As I sit here enjoying a home-brewed wine (!) that my parents made last fall (great, guys, by the way!), I’m reminded of a thought I had a few days ago, reinforced at yesterday’s NERAX North event. I was reading a piece in the New York Times about cask-conditioned ale, when I noticed that the piece was written by their wine reviewer.
As I was grumbling about a the Times sending their wine reviewer to do a beer review, it occured to me that the pairing was actually perfect: there is no beer that a wine-lover is more likely to enjoy than a properly-served cask-conditioned ale.
Think about it. What are the main differences between wine and your typical beer? Forget grapes vs. barley – those are inescapable. The three that come to my mind are: carbonation, serving temperature, and flavoring particles.
To start with, most wine is uncarbonated. Unless you’re specifically talking about champagne or sparkling wine, the assumption is that wine is still. Some people prefer their beverages this way. No sparkling on the tongue or in the nose, no unfortunate gaseous releases to deal with later.
What they don’t know is that most craft beer, especially true for cask-conditioned and “real ale”, has much less carbonation than macro-brewed beer. Artisanal brewers realize that large amounts of carbonation only hide the flavor of beer. The mild carbonation is intended only to keep the beer dancing on the tongue, and they stop before it goes all house-bouncing-rave style. Someone expecting a typical beer may even complain that what they got was flat. I think a wine-lover could truly appreciate the stillness and lack of distraction from the beer’s other flavors, though.
Most wine is also served only mildly chilled. Whites are often cool on the tongue, but reds are usually nearly room-temperature. Again, a certain amount of personal preference plays into the choice. Teeth are sensitive to temperature swings. There’s less pressure to finish a beverage before it gets warm, if it starts out at room temperature.
But, here again is a place where cask-conditioned ale stands apart. Casks live in, and are served from cellars. As such, the beer in them is served at “cellar temperature”, usually around 50ºF. At this temperature, the beer’s flavors are much more available to the tongue. Beers served colder, sometimes even “ice cold”, numb the tongue as they’re drunk. The tongue is so frigid, it can’t tell if it’s drinking beer or iced tea.
But what about the flavor? Even if you serve with less carbonation and a higher termperature to allow the tongue to taste more, what if you don’t like the taste of beer? Certainly, wine is made from grapes, and beer is made from barley, and they taste different. But, there is one flavor aspect that are extremely important to many wines: tannins.
Tannins come from woods, and that skins of fruit, leaves of plants, and hulls of grains (really just the “fruit” of grasses). Homebrewers are familiar with cautions not to heat grain too high lest they extract the tannins of the hulls. However, cask-beers do extract tannins from another source – the cask! Yes, the wood in the barrel, often the same wood used in wine barrels, contributes tannins to the beer contained within. Familiar flavors for the wine connoisseur, right there in cask-conditioned ale.
Wine, served still, at or just below room temperature, drawn from a wooden container. Beer, served only slightly sparkling, just below room temperature, drawn from a wooden container. Now you’re just down to grapes vs. barley and hops. I think there may be hope for converting the wine-lovers yet. 🙂
(And if you really want to push the grapes vs. barley and hops argument, I’ll offer two for comparison: mead (honey wine) and Brackett ale (honey and malt). Where’s the difference now?)