Beer is an endlessly intriguing beverage. There’s just so much to it; that’s why we obsess. Every time you think you have a handle on all the styles, a new type comes into focus — barrelled beers, smoked beers, triple IPAs — often upending everything you thought you knew about what actually defines “beer” in the first place. As these various expressions grow in popularity, brewers get intrigued. Then, all at once, they seem to be available at every brewery you visit.
Of course, “new” probably isn’t the right word here. “New to you” is probably more accurate. Case in point, “oenobeers” or beer and wine hybrids. This style is on the cusp of something big right now. They’re fermented with both grains and grapes before being hopped — offering both beer and wine nerds the chance to geek out. Is it new? Not even remotely. But it sure is gaining a lot of steam at the moment.
Historians know that the worlds of wine and beer have been closely intertwined for ages. European brewers have long used wine or champagne yeasts to start the fermentation process. Wine and champagne barrels have been used to age ales and stouts even longer. And, yes, brewers have been cutting their barley and wheat with grapes too. That’s what we’re going to focus on here.
At its most basic level, oenobeer is a beer-wine hybrid. “Oeno” is the Greek word for wine (a wine-lover is an “oenophile”). To create one of these brews, you take the must or juice of wine grapes and add that to malts of barley, wheat, or some combination therein. After a boil to extract sugars, brewers add yeasts to begin fermentation. This creates a wort, the first major step of making beer. From there, oenobeers typically take a similar route to fruited lambics. Grapes are added during a secondary fermentation — after the beer is hopped, but before it’s matured or aged.
Still with us? Here’s the crucial bit. Very generally, a beer lives or dies by the amount and nature of the sugars the brewer is able to extract from the grains in the initial boil. That’s where the foundational flavors of beer are born.When oenobeer brewers add wine grapes to that base layer to coax sugars out, they’re adding grape-based flavor and texture. In essence, the brewer is adding the dryness of a reisling or the tartness of a pinot noir to the texture of a funky ale or crisp kölsch. This is about adding an additional layer of taste, texture, and nuance to beer with, at the end of the day, more sugars for yeasts to ferment. It’s a production process unto itself, not aftermarket trickery.
To help you on your journey of understanding the beauty of oenobeers, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite examples of the style right now. The six beers below range from easily accessible to a little more niche. You may have to travel for a few or search high-and-low in a specialty bottle shop. It’s well worth it for the chance to level up your beer game with this fascinating style.
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Cantillon’s Vigneronne is the granddaddy of oenobeers. The Belgian classic blends aged lambics with sugary muscat grapes. There’s an initial fermentation which produces the sour lambic. Then, during the secondary fermentation, the white Italian grape must is added to amp up the sugars. Finally, those two resulting beers are separately aged for 18 to 20 months and then blended before being bottled.
What you have is a Belgian lambic that ebbs towards the sweeter end of the beer world. There’s a distinct lambic funk that’s tempered by a texturally smooth and tart vinous edge. It’s slightly grassy while being full of aged wood notes. This is a fascinating beer worth seeing out … or traveling to Brussels for.