Grape to Grain

The great civilisations of Greece and Rome changed the course of history and brought the rest of the world, education, civilisation and wine through aggressive conquest. They did, however, fail to conquer the barbarian hordes of central Europe. Evidence of this is quite simply ‘beer’.  The Germanic tribes of central Europe, whose alcoholic tipple of choice was beer, resisted the Greeks and Romans. Hence barley and hop farms, not vineyards, dominate the landscapes of modern Germany and the Czech Republic. The great civilisation never penetrated central Europe with its education, philosophy and wine. It is said the light of civilisation never touched central Europe. Well lucky for us.

Wine, forever romanticised and synonymous with higher culture and sophistication, has been the sphere of the landowning class.  Picture vast sun-drenched lands populated by lush vines and white-walled mansions of enormous wealth; Meanwhile, beer is in the hands of the uncivilised hordes lurking in the dark shadows of large cold stainless steel tanks, surrounded by industrial concrete landscapes. A war between wine and beer has raged for over two millennia with both having various golden ages and revolutions. Beer is a sleeping giant which has awoken from a slumber induced by the cogs of mass capitalisation and its insistence on a sterile consistent product.

A common trend in SA and specifically the Western Cape is for winemakers to change tack and sail in the direction of brewing the nectar of the barbarians. Wine and beer fundamentally utilise the same principle. “Fermentation science is universal, even if it differs between mediums”. Meet Chris Spurdens, part of the wine-making teams at Durbanville Hills, Vrede en Lust and Rust en Vrede .  Like many others, he has turned to the dark side and now owns and brews Apollo Brewing Company.  Essentially the art of keeping yeast happy is where the similarities end.  Wine is beholden to a seasonal harvest of raw products (grapes), whereas beer is a perennial exercise in which raw ingredients are relatively stable all year round. “It’s an old saying but ‘wine is made in the vineyard’, quips Chris, ‘and beer is made in the brewery.’”

JC Steyn, perhaps the poster boy for dark side converts as former winemaker at Signal Hill and Dornier wines and now head brewer at Devils Peak Brewing Company chides, “We no longer have to worry about vintage variation due to climatic conditions”.  He is also quick to point out that,  “Brewing is very meticulous whereas winemaking has a specific artistic element to it”.  That fits the romantic view of wine versus the industrial hordes.  This is where it’s easy to see a big difference between the two. Wine vintages are different and raw material induced inconsistency are seen part of the art. On the other hand, such inconsistencies in beer are seen as faults, perhaps because of the former domination of mass-produced beer whose defining quality is consistency.

Mark Goldsworthy, who once made Edgbaston Wines and now owns and brews at Red Sky Brewery, highlights a process differentiator, The biggest difference for me is that in brewing you have to convert starches to fermentable sugars whereas this highly fermentable sugar is created naturally in grapes”.

Norman Gapare used to make wine in Zimbabwe at Mukuyu Winery and now is a brewing consultant of the brand new East Coast Brewing Company in Natal. He also has his own label beer brand, Big Trees Brewing Co.  Norman observes that in wine, yeast is used once and does not influence the major characteristics of the final product. In beer, yeast rules supreme”.

So why have these four wine makers left the romantic vineyards for the dark shadows? What was the calling? Accessibility for one.  Mark of Red Sky wanted to start his own business and starting a brewery is a lot more accessible than buying a wine farm. Chris from Apollo saw an opportunity in beer due to the over-saturation of winemakers that pour out of oenology programs.  JC Steyn from Devil’s Peak saw a great potential for growth and discovery in the beer industry.  Norman from Big Tree Brewing’s decision was market-related as the Zimbabwe market was overwhelmingly beer orientated.  I suspect that there are many other wine makers out there either thinking of joining the beer revolution or who have started implementing beer revolutionary tactics to engage the younger generation which beer has claimed hands down.

You just have to look at the way wine marketed itself prior to the Beer Revolution. Very traditional with names and labels that spoke to the conservative older generation.  Now you see a younger generation of winemakers that has worked in Europe. Australia and USA looking to make wine sexy to a younger more visually orientated audience.  It’s not uncommon now for wine labels to resemble the creativity of labels that cling to beer bottles. The shackles of convention are being broken.  How much of that can we thank the beer revolution for? JC observes this trend, “The new generation of winemakers are now heavily focussed on making wines that are unique, expressive and vastly different from their neighbour or fellow wine makers”.  Terrence Van De Walt, Siris Vintners wine merchant, has observed interesting trends in wines sales that can be linked to the beer revolution, “People thirst for greater variety and restaurants need to have exciting premium wines by the glass in line with the price range of the R40-R50 beer.”

Beer has a much larger arsenal of variety. All four ingredients in beer – water, grain, yeast and hops – can be manipulated with endless combinations, while wines’ weaponry is generally reliant on grape varieties.

Yet wine does have the upper as consumers’ palates are relatively well educated and refined compared to the modern beer drinker.  Poor quality will be less likely to be tolerated by winos than by ‘fresh off the black label bus’ beer drinkers. Chris hopes that the beer industry could benefit like wine from better quality control, “There needs to be a board that tastes samples of the beer and decides whether they pass as drinkable or not”.  Sign me up for that board, please!  Mark believes that beer could learn from wine in that it has established oenology (study of wine) programs, while in beer there is no such “fancy wordology”.

There is increasing scope for creating beer and wine hybrids. JC and Mark have delved into this arena with some success. JC has launched numerous beer-wine hybrids including Vannie Hout , a brett-infused, barrel-aged, farmhouse ale which spends six months in chardonnay and pinot noir barrels. His Vin de Saison includes whole grapes being incorporated during the brewing process. Mark has created a Pinot-Ale that “enthuses” Beyerskloof Pinotage with an ale.

It is true that wine and beer are still at war for the customers’ palates. Anyone that knows anything about the art of war knows, firstly, know your enemy and secondly, use their strengths to beat them.  I know four converts to the dark side that might just be doing that.

*This article was first published in On Tap Magazine. South Africa’s first dedicated beer publication is a quarterly magazine aimed at craft brewers, homebrewers, beer fanatics and those just beginning
to dip their proverbial toe into the mash tun

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