This month, VinePair is exploring how drinks pros are taking on old trends with modern innovations. In Old Skills, New Tricks, we examine contemporary approaches to classic cocktails and clever techniques behind the bar — plus convention-breaking practices in wine, beer, whiskey, and more.
Winemakers and lovers of young, fresh reds have long known about the potential of carbonic maceration, a technique used to capture the fresh and fruity aromas and flavors of wine grapes. Often used in the production of Beaujolais and now widely employed throughout the wine world, this method involves placing whole fruits into a stainless steel tank to begin fermentation inside the fruits themselves, producing a small amount of alcohol before pressing the grapes and allowing a more conventional fermentation to kick off.
On a molecular level, this relatively short step (about a week or so) emphasizes easy drinkability and minimizes tannins and bitterness. It is most often used in red wines, as well as specialty coffee production. For winemakers, it’s a way to make a product ready for consumption, rather than one requiring long-term-aging.
Carbonic maceration is beginning to find its way into another category: beer.
Like their winemaking inspirations, experimental brewing outfits across the country are using this methodology to produce more complex mixed fermentations, finding interesting ways to add wine grapes and other fruits to saisons and other farmhouse ales.
Hopewell Brewing Co. in Chicago is one such brewery. With its “Neon” series of fruited beers, bottled in clear 750-milliliter bottles intended to emphasize the vibrant color of the liquid inside the bottle, the influence of the natural wine aesthetic was evident even before opening the bottle.
“We’re big wine fans here at the brewery,” Jake Guidry, Hopewell brand director, says. “We find there’s lots of crossover in ethos and technique and the same irreverence.”
For its “Neon: De Chaunac” release last year, Hopewell sourced De Chaunac grapes from Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs, Mich., bringing in whole-cluster grapes. “[We] brought the grapes in whole cluster and then flushed them with carbon dioxide. We let it macerate over about a week and then took the free-run juice, which was super fruity and very low in tannins, and blended it with our saison base,” Guidry says. As a result, the finished beer “has lots of juicy blueberry and strawberry notes and comes across wine-like, as well as being higher in alcohol at 8.3 percent alcohol by volume.”
Getting the most out of fresh produce is the reason Grimm Artisanal Ales uses carbonic maceration for a range of different fruits in its “Gathering” series, including the recent “Gathering Merlot,” which used grapes from Viviano Vineyards on Long Island and “Gathering Nectarines,” featuring fruit from Larchmont Farms in Deerfield, N.J.
Co-founder Joe Grimm says: “We’ve tried pureed fruit as well as freeze-dried fruit, and although puree is the easiest to work with, carbonic maceration allows us to connect directly with local farmers and use fruit at the peak of ripeness. Purees have typically already been pasteurized, but our carbonic method also allows the yeast naturally present on the fruit to make a contribution to the overall fermentation complexity, since there’s so much skin contact with unpasteurized fruits. A carbonic process delivers some of the same crispy bubblegum notes whether you’re using it for wine grapes or other fruits.”
That wine-like flavor that carbonic maceration can provide has also been a big draw for Ethan Tripp, owner of Fermentery Form in Philadelphia. “When you’re doing these fermentations, you bring in microflora from another source which can mix with what you have in your brewery,” Tripp says. In other words, microflora present on the fruit skins will interact with those present in the brewery. “[S]o when you blend your beer into it, you get a mix of microbes from the fruit source and from the beer, which makes an overall more interesting and expressive product,” he says.
Experience with carbonic maceration in wine isn’t necessary in order to grasp the benefits of the technique. As Colin Lenfesty, head brewer at Seattle’s Holy Mountain Brewing, says: “We started utilizing this method out of necessity and it has worked well for us. This method just came up one day after using stainless (steel tanks) for the first time for a secondary fruit fermentation, as I knew we wouldn’t be able to access the fruit for punch down. We need to be very careful with the oak tanks, as they are not really rated for pressure, but they are so well built, they do fine with a few psi on them.”
Both Lenfesty and Grimm have used carbonic maceration on a wide range of fruits, including blueberries, currants, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, apricots, peaches, and plums.
One of the possible additional benefits of carbonic maceration is a kind of microbial symbiosis. As Tripp puts it: “Fruits that are allowed to ferment in that way retain more of their fruit flavor somehow. It’s almost as if the microbes that have been fermenting them for eons have co-evolved to preserve that fruit character.”
Regardless of the scientific explanation, it’s clear that brewers who have used carbonic maceration to integrate fruit into their beer see benefits.
“Personally [Neon: De Chaunac] was one of my favorite beers we’ve done in the program,” says Guidry, “and I definitely want to see it done again. The only struggle for us is that no one knows what De Chaunac is, so it takes a lot of explaining on our end, but it’s definitely one of our better-reviewed beers on Untappd and has had good traction with other industry types and wine people.”
Tripp, too, sees real potential in the technique. “Beer fermentation can really easily overwhelm everything else,” he says. “I really like the idea that we’re making young wine and then blending beer into it, because we’re trying to bridge that gap a little bit, we’re trying to get those flavors into beer in the best way possible, the way that is most true to the product that you’re blending with. I think after doing it for a few years this is obviously the best way to go.”
Sometimes, it might even bring things full circle. “We started with the other fruits before playing with wine grapes,” Grimm says, “but we had so much success using this process for our wild ales that we began experimenting with actually making carbonic/spontaneously fermented wine as well!” Another exciting prospect for Grimm: “We’re just waiting on our winery license from New York State to come through before we can legally make and sell wines.”