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Brewers See Opportunity In Beer-Wine Hybrids

January 22, 2013

Several years ago, a few craft brewers began experimenting with wine grapes and wine grape juice in their beers. Now the practice is becoming more widespread, as brewers see rising consumer opportunity in these beer-wine hybrids.

Portland, Maine-based craft brewer Allagash first started fusing beer and wine ingredients in 2006, adding crushed Chardonnay grapes to its mash to create Victoria ale. A sibling label, Victor, was launched the following year when Cabernet Franc grapes were added to the mash. Victor and Victoria, with the suggested retail price of $15 a 750-ml. bottle, are brewed just once a year and typically released in May.

Dogfish Head, meanwhile, has been producing beer-wine hybrids for a number of years. Offerings include Red & White, a Belgian-style witbier brewed with coriander and orange peel and fermented with Pinot Noir juice. First released in 2007, Red & White is available on a limited basis, as is Noble Rot, Dogfish Head’s newest beer-wine hybrid. Introduced to about 25 states for the first time in early 2012, Noble Rot is a saison-style beer blended with Viognier grapes infected with the fungus botrytis, or “noble rot”—the same method used in producing the sweet wines of Sauternes—as well as Pinot Gris must. Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione says the brewery had estimated sales of more than 8,000 barrels of beer-wine hybrids in 2012.

Western craft brewers are also producing beer-wine hybrids. Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing—in collaboration with Peter Bouckaert, brewmaster at New Belgium Brewing—released Brewjolais Nouveau, a sour brown ale fermented with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, to select Denver-area bars last spring. Another batch of the brew produced using Gewürztraminer grapes was released on Beaujolais Day last fall.

With the rollout of Blue Moon Vintage Blonde last year by MillerCoors’ Tenth & Blake division, consumer awareness of beer-wine hybrids is likely to grow. Vintage Blonde, which includes the juice of Chardonnay grapes, was first concocted by brewmaster Keith Villa in 1995. “It was ahead of its time,” he says. “There was a wall between wine and beer back then.” But by 2006, “the wall had crumbled,” and the brew began showing up at various festivals. Following test marketing in 2011, MillerCoors expanded Vintage Blonde ($9.99 a 750-ml. bottle) nationally in 2012, and the product will be available on draft this year.

Villa and others say the hybrids, while attracting craft beer consumers, also draw in wine drinkers. Beer-wine hybrids and sour beers “present a strong alternative to wine, especially for female consumers,” remarks Joe Camm, general manager at Gordon’s Fine Wine & Liquors, a three-store chain based in Waltham, Massachusetts.

New beer-wine hybrids will continue to hit the market. Calagione says Dogfish Head will release another hybrid this year, and Tenth & Blake recently introduced Proximity (brewed with Sauvignon Blanc grapes) and Impulse (produced with Cabernet Sauvignon) to the Blue Moon Vintage Collection. “It’s a category with a lot of opportunity,” Villa says.

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