Brewing Beer with Wine Grapes - Discussion and Process for a Wine Grape Saison

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Brewing Beer with Wine Grapes - Discussion and Process for a Wine Grape Saison 

by Joe Hanson-Hirt


In Sonoma County, we are lucky enough to enjoy world class beer and wine produced locally. But in a region flooded with great beer and wine and access to locally grown grapes, why isn’t there a local beverage that perfectly marries these two local staples? We all know of breweries aging beer in wine barrels. Yet we almost never see examples of anyone using the grapes themselves as a carefully placed component of recipe design. The elusive Italian Grape Ale style is out there, but rare, and most examples are more of a funky farmhouse ale or a mild sour beer. Neither of these versions of the style have ever really excited me. So with the help of a friend, I set out to make a wine grape beer recipe that I would want to drink.

Learn. Make. Share. Repeat.


Editors Note:  This is an advanced hobby topic, as it requires expertise in both homebrewing and home winemaking.  

 

Starting at the Drawing Board

First we had to start at the drawing board. With no commercial examples to offer ideas, we had to start from scratch. We agreed right from the start our goal was to make sure all of the ingredients could be tasted in balance. We wanted the fruity, vinous character of the grapes, the strong malty richness of the grain, and the delicate complementary aromas of the hops. With fruit sugars being so highly fermentable, we guessed that the finished beer would most likely be thin in body. We elected to use carbonation to make up for the lack of body. Rather than the standard 2.6 volumes for most beer, we chose 4.5 volumes for an almost Champagne-like carbonation (for a full explanation of how to control carbonation level in your beer - review this our article on  Carbonating Beer & Keg Line Balancing). This high effervescence would give the beer the perception of mouthfeel despite the probable low final gravity.

There are only a handful of balanced styles that can show off all the ingredients, handle a low final gravity, and accept high carbonation without being unpleasant. We ruled out amber and dark styles right away as their malt-forward focus would most likely mask the other ingredients. The hoppy styles had to be thrown out too because we weren’t looking for a bitter beer dominated by hop aroma. We did however leave open the idea of dry hopping. We decided a pale, lighter beer would be a better base and settled on Saison. Saison offered everything we needed and even added a new component of yeast character.

 

We stock a low-strength Saison beer recipe kit, available in both Partial-Mash and All-Grain versions.

 

How Much Grape Juice?  How Much Malt?

Last year I picked Grenache grapes in Windsor to make rosé and decided to use these grapes for this project. We would have preferred a more aromatic white grape like Sauvignon Blanc for this beer, but the Grenache was convenient and this was a proof of concept. I knew from harvesting and testing that the grapes were around 21⁰Brix. Brix is a scale winemakers use to measure sugar density in grape juice. To translate to common brewing lingo, 21⁰Brix is equivalent to about 1.087 specific gravity. It’s a lot of sugar from a brewer’s perspective.

This brought up a practical problem right from the start. With the juice being so sugar dense, how are we going to use enough juice that the grape flavor is strong enough in the finished beer without ending up with so much sugar that we end up making wine that drowns out any beer character. We decided the most we could get away with was 1.5 gallons of juice in 5.5 total gallons of beer (about 27% juice by volume). We estimated that this would contribute about 2.6 pounds of grape sugar to the recipe. That is a lot of highly fermentable sugar in a 5 gallon batch, but we feared losing the grape if we went with a lower ratio.

We decided that the beer should be around 6.5% alcohol if we wanted something light, refreshing, and balanced. Something reminiscent of champagne that would be a good porch sipper on a hot day. The 2.6 pounds of sugar in 5.5 gallons should yield a gravity of about 1.017 from the juice alone. We would need the wort to contribute about 1.038 gravity to the final 5.5 gallons. Since the wort volume was to be only 4 gallons, the wort would have to be concentrated to a gravity of 1.052 to achieve the proper dilution.  If you are unsure how to make these calculations for your own recipe, please make use of our Beer Recipe Worksheet.

 

 Our print-ready worksheet will help you determine ingredient amounts needed in your recipe.

 

Our Recipe - Malt

For the beer wort base, we stuck with a pretty standard Saison recipe, avoiding specialty malts that might mask the grape character. 

 

91% German Pilsner - for rich, malty character

7% Flaked Wheat - for a lasting, white head

2% Acidulated Malt - to adjust mash pH for efficient conversion

 

Our Recipe - Hops

Hops were a matter of debate. We wanted hop aroma and only enough hop bitterness to balance the malt. We decided on one 13 IBU addition in the last 5 minutes of the boil since the utilization is low but oil retention is high. We didn’t want aromas that we thought would clash with the fruitiness of the grapes. American piney, citrusy hops were ruled out for being too domineering. The British hops for being too earthy. The new, tropical hops were a candidate until we thought about their fruitiness overtaking the grape fruitiness. Continental European hops were a good choice, but not quite what we were looking for. We finally settled on Nelson Sauvin hops for their seemingly complimentary vinous, white wine, and gooseberry descriptors.  Another hop with wine grape aromas, Hallertau Blanc, could also provide a similarly complimentary profile.

