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.
JESTER KING BREWERY SPON MUSCAT
The next beer to try on your oenobeer journey is the American version of Cantillon’s Vigneronne. Jester King’s Spon Muscat is basically the same beer made with American ingredients in Texas. Spontaneously fermented ale is cut with a hefty dose of muscat grapes grown in Texas. The result is shockingly similar to the Belgian version yet full of nuances that make it unique to the Lone Star State.
The golden orange ale pours with an essence of grapes upfront. Citrus acidity, oaky aged notes, dry-grape sweetness, and lambic sour are all at play in this sip. There’s an ever-so-slight creaminess near the end that adds a velvety texture while the citrus edges towards a ripe orange and the wood fades away into a sour finish.
LIBERATI BREWERY GINO DOCET
Okay, this one you’re going to need to go to Denver for. We 100 percent advocate traveling to try new things and beer is certainly on that list. Liberati is a plush Italian-American restaurant that also operates as a brewery specializing in oenobeers. There’s a long list of beer-wine hybrids to try on their menu and one of our favorites is their Imperial kölsch, Gino Docet.
The beer is a classic lager that’s brewed with pinot grigio grapes from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The result is a massively quaffable beer that has a light, crisp edge anchored by an herbaceous sense of a grape orchard on a sunny day.
ALLAGASH BREWING CO. VICTORIA
In keeping with the white wine influence on sour beers, Allagash created Victoria. The beer is born by combining Chardonnay grapes with pilsner malts to get the fermentation started. The beer is hopped with German classic hops before a secondary fermentation with wine and Belgian abbey-style yeasts.
There’s a real sense of wine fruit on the opening of this one. That’s followed by a nice layer of hop bitterness that plays into the sour notes of the ale. The throughline amongst the sour, tart, and bitter is orchards of vine fruits that feel sunkissed and slightly sweet.
STILLWATER ARTISANAL OUDE BAE
Moving into the red wine world, Stillwater Artisanal’s Oude Bae utilizes pinot noir grapes with an amber sour ale that’s then aged in French oak. The beer bridges the world of tart and hefty red pinot with a deeply nuanced amber ale. It’s a damn near perfect marrying of two worlds.
Notes of dark red grapes open this one up. A yeast funk kicks in to counter the sweetness of the fruit before an oaky note comes in. There’s a sourness that stems from the heft of the red fruit — all balanced by that yeast funk. By the time the sip fades, there’s an echo of smokiness tying the whole thing off.
DOGFISH HEAD MIXED MEDIA
Dogfish Head loves playing around the oenobeer sandbox. They’ve been making beer-wine hybrids for a while now and one of their best is Mixed Media. The beer is 51 percent grain malts and 49 percent wine must. The berry at play here is a viognier grape that’s blended with a Belgian-style saison.
This is a bright and airy beer. There are notes of melon and tart grape alongside a wonderful layer of spiciness and oaky velvet. You really get the tartness of a dry white wine alongside the malty nature of a well-hopped saison. It’s a delight for the senses that also gets you nice and tipsy at a stiff 7.5 percent ABV.