the country's first estate beer.

"Historically, brewers have trucked in ingredients from all over the world," notes brewery President Ken Grossman, who decided to buck tradition and develop his own terroir by sowing 26 acres with barley and nine acres with hops. The Estate Brewers Harvest Ale, made from the brewery's own crops, will hit area shelves in early September in 24-ounce bottles. It promises to be a big, piny, citrusy IPA, a style Sierra Nevada has ample practice making.

Garrett Oliver, head brewer for Brooklyn Brewery, says that the way we view beer and wine reflects years of cultural baggage dating to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. After the Norman Conquest, the blood-red wine of the conquerors became the quaff of nobility; the nut-brown ale of the defeated English became the drink of the common folk. But today, both beverages encompass a wide range of high- and low-end products.

Marnie Old, a Philadelphia sommelier who co-wrote the book "He Said Beer, She Said Wine" with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery's Sam Calagione, says beer and wine are stealing a page from each other's books.

"Wine was never designed to be evaluated by itself. Wine styles emerged because they were pleasant with food," Old says. In a similar way, more breweries are emphasizing how well their beers pair with food.

"Frankly, beer goes better with food than wine," said Jim Koch, chairman of Boston Beer, at a beer dinner in May. The cuisines that are influencing American cooking, he said, "come from Guatemala and Ethiopia and Thailand and El Salvador. They're too big and spicy for wine. They need the body and sweetness of malt to cut through the spices."

Then why do so many restaurant menus contain long wine lists and a paltry handful of beers? Thomas Cizauskas, who sells beer and wine for wholesaler Select Wines, suggests that many restaurateurs simply haven't been exposed to the full spectrum of beer flavors: "That's where education is important."

And winemakers are learning a few tricks from beer in the marketing arena, Old says. Instead of French or German jargon, today's wine labels often bear catchy names and cartoon animals more likely to grab shoppers' attention. Old cites Fat Bastard as an example: "a decent wine from the south of France with a cute little hippo that conveys the idea of a rich, full-bodied wine."

The recession is helping to reshape the buying habits of wine and beer drinkers. The former are skimping, the latter are splurging, says industry analyst Bump Williams of BWC in Stratford, Conn. Off-premises sales of high-end wines (over $20 a bottle) are down 5.7 percent so far this year, while cheap wines ($3 to $6) are up 11 percent.

Budget beer brands are thriving, too, Williams says, but so is the pricey end of the beer spectrum. Craft beer sales are up 6 percent, and sales of super-premium beer (big brewers' specialty brands such as Blue Moon and Bud Light Lime) have increased 8 percent. Consumers, speculates Williams, tend to see an $8.99 six-pack of a pale ale or a Belgian-style witbier as a better value than, say, a $20 bottle of chardonnay.

"People want wine to be friendlier, so it's becoming friendlier," Old says. "People want beer to be more ambitious, so it's becoming more ambitious. They're creeping toward each other."

Greg Kitsock can be reached at

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