 

Aromatic Characteristics of Nelson Sauvin Hops

 

Aromas of white grapes, tropical fruit, citrus and herbs.

 

Aromatic Characteristics of Hallertau Blanc Hops

Aromas of white grapes, citrus, tropical fruit and grass & earth.

 

Our Recipe - Yeast

For yeast, we had to go with #3711 French Saison yeast - the most popular Saison strain among homebrewers. We preferred its spicy phenolic production over the fruity esters of the Belgian Saison strain. The French Saison strain is also highly attenuative, leaving very little final gravity and contributing to the champagne-like character. It also produces glycerols that increase the mouthfeel and perceived viscosity without the sweetness of unfermented dextrins.

 

Our Recipe - Water

We decided to keep the water profile relatively mineral free as is common for Saison. We used reverse osmosis water and added a very small contribution of gypsum and calcium chloride.   For a simple solution, you might consider using about ½ tsp of our Brewing Salt #3 blend in 5 gallons of wort.

Finally we have all the components we need to make our beer.

 

Brew Day

On brewday, I got up early and picked about 35 pounds of the Grenache grapes before heading to my friend’s place. While I crushed the grapes with a manual crusher/destemmer and pressed the juice with a basket press, my friend conducted the 4 gallon all-grain Saison mash.

 

Pre-crushed wine grapes being pressed in a basket press.

 

I collected 1.5 gallons of juice and measured 22⁰B with a refractometer. Close enough to our predicted number that we didn’t change anything. At the last 10 minutes of the boil, we added the 1.5 gallons of grape juice for sanitation purposes. We added the hops at the last 5 minutes. Once cooled, we had 5.5 gallons of 1.054 wort. We allowed it to ferment under temperature control in the mid to high 60’s.

 

Aging

We kept the beer in primary for about a week before pressure racking to secondary for cold crashing. The final gravity was a suprising 0.999. This number seemed wrong so we tested it again and got the same result. The beer finished super dry. Once the beer had lagered for three weeks it was looking pretty clear. For the priming charge, we wanted a Champagne-like carbonation and settled on around 4.5 volumes of carbon dioxide. This meant we had to add over 2 oz. of sugar per gallon. Warning: this kind of carbonation level requires a bottle that can handle that kind of pressure – not normal beer bottles. We used 750 ml Champagne bottles designed to hold Champagne pressure (closer to 6-6.5 volumes of carbon dioxide) sealed with crown caps. We gave the bottles three long months before we finally cracked one and tasted it.

 

The Results

Success! While it was by no means perfect, it tasted great. Even better than we could have expected. The first impression was reminiscent of Brut Champagne. Check. The explosive carbonation filled your mouth with fine bubbles. Behind the carbonation, a spicy, fruity dry beer came through. All the components could be tasted. The grapes provided a winey, grape fruitiness complemented by vinous hop aroma. A rich, malty backbone with subtle phenolics lingered on the finish. We achieved a beer that balanced and showed off each of the ingredients.

 

3 Ideas for Improvement in Future Batches

While we were both pleasantly surprised with results of round one, there were definitely some things that we could improve on the next iteration.

We used Grenache grapes this year. Grenache grapes are red winemaking grapes and are higher in tannins than white wine grapes. Even with the short contact time on the skins before pressing, the tannins can be tasted as an odd astringent note on the finish. This is only exaggerated by the excessive dryness and effervescence. We think using a white wine grape and only using free run juice should minimize tannin pickup in the juice. We are thinking of trying Sauvignon Blanc this year if we can find it.


Next time I would like to spend more time adjusting the acid balance of the finished beer. In winemaking, once the fermentations are complete, one of the first things you do is balance the wine by adjusting the acidity. In beer, this isn’t really something that we do except for sour beers. However, grape juice has a lot of acidity. Our juice had a measured titratable acidity of 0.66%. But that was only 1.5 gallons in 5.5 total gallons. The TA of the final beer before carbonation was 0.24%. Next year, before bottling, I would like to try some acid adjustments on the finished beer. I suspect a slight acid correction will probably make the grape character pop even more.

 

Titratable Acidity testing is a simple and standard procedure known to most wine and cider hobbyists. 

Above: the popular Country Wine Acid Test Kit.


Last, I haven’t made too many things carbonated above 2 volumes of carbon dioxide. When you dissolve carbon dioxide into beer, it forms carbonic acid. Carbonic acid is that sharp burn you experience when you try to drink soda too fast. The higher the carbonation level, the more carbonic acid you get. This carbonic acid increases the perceived acidity of the beer. At a carbonation of 4.5 volumes, the dissolved carbonic acid has a strong perceived flavor in the beer. I would like to do some experiments before the next harvest to see if I can get an idea of the acid contribution from such high carbonation on the beer. This should allow us to balance the beer even better. With this proof of concept being so successful, I think we will continue this project for at least the next few years. Check in next year and see what improvements we’ve made!

 

Copyright by The Beverage People, Inc.  July 2022.