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Beer Issue: Is Wine the Next Hot Thing in Beer? 

Co-fermented wine-beer hybrids fêted at The Terroir Project Festival

In Eugene, brewmaster Matt Van Wyk along with brothers Brian and Doug Coombs are the composers behind Alesong Brewing and Blending. They create a wide range of barrel-matured beers from earthy saisons to viscous imperial stouts and, increasingly, vinous, wild ales that are music to sour beer lovers' ears. Among Alesong's six-years-running slate of nine Great American Beer Festival medals—Alesong opened six years ago in 2016—the two it earned in 2018 were for Terroir Pinot Gris and Terroir Pinot Noir. Given Alesong's expertise in making wine-beer hybrids, one may suggest renaming the brewery Winealesong.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ALESONG
  • Courtesy of Alesong

What the Alesong crew didn't know when they made (and named) those Terroir beers is that winemaker-turned-brewer Adam Firestone, along with his brother-in-law and Firestone Walker Brewing and Barrelworks co-founder David Firestone, were about to launch a glorious, intimate celebration of co-fermentation called the Terroir Project. Admission is $80 and includes entry, a passport to sample every beer and wine available, and a commemorative glass. In addition to the beers, wines, and wine-beers, the event includes local chefs, musicians, and artists.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ALESONG
  • Courtesy of Alesong

After launching in California's Santa Ynez Valley, Firestone Walker's home, the nascent and pandemic-postoned festival resurfaces in the Willammette Valley this year, finding its 2022 home at Alesong's bucolic aging facility and tasting room in rural Western Eugene on Saturday, Sept. 24. A total of 18 breweries have been selected to participate, and each one must use grapes grown within 100 miles of the respective brewery. Half of the attendees are Terroir Project alumni hailing from around the world including Jester King (Texas), Fonta Flora (North Carolina) and Garage Project (New Zealand) as well as half that Alesong invited. As such, participating Oregon breweries include Bend's Deschutes Brewery and The Ale Apothecary, Hood River's pFriem Family Brewers and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, as well as de Garde Brewing (Tillamook) and Block 15 Brewing (Corvallis). The latter two have even launched winemaking cellars so their wines will be among the dozens also available and included with paid admission.

Style TBD

The brewing industry has yet to land on a name for this niche style of beer. When malted barley and grapes ferment in unison, the fusion of the world's two most popular adult beverages is said to be co-fermented. Even at GABF, these beers are usually entered into competition as "Experimental Beer." (When Alesong's Terroir Pinot Noir took silver, it was Firestone Walker Barrelworks's Feral Brut that bested it for gold.) Some call them wine-beer hybrids or just wine beers.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ALESONG
  • Courtesy of Alesong

In Denver, there was an ephemeral brewpub called Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers. Founder, oenophile, and Italian brewer Alex Liberati focused exclusively what he called oenobeers. "An oenobeer is produced with grapes or grape products (must, pomace) and has nothing to do with wine barrel aging," says Liberati. "You encounter challenges that you normally wouldn't in brewing, such as tartaric acid, malic acid, wild yeasts, molds, bacteria, etcetera."

Adds Van Wyk, "The point of our Terroir series is to showcase not only the grapes grown here, but also showcase our abilities in processing them. There are many ways you can use grapes in a beer." Van Wyk points out brewers use juice or whole grape clusters, decided on various skin contact times, and when to age the results in oak or stainless steel. "And there are a host of things we can do during the aging process to accentuate flavors, colors and aromas. We're trying to highlight all of those things, including the oak character, a valuable part of a wine's personality...We are on a mission to find the best ways to use grapes with beer."

There's an expression in the industry, "Grapes make wine; people make beer." That idiom wasn't prepared for someone like Brian Coombs, who worked at both a brewery and a winery in the Willamette Valley before co-founding Alesong. Naturally, he loves blending and blurring the lines in his wine-inspired beers.

"Our club members were used to our Terroir series of beers even before we attended our first (Terroir Project Fest) in 2019," says Van Wyk. "Brian, Doug, and I always wanted to work with grapes and do these co-ferments as part of Alesong."

A festival fit for the current crush and hop harvests

After the last two iterations of the festival were cancelled due to coronavirus, Van Wyk says, "The brewers involved with the collaboration project kept talking about what the future of the fest looked like. Jim Crooks of Firestone Walker brewing, who founded this co-fermentation festival, suggested that maybe it needed to be moved to another location or perhaps even become a rotating festival, allowing other members to host it...Brian jumped on the chance to host in the first year of this new setup. Arizona Wilderness Brewing (in Arizona) will be hosting in 2023. It's a great opportunity as we learn more about how to make them and also share our knowledge to keep this type of hybrid brewing alive."

Each participating brewery will have at least one wine beer available. Naturally, host Alesong will be pouring four. Terroir Project: King Estate is a sour ale made with foot-stomped Pinot Gris grapes from the brewery's next-door neighbor, King Estate Winery and Vineyard, aged on the skins to resemble an orange wine. Terroir Project: Antiquum Farm is co-fermented with Antiquum Farm Pinot Noir grapes while Terroir Cabernet, a beastly 10.5% ABV wild ale features grapes from Horse Heaven Hills AVA. The last one, Oregon Sunrise, goes in a mimosa direction as it features Iris Vineyards' Pinot Gris grape juice and a splash of tangerine juice.

Bend's Deschutes Brewery is sending two beers made at its Portland brewpub by Ben Kehs. Intertwined is 60% beer wort, 40% Malbec juice from 2Hawk Winery in Medford then co-fermented and blended with a portion of Deschutes's The Dissident Boysenberry (alternately known as an Oud Bruin or Flanders Brown Ale). Deschutes is also pouring Maskerade, a collaboration with Alesong, that's an imperial brown ale of which a portion was aged in brandy barrels, thus not a co-ferment but still has wine-like character.

Ale Apothecary is sending two beers: Ponderosa Lodgehouse (not a wine-beer hybrid, but a beer oozing with terroir as it's made with hops from Goschie Farms in Silverton and foraged Ponderosa pine needles and bottle fermented using Oregon wildflower honey) and Farmhouse Vignoles. The vinous farmhouse ale oozes terroir in the form of three Mecca Grade Estate malts, more Goschie Farms hops, and whole, foot-crushed Vignoles grapes from Terrebonne.

Ale Apothecary Brewmaster Paul Arney says his first wine-beer hybrid dates back to 2014 when, "Our first experiment with Chenin Blanc grapes we received from Chenin Carlton at Twist Wine Co in Pacific City. We put foot-crushed grapes into two Bull Run Whiskey barrels and topped them off with La Tache," referring to the brewery's sour table beer. "With wild ales, we can't count that every barrel will be a winner, so it's best to hedge our bets by taking the beer one step at a time. We have tried numerous ways to incorporate wine characteristics into our beer...Beer is a unique beverage in this way, that it can be the nexus of all the other alcohols without losing the fact that it's still beer. You don't really hear about hybrids going the other direction and I'm just fine with that."

As an aside, a small handful of winemakers have experimented with dry-hopping wine—but certainly not enough to warrant its own festival dedicated to beer-inspired wines.

Terroir Project Festival
Sat., Sept. 24, 1-5 p.m.
Alesong Brewing & Blending
80848 Territorial Hwy, Eugene
alesongbrewing.com/terroir-festival
General Admission: $80.
Designated Driver: $15.
Shuttle from downtown Eugene: $20





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