There's a trend gaining steam and, at first glance, it is kind of weird. A number of brewers across the country are adding grapes — the fruit, the juice or the must (the fruit's juice, skins, seeds and stems) — to their beers, creating what we'll clumsily refer to as beer-wine hybrids.
The odd thing is, these hybrids actually hark back to the way people drank in ancient Egypt and China according to residue unearthed by archaeologists.
Dogfish Head's attempts to re-create those beverages is actually where the movement began.
After University of Pennsylvania researchers unearthed 157 bronze vats, jugs and drinking bowls in a central Turkish tomb that may have contained King Midas, Patrick McGovern, a Penn biomolecular archaeologist decided to do a chemical analysis of the yellowish residue on those vessels. He found they contained a beverage made from barley, grapes and honey, and he wondered if any breweries would want to reverse-engineer the beer/wine/mead drink.
Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, was interested. The brewery in 1999 crafted a beer, Midas Touch, containing muscat grapes, honey and saffron. The beer, which has since become one of the brewery's staple brands, is tasty with a creamy mouthfeel and a sweet, complex taste.
Dogfish Head has gone on to work with McGovern to re-create other beer-wine hybrids, such as Chateau Jiahu — a beer brewed with orange blossom honey, muscat grape juice, barley malt and hawthorn fruit — that is based on residue found in a 9,000-year-old Chinese tomb.
Since then, Dogfish Head has also added grapes to other beers, such as Sixty-One, which is made by taking the brewery's 60 Minute IPA and adding syrah grape must to give the beer a complexity beyond bitter hops.
It isn't just Dogfish Head adding grapes to their beers. Breweries ranging from Allagash, 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and even MillerCoors' Tenth and Blake division have all produced beers that incorporate grapes.
Generally speaking, grapes give a beer an interesting aromatic nose, as well as added complexity and dryness, says Randy Mosher, creative director of 5 Rabbit and author of "Tasting Beer."
5 Rabbit used muscat grape must in its Missionario wheat beer that was released in the spring. The grapes, he says, gave the beer an elegant, white winelike nose and, thanks to the grapes' residual sugars, increased the beer's strength.
Similarly, chardonnay grapes' unique qualities highlight Allagash's Victoria Ale, which features hints of honeydew melon along with — not surprisingly — white wine grapes. And, thanks to cabernet franc grapes in Allagash's Victor Ale, the beer has a distinct winelike character, along with a tart and spicy finish.
Fruit beers are nothing new. And fermented grapes produce interesting, complex tastes and aromas. So it's only natural that breweries looking for new ways to express their creativity would turn to grapes. In fact, it's a wonder it took this long.