Wine Components Get Second Life in Beer

Breweries incorporate oak and pomace to make one-of-a-kind ales

by Kate Lavin
wine vineyard grapes cool climate conference cold
Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Calicraft Brewing Co. employs used wine barrels to age beers for bottle, can and draft.

San Rafael, Calif.—In the past two years, consumers have seen an explosion in the number of wines aged in bourbon barrels appearing on retail shelves, a trend mirrored in the brewing industry through the wide array of bourbon barrel-aged porters and stouts.

But repurposing barrels is not a one-way street, as evidenced by the schedule of the upcoming San Francisco Beer Week. Several California brewers use their proximity to wine country to create wine barrel-aged and wine barrel-fermented drafts for tasting rooms and events such as SF Beer Week’s Sour Saturday (Feb. 10) and Barrel-Aged Fest (Feb. 16).

Blaine Landberg, founder and brewer at Calicraft Brewing Co. in Walnut Creek, Calif., told Wines & Vines, “We take the wine industry’s trash and make it into our treasure.” He’s not just referring to used barrels. Landberg claims Calicraft was the first U.S. brewery to use pomace, starting in 2013.

In incorporating the remnants of winemaking into brewing, Landberg tries to mirror how his second-hand tools were used in the winery. If using pomace from white wine grapes, for example, he’ll add it to a stainless-steel tank, while red wine pomace typically goes straight to the barrel. Pomace from Napa Valley Cabernet, meanwhile, goes into a barrel from the same region. Calicraft has worked with wineries such as Stryker Sonoma, Medlock Ames Winery and Dashe Cellars, dabbling in Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and even Chenin Blanc.

In one case, Landberg dumped lightly pressed Viognier pomace harvested for Cline Cellars’ reserve selection into a finished beer with 7.5% alcohol. The wild yeast prompted a second fermentation that added peach and apricot notes with a finishing alcohol of 12% ABV.

Oak reborn
The popularity of sour beers has increased the number of North American brewers utilizing wine barrels, according to brewmaster Kim Sturdavant of Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco. Though the premium on space at his urban brewery means he is only able to acquire two or so new barrels per year. He buys the vessels from Oro En Paz winery on nearby Treasure Island. 

Sturdavant favors French oak for its tight grain and slow oxygenation process. “I definitely want a nice, soft oak character. It adds a nice texture, almost a nuttiness,” he said. “Mostly what I’ve been using them for is an effective vessel for nurturing wild yeast in the barrels.”

The amount of time beers spend in barrel depends on the fermentation process and yeast employed. Beers fermenting in barrels with no wild yeast could spend as little as a month on oak. Those with wild yeast are bound to spend “a minimum of a year and as much as two years” in barrel.

Describing the steps taken to make a recent offering, Colliding Neutron Stars, Sturdavant said: “That one started out as a strong ale with hops, not really conforming to any particular style. We did a partial sour mash on that beer, which is another process, and we added some lactic acid to give the beer a little tartness. The beer fermented in stainless, and we transferred it into red wine barrels and let it sit there with a blend of wild yeast brettanomyces. It chipped away at our regular beer yeast and got a lot of really cool flavors.”

Sturdavant said he tried the beer six months into its barrel aging and again at one year; he ended up giving the brew two full years in barrel and released it in Social Kitchen’s tap room in late October.

Sour for sale
While a hint of brettanomyces would mean a barrel’s career was over at most wineries, the same cannot be said of a brewery. “When the winery gets a brett strain, they immediately want to get rid of it, and we immediately want to grab it,” Landberg of Calicraft told Wines & Vines. The yeast brettanomyces is responsible for the coveted sour flavor in many beers, along with lactobacillus and pediococcus bacteria. “When wineries are done with barrels, we’re just getting started, and that is a fun relationship.”

Landberg opts to use yeast strains intended for wine in several of his beers, saying he believes they enhance notes of the terroir from the fruit originally held in the barrel. He also believes that each barrel has its own terroir, with lactobacillus colonies creating flavors that are unique to the vessel.

“If we have a barrel we really like, we sit that barrel in the middle of the pile,” Landberg said, adding that microbes from each barrel naturally transfer to the barrels around it. Calicraft has around 275 wine barrels going at any time, with Landberg saying, “We’re a small winery as a brewery.”

One of his newest creations, the Reserve Rosé, is billed as “neither beer nor wine,” having been created from Zinfandel must, raspberry and cherries fermented with House Ale 2 and Red Wine #1 yeasts.


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