From yeast to barrels to raw ingredients, the worlds of wine, beer and cider are sharing products, techniques and ideas like never before. Chris Boiling takes a look at what the new fusionistas have to offer
Like hair, flapper dresses and the theatre, some of the most interesting things in the drinks world are happening beyond the fringes. At the edges of wine, beer and cider are many of the most creative concoctions known to the somm world.
And beyond them is a new intersection where the worlds of wine, beer and cider collide. At this intersection, there are brewers using grapes, wine barrels and wine yeasts, natural winemakers using apples, and cidermakers hopping on the hops bandwagon.
It’s a wonderfully liberated world where anything goes – even grape and grain – and many of the results are delicious. The limited-edition drinks are also going down a storm, with drinkers actively seeking something new and exciting.
Brews and apples
Renowned cidermaker Tom Oliver has found a new lease of life for his lees by partnering with brewers to produce two of the most successful beer-cider hybrids, Foxbic and The Serpent.
‘Being a cidermaker, we are not used to queues and extreme demands for our products, whereas in the world of NE IPAs (New England IPAs) you will get queues a mile long, customers happy just to be able to drink a third and buy two cans after queuing for hours,’ Oliver says.
‘So to be involved with the likes of Foxbic and The Serpent has been a revelation. Some runs, admittedly short – say, 500 x 750ml – are gone within days. Truly a new sensation for a cidermaker.’
One of his customers, Jonny Bright – who promises ‘a mind-blowing experience’ at his Hereford Beer House in Herefordshire – says Oliver’s hybrids are ‘going down great, but it’s all gone now’.
Fortunately, Foxbic2 has just been released and Oliver is also teaming up with brewers Burning Sky, The Kernel and Mills Brewing on a new project. Their co-creations are currently fermenting. ‘It may possibly see the light of day in 2020 or whenever we all agree it tastes sensational, but definitely not until then,’ says Oliver.
Rather than making one joint-produced beer together, the project involves brewing a beer that is divided between the four different companies – each adding its own specific mixed-fermentation culture. Oliver’s three barrels contain the cider lees from three different varieties and vintages.
‘The barrels have been dosed with the respective mixed cultures, so the waiting game is now on,’ Burning Sky’s Mark Tranter explains. ‘When we are happy with the results, everyone will reconvene for a tasting and blending session. The plan at the moment is to bottle small amounts of mono-blend of each brewery’s iteration – this will highlight the different flavours achieved – with the bulk of it blended.’
Oliver adds that the consumer’s ‘relentless quest for something new does not always lead to good. ‘But when you are involved with brewers that care, have a great palate and a cracking imagination, then anything is possible, and when all decisions are based around taste, good things win out,’ he says.
There is some debate within this niche about whether it is a new trend. Archaeologists say our ancestors were well ahead of the game, fermenting alcoholic beverages that definitely blurred the lines between beer, wine, cider and mead.
Beer historians say Cantillon, a Belgian producer of lambic ales, has been using grapes since the 1970s. Wine/beer hybrids are also more common in regions where the wine and beer cultures go hand in hand, such as California, Alsace and parts of Australia, New Zealand and Italy.
Grapes and hops
I first encountered the world of co-ferments at the RAW Wine Fair in London in the spring. According to the fair organiser Isabelle Legeron MW, it’s a trend that emanates from North America.
‘Grapes are not the only fermentable foodstuffs capable of complex, long-lived drinks,’ Legeron points out. ‘In fact, quite a few wine producers who attend our fairs around the world have been experimenting with cider, perry, mead and beer for a while, so crossovers are inevitable.’
Over the past few years, Legeron says she has seen a surge in co-fermentations that have been made available commercially – all created with much the same philosophy as natural wine (ie grown organically and made using low-intervention methods). Many even use foraged, wild ingredients. The main trendsetters at RAW London were Côme Isambert, a French winemaker, and Karl Sjöström, a cidermaker from Sweden.
The friends don’t like waste and often use fruit abandoned in orchards, farms and gardens for their unique cuvées, which blend grapes with apples and pears. They also use many of the techniques associated with natural winemaking – native yeasts and no additives.
