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Beer for Wine Lovers

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What kind of wine is that? 

There are some wine drinkers who eschew beer. In some cases it's simply that they've never found one they care for, and in others it's because while pairing wine with food is really well established, pairing with beer is something that hasn't really hit the fine-dining mainstream yet, although dedicated cicerones and beer writers are doing their darndest to make it happen. 

In terms of not finding a beer they like yet, that's the best way to think of it: there are at least four dozen recognized styles of beer, with many different sub-types (according to the BJCP and other organizations that pay attention to these things) but the truth is, there are literally tens of thousands of distinct, different beers available, all with unique flavors, aromas, and finishes. You could drink a different beer every day starting when you were first old enough to drink and you'd never get to the end of available beers in your lifetime. Anyone who says they 'don't like beer' after tasting only a few dozen types is like a beer drinker who has only tried a single type of wine, or perhaps a few mass-market sweet alco-pop wines and decided that wine wasn't for them. 

Enter the Winemaker

Winemaker Wes Hagen getting the serious talk from Master Vintner's Tim Vandergrift

Case in point, my dear friend Wes Hagen. An influential California winemaker who has helped establish multiple AVA's in the state, he liked very few beers, and only the ones that were made almost exactly like wine--sours and wild ferments, mostly. It was a great start, but he consistently (and very firmly!) stated that he didn't like hops and didn't care for most modern styles that were hop-forward. 

After nearly a decade of hanging around and getting thick as thieves over many a glass (and bottle, and case) of wine, I managed to corner him in a fabulous little bar in Portland that served a great variety of delicious beers. With the help of my pals JT and Emily, we finally found the chink in his armor: well-hopped, balanced beers with distinctly fruity notes. We explored this style and others, and the conversation came around to food and wine pairing, and how some beers would work even better than wine with classic pairings. The whole evening made me realize that it was time for an outreach program for wine lovers. 

Beer for Wine Lovers

At it's most basic level, Lagers tend to be more like white wines, and ales tend to be more like reds, and hops in beer tend to function like acid in a white and like tannins do in a red, cutting fattiness, oiliness or saltiness. There's a zillion exceptions to this, but you're on the right track if you stick to it, and here's a quick and easy guide for wine lovers looking to try a few different beers. It's by no means complete but it's a place to start--and if you know your wine and food pairings, it transfers over extremely well. 

Sparkling Wine: Pilsner

Bubbly, whether it's Champagne, California Sparkling, Sekt or Cava is refreshing and crisp, and goes with almost any food you can imagine, especially in the Brut (dry) styles. 

Pilsner beers, a light lager modeled after the Czech example, are also crisp and incredibly refreshing. You can go as light as a mass-market lager, but for the heft and intensity of a good Sparkling wine or a Champagne you'll want a European or Craft version. 

There aren't currently any sparkling wine kits on the market, but the good news is you can make your own, with just a few extra steps and a really good, crisp white, like this one

Pinot Noir: Pale Ale

Pinots tend to be more delicate than Cabernets and less lush than Merlot and less tannic than Italian reds, with gentle fruitiness and restrained tannins. Pale Ale (not to be confused with India Pale Ale, we'll get to that) are heavier and richer than Pilsner or light beer, but still lean towards balance: the malt and hops work together for an easy-to-drink beer that should finish gently and happily on the palate.

Merlot/Carmenere/Malbec: India Pale Ale

These wines tend to be full-bodied, intense and either massively fruity, or merely hugely fruity with a really firm, tannic grip on the finish. IPA's are similar: malty, fruity and generally very bitter, with a generous dose of hop aromas, and higher alcohol levels that drive body and complexity. Wherever you'd drink a 'big' red, IPA will fill in nicely. 

Chardonnay: Wheat Beer

Chardonnay is the chameleon of the vineyard, returning a different wine in response to a change in terroir, weather, technique, or even just random chance. However, they almost all share notes of green apple, citrus and stone fruit, the cool climate versions a little more restrained, hot climate ones crazy with tropical character. Oaked versions show off vanilla and toastiness. All of these goings-on make Wheat Beer a natural. Wheat gives a slight tartness and refreshingly crisp character to a beer. Many are fermented with yeasts that give spicy, complex notes of cloves and some are even spiced with orange or coriander. The wheat gives a silky, almost oily weight on the palate, making this beer as big as it is refreshing. 

Cabernet Sauvignon/Nebbiolo: Stout and Porter

If Cabernet Sauvignon is the King of Tannins, Italian Nebbiolo must be the Emperor: Bold and high in alcohol, the fruit tends to take a backseat to tannins in these wines, with swingeingly dry finishes that go on for a long time. Dry Stout and Porter rely more on dark grains to balance their malt character than hops, giving them long finishes that manage simultaneously to be strong and rich without giving you palate fatigue. They're generally easy-to-drink: some people confuse their dark character with excessive body or heaviness, but that isn't so, and they're generally a great beer to serve with rich dishes. 

Amarone-style: Belgian Tripel

Amarone-style wines like our Rosso Ardente, are the Incredible Hulk of red wines. They start off well-mannered and normal, but after a dose of partially dried grapes they wind up the palate-buster of all reds, with immense tannins, over-the-top levels of extract, and a flavor that takes minutes to finish. Belgian Tripel, as its name suggests, uses three times the malt of a standard beer. Special Belgian yeast lets it ferment to a high alcohol level, giving it complex fruity, estery notes, a slightly sweet finish and they are generously hopped to balance any sweetness. A fabulous and contemplative sipping beer, Tripel is one beer you want to be sitting down to drink. 

Next Steps

One of the best beverage writers of all time was fond of saying that beer is a playground, not a prison, and that there were days that went by when he didn't drink wine--but never two in a row. If you're an accustomed wine drinker, feel free to branch out and try something new--and the good news is that if you wind up liking beer, it's pretty much a snap to begin making your own alongside your wine. 


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