Wine and beer share an out-of-body experience in Loophole Brewing’s Astral Project series

Feature Article by Robin Houghton

Wine is graceful and beer is pragmatic. Wine is refined, but beer is humble. Historically, these two beverages, each of which hold around a 40% stake in alcohol consumption in Australia, have been framed in opposition to one another. They appeal to separate audiences and cultivate innately opposing identities.

Generations of Australian consumers have been brought up under the impression that you plant your flag in one camp or the other. This is especially true of those preferencing beer, who tend to reject appreciation of wine either because they see it as an inaccessible luxury, or as an overblown ego boost. The truth, of course, is that at the end of the day both can be consumed on their own merits, but could we be missing something in our tendency to think of them as diametrically opposed? What if, instead of sparring partners, they could be dance partners?

Loophole Brewing from the Limestone Coast have just released the latest vintage of their Astral Project series, a collaboration with neighbours Cape Jaffa Wines which began in 2016. This year the project has yielded 7 unique beers, including two made with 3rd collaborator Valhalla Brewing from Melbourne. Each use a specific wine grape varietal in concert with a sour beer base. They’re taking advantage of some fortuitous circumstance, fusing the world class South Australian wine industry with the burgeoning craft beer industry. Craft beer in South Australia is growing off the back of an already strong beer culture which prides itself on innovation and independence, so it makes sense to unite the two. But how difficult is this, in execution?

Co-fermentation is the practice of combining two or more sources of fermentable sugar (ie. grains and fruit) for their initial fermentation period. Fruited sours have had a lot of traction over recent years, and while not all are co-fermentations (some may experience secondary conditioning on fruit, or be produced via blending), it’s one of the more common approaches. When you’re working with, say, stone fruit, the task is relatively simple- people know what it is to eat a peach or an apricot. As long as your beer is balanced and showcases that primary fruit character, you’ve achieved your goal.  But producing a co-fermentation with wine grapes comes with its own unique challenges. The reference point for a wine grape varietal for most consumers is, of course, the wine itself. This means heightened expectations, an already developed sense of the nuances of the palate, and  a default protectiveness- the sense that you’ll have to do something really special here in order not to have ‘wasted’ that grape.

Tom O’Reilly, head brewer at Loophole, is conscious of this, stating ‘all the beers were inspired by the different parcels of fruit first and foremost […] the Astral Project is a great chance to use super local fruit freshly harvested in season – far more satisfying and tasty then using fruit purées or juices’. And they weren’t going it alone. ‘Grace, our winemaker at CJW (Cape Jaffa Wines) had the biggest input in fruit selection, harvest window etc’, meaning the brewers were starting on the front foot with the best quality grapes. As you would expect from a collaboration, there was some revision of techniques from both sides of the fence, including sharing of knowledge, skills, and experience. O’Reilly comments on how ‘…zero SO2 addition and going from harvest day to canning day in a month is a bit of a mind-blow for them (CJW)’, while from a brewing perspective, he spoke about the enjoyment of seeing ‘how similar winemaking is to how beer used to be made (seasonal, oak, acidity, using fruit to ferment etc)’. The beers were a fairly hands-off affair for the brew team, allowing wild yeast from the grape skins to do the majority of the heavy lifting in the fermentation space. ‘It’s absolutely amazing how the skins really look after the wort/beer – the fruit gives a heap of fermentable sugar, nutrients and micro flora. And considering they were all without temperature control too, it’s a humbling experience to do something a bit more in tune with nature or a more historic style of beer making.’ Simple malt bills and minimal hop additions ensured the beers would remain fruit focussed, and the gentle acidity which underpins the range was produced via a specific yeast strain rather than the more conventional Lactobacillus bacteria.