Their star hybrid drink is Tour de Fruit, an apple/Chenin Blanc pét nat. Wondering what to do with some botrytised Chenin Blanc from the Loire, Isambert added the grapes to some cider apples from Normandy that he was pressing and bottled it before the fermentation had finished, while there was still 20g/l of residual sugar. No sulphites were added and it tastes dry, with a salty finish. He classifies it as a rich cider.
‘RAW London was really a success for our wine/cider hybrids. People went crazy about those drinks because they’re so different and attractive,’ says Isambert.
He even picked up a UK distributor, Joel Wright from Wright’s Food Emporium in Llanarthne, at the show.
At the RAW Berlin fair in May, Isambert showed a still pear cider and Chenin mix. The quantities are small at the moment, but he has big plans for this year’s harvests. ‘I talked to my suppliers in Normandy and there is a lot to do, and even more ideas to try in September and October,’ he says.
Sjöström, who helped with the production of Tour de Fruit, is a sommelier who makes ciders and hybrids under the Fruktstereo brand in Sweden with fellow sommelier Mikael Nypelius. They also have a seasonal restaurant on the secluded island of Furillen on the north-east coast of Gotland, where they serve their drinks as part of the seven-course tasting menu.
Their newest drink is Plumenian Rhapsody, which mixes Cortland apples and Victoria plums with Pinot Noir.
Beer/cider and wine
At RAW London, there were also beers straddling the wine world. Italian producer Siemàn has a grapehouse ale made by adding Tai Rosso grape must to beer wort, while London’s Beavertown Brewery has a beer that tastes a bit like a Bacchus wine. Be Excellent to Each Other is an IPA made with wine yeast in white wine barrels in association with Galway brewery Land & Labour. The hops are Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc, which are naturally graced with white wine aromas.
Sam Millard, brand and communications manager at Beavertown Brewery, told me that the brew went down well at the fair. ‘The reaction to the beer was great, possibly the best received of all our beers,’ he said. ‘Tasters could pick out the wine influence from the yeast both in the flavour and in the palate texture.
‘We’re finding more and more people wanting to explore the world of beer and the flavours it has to offer beyond traditional bitters and lagers, initially through hoppy New World IPA and pale styles, and now into styles of beers that are being revived from times long past.’
Leading UK wineries are also starting to explore this intersection. Josh Donaghay-Spire, winemaker at Chapel Down in Kent, has produced Curious Apple – a cider made with the winery’s Bacchus yeast. Simon Day, winemaker at Sixteen Ridges Vineyard in Herefordshire, is experimenting with fermenting apples on Pinot Noir skins. And Ben Walgate, former CEO at Kent winery Gusbourne, made cider in a qvevri when he couldn’t get hold of Pinot Noir grapes for his new natural winery Tillingham.
Beer and cider hybrids are gaining traction, too. London cidery Hawkes has launched Graff, which is made by fermenting Braeburn and Bramley apples with a beer wort and then adding American ale and Sauvignon Blanc yeasts.
Hawkes’ chief cidermaker Roberto Basilico claims that it combines ‘the maltiness of grains with the sharpness of fruit’. ‘It delivers an intense mouthfeel evoking memories of continental beer against the subtle sweetness of pure apple juice,’ he adds.
His boss, Hawkes’ founder Simon Wright, says it’s ‘proof of what the industry can achieve when we push ourselves to innovate’.
The fringes of the wine, cider and beer worlds truly are filled with creative, imaginative individuals and exciting drinks – and now we hear that in Japan the sun is rising on beer/sake hybrids.
Look out for Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale and Hitachino Nest Saison du Japon from Kiuchi Brewery, which has been making sake since 1823 and beer since 1996. They sound radical, but given the kind of cross-category mix-ups going on at the moment, perhaps the only question is why has it taken so long to combine them?
Four of the best co-ferments, mash-ups and fusion collaborations for you to try
The Wild Beer Co, Squashed Grape
Sandford Orchards, St Louis Dry Hopped
Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Foxbic#2