Using wine in beer, whether in the form of fresh grapes, leftover must, or old barrels, is a booming trend that has early roots at Firestone Walker Brewing Company, whose Barrelworks facility in Buellton is a global leader in the practice. To celebrate the trend, the brewery is hosting a September 29 tasting of the Terroir Project, in which seven breweries from around the country and world were enlisted to make wine-laced beers from grapes grown within 100 miles of their headquarters.
New Zealand’s Garage Project, which is always a long-line-attracting darling at the annual Firestone Walker Invitational in June, was one of the chosen. One of the brewery’s cofounders, Jos Ruffell, answered a few of my questions about the trend.
Tell me a little about Garage Project. Garage Project was started in 2011 in an old car workshop in a gas station, with a tiny half-barrel system. It was covered in oil and knee-deep in decades of grime when we moved in, but great things can and do come from the Garage. Our goal within the Garage has always been to produce unique and boundary pushing beers. We have grown since then and remained relentless in our attempts to challenge the notions of what beer can be and let people try something new.
Is there a pretty vibrant brewing scene in New Zealand? The scene in New Zealand is quite remarkable for such a small, compact country. We have great raw materials to work with, especially our hops, and the breweries throughout the country are doing a great job bringing quality craft beer to an increasingly wide audience. Everyone seems to have an area of focus, and it’s fair to say we are quite unique in our approach and in the beers we release. It’s an exciting time to be a beer fan in N.Z.
How did your relationship with Firestone begin? We first met Matt Brynildson (Firestone’s brewmaster) down at the largest festival in New Zealand. We always like to present beers in new and different ways at festivals, and I think Matt must have liked what he saw! We were promptly invited to the invitational, and over the last few years we have seen the word of mouth around our beers spread and the line continually grow. We like to think it’s the beers, but it’s probably also our Kiwi accents that draw in the crowds.
How long have you used wine in your beer? We started producing “clean” grape harvest beers in the 2013 harvest and have not looked back. We’ve expanded to a range of styles and grapes and continue to evolve and experiment those releases annually.
What does wine do for beer? It’s a great ingredient we can use to impart flavour and aroma and bring people an entirely new drinking experience. We have some fantastic wineries in New Zealand, and we are very lucky to have access to vibrant and unique grapes like our sauvignon blanc. It really can blur the lines and help introduce a whole new audience into beer, [people] who might not consider themselves a beer drinker just yet.
Tell me about the beer you brewed for this project. Savoir Faire is our beer. If you’re in the know, you know. It’s a unique beer fermented in clay amphora with the base wort for the project, and whole-bunch Martinborough sauvignon blanc. No yeast was added — it is a completely wild fermentation from native N.Z. yeast and bacteria from the grapes. Toward the end of the ferment, the grapes and wort were pressed in a small basket press and transferred to old sauvignon blanc barrels and aged for 18 months. The result is refreshing, tart, tropical, with gooseberry and cut grass flavours.
What is the relationship between winemakers and brewers in New Zealand? As the old saying goes, it takes a lot of good beer to make great wine, and as such, we have a great relationship with many wineries. We are always up for swapping a little beer for wine and seeing what techniques and ideas we can learn from each other, especially as we move into more barrel-aging and fermentation techniques.
What other beers are you excited to try at the event? It’s going to be fascinating to try them all, really. With the common base thread and unique fermentation and grapes in every beer, the differences and similarities that may or may not occur will be brilliant to taste and explore. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day with brewers and beer lovers from all over the world, trying something new together.
The Terroir Project is on September 29, noon-4 p.m., at West Ranch, Los Olivos. The $65 tickets and information are available at firestonebeer.com.