Much of this is nothing new. The modern co-fermentation concept dates back to the late 90’s with the Italian Grape Ale, and in antiquity, the French would make traditional Saison with whatever produce was seasonally available, including wine grapes. There have even been traces found in ancient Egyptian tombs of fermented concoctions of grain, grapes and honey. O’Reilly lists inspirations including Belgian fruit beers, saisons and Flanders traditions, so there is a distinct lineage behind the Astral Project beers. From an Australian perspective it has typically been winemakers leading the charge in the hybrid space, offerings like the Pepperjack Shiraz Ale from the late aughts have something of a cult following, though the exact production methods behind this beer are a little more difficult to pin down. The last half decade has seen an explosive uptake in breweries releasing their own takes, though South Australia seems, unfortunately, to be lagging behind the curve a little- if they’re produced, it’s generally as a once off release in frustratingly small quantities. Many of our great breweries are located in, or near to, our wine regions, while some – like Pike’s in the Clare Valley- are sub-entities sharing the same parent brand. Wine barrel ageing is fairly common practice for SA breweries, Little Bang in Stepney collaborate with in-house winemakers Gatch Wines to produce their own range of wines (and are an honourable mention for their ‘Fancy’ co-ferment made with Cab Sauv, released back in 2017). Will we see more brewers take the leap to producing beer using the wine grapes that have helped build so much of our enviable beverage culture?

The grapes used in the Astral Project series are exclusively South Australian, and have for the most part been sourced from the Cape Jaffa vineyards that surround the brewery, with the exception of the Gewurztraminer (Wrattonbully) and the Chenin Blanc (Riverland). As O’Reilly says, ‘the Astral Project is all about reimagining what local beer is’. The series is swiftly becoming an anticipated yearly release due to the high quality of the product and the community minded spirit that has driven it. But there’s plenty of space to fill in the co-ferment category, and when it comes, Loophole will be eagerly anticipating the company.

I’ve ranked below the five Loophole/Cape Jaffa Wine collaborations according to Graild score, leaving out the Valhalla collaborations to maintain a South Australian focus. Just like wine, these beers will express themselves with a little time to breathe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest decanting them (unless you like your beer flat), but go for a wide-bottomed tulip glass and take your time drinking. All their stockists are listed on their website, so go out and find some- keep an open mind, discard your preconceptions, and embrace the transcendent.

THE LOOPHOLE SOUR RANGE

Riptide Gewurztraminer & Shiraz

Golden pink, lightly opaque in appearance, and with a delicate nose of rose water, melon and a little lime, more earthy than bright. A thin and spritzy palate supports honeydew melon, blushing ginger, mango and sun-ripened paw-paw. Light and refreshing but the integration is a little coarse.

La Lune Shiraz

Gives juicy berries on the nose, fresh and vibrant. The palate delivers plenty more fresh berry character, with strong blackberry overtones and a little raspberry-like acidity. The raspberry character shows more as the beer opens up. A weighty viscosity and round, clean finish keeps everything together, while light, lifted carbonation puts you in mind of a tastefully executed sparkling Shiraz.

Merlot

Pours out a delightful lipstick red. Velvet aromas of vanilla cola. This is probably the cleanest and simplest of the five, with a lovely big hit of vanilla combining with mild fruit and lactic characters coming together like yoplait. A soft herbality, freshly picked mint and sarsaparilla through the middle, and finishing with some expressive tannic bitterness which makes plenty of sense in a beer context. As it breathes the tannins start to overwhelm some of the gentler fruit.

Chenin

The nose is full of bright, juicy lemon zest, a theme that continues through to the palate with lemon and yellow grapefruit as primary fruit characters drawing out to a long finish. Some quince and cider apple starts to show as it opens up, along with a textural florality and some subtle fermentation characters starting to peek through. Certainly the tartest of the five, and also potentially demonstrating some regional variance in yeast response with a gentle mustiness not found in the others.

Savignon Blanc

Punchy tropical fruit nose of pineapple and lychee. The overall impression is clean and dry, but there’s a sweet line that runs through the whole thing and pops up in different places. It expresses like buttery confection, apple flan or pineapple upside-down cake and sometimes just straight up and down golden syrup, but always complementary. As the beer opens up a citrus acidity and herbal, thyme character deliver a wit-like finish.

Graild is dedicated to showcasing the best in drinks from all styles. Recommendations and suggested options with a desire to drink different.

COMING SOON

UPCOMING EVENTS

september, 2021

X