The overlap between craft beer and natural wine is well documented. The two subcultures in the beverage industry have attained cult-like status among enthusiasts for creative recipe designs, radical independence, and stylish product labels. But, while there have been plenty of craft breweries that launched and/or partnered with distilleries on projects, there have been markedly fewer wine side projects. Part of that might be the perceived dichotomy of craft beer and wine. Wine is often portrayed as feminine while big, burly, bearded men tended to dominate the whiskey, bourbon, and beer demographics. But, the increase in mainstream popularity of natural wine, especially among beer drinkers and producers, has meant that the two tend to blur more easily.
It’s a valid question. Why have breweries started their own wineries?
Well, for starters, there are many breweries producing beer that taste remarkably similar to a glass of wine. Some of the country’s best sour beer brewers like Allagash Brewing, Homage Brewing, or The Referend Bier Blendery take cues from wine production by using grape juice and grape must in some of their wines. Plus, the use of Brettanomyces and other wild yeasts in beer can contribute some serious vinous characteristics. But, at the end of the day, many of these brewers just simply really enjoy making wine. And beer enthusiasts enjoy drinking them, too.
“I think there’s just a lot of overlap between the two worlds,” shares Michael Oxton, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing. “Natural wine offers something interesting and unique, from a flavor, process, and ingredient perspective. Our fans want to try what’s new, different, interesting, flavorful – I don’t think that’s exclusive to the beer category.”
Many beer drinkers are already primed for the creative, evocative world of natural wine. So, beermakers are simply following that throughline over to a new category – and making some delicious beverages while they’re at it.
Breweries Making Their Own Wine
Wicked Weed Brewing / Vidl Winery
Earlier this year, Asheville’s Wicked Weed Brewing announced the launch of Vidl, an experimental wine project helmed by Jen Currier. As one of the country’s lauded sour beer producers, the step into winemaking was relatively simple. “We combined our expertise in fruit fermentation and paired it with our continued commitment to expanding consumers’ options and palates, to take the leap and dive into natural wine production,” shares Currier, Vidl’s head winemaker. “Our first harvest was in 2019, and since we started releasing wines in 2020, we’ve gotten great feedback from the folks who’ve tried it. I think most people are surprised to learn that Wicked Weed makes wine now, but for anyone following our sour program, it makes a lot of sense.”
Since launching, Vidl has released a Sauvignon Blanc, their Drop American Red Wine, a Blaufränkisch, a Tempranillo Rosé, and their Coup. Folks can find Vidl wine across the state of North Carolina and can sample their offerings in Asheville at Wicked Weed’s locations. Plus, they’ve started shipping wine throughout the state through their online platform.
The primary focus with Vidl is to provide folks with a quality, complex, and ultimately fun wine that is made with top-tier ingredients. “Drinking natural wine seems like a natural progression for beer drinkers, especially those whose palates have progressed beyond the mighty IPA,” says Currier. “Craft beer drinkers also tend to be a bit more curious when it comes to what they’ll try; they’re often drawn to the experimental or eccentric. For example, because their flavor profiles are often similar, Gueuze fans are probably going to enjoy orange wines, and vice versa: natural wine and Belgian (-inspired) sour beers have created a two-way street in the beverage world, and it’s one that we’re stoked to be traveling.”
As evidenced by Vidl’s rapid growth, Currier has her sights set on expanding production into the future. “Currently, all of our fruit is coming from certified sustainable vineyards in Washington, and sourcing quality fruit from quality folks is our number one priority,” Currier explains. “With climate change affecting harvests and growing regions across the country, sourcing fruit has become more and more challenging. Moving forward, we’re excited to work with new varieties from new regions and hopefully do our part in supporting folks that share the same goals as we do.”
Night Shift Brewing
Night Shift Brewing is no stranger to experimental projects. The beloved brewery just outside of Boston has earned praise not only for its beer but also for its in-house roasted coffee and cider. Plus, Night Shift has worked with beverage brands across the industry with its distribution arm. So, wine was a pretty natural addition to Night Shift’s lineup.
“We’ve always been fascinated by wine, and we’re passionate consumers of it,” shares Night Shift’s co-founder Michael Oxton. Over the years, we also learned that many of our fans are into wine, and it’s an awesome non-beer option to have available at our taprooms. We finally decided to become producers when we installed our R&D facility at our Lovejoy Wharf brewery. It’s small, dedicated to liquid experimentation, and licensed for wine production. Everett now has one too. We also partner with various craft wine producers, who blend to spec for us – that’s been a huge learning experience.”
So by having its own limited production, and by partnering with quality winemakers, Night Shift is able to offer a steady lineup of wines under its own brand for their folks. And the response has been great. “Our fans have loved it,” Oxton says. “What’s more surprising are the bottle sales. People seem to trust the owl, whether it’s beer, coffee, or (as we’re learning) wine.”
Night Shift’s line of in-house wine is still a relatively new development, but based on these early successes, it’s likely to stick around.
“We are releasing new batches every few months,” Oxton explains. “Some of it is wine we’ve fermented on site, some of it through partnerships with craft wineries that we’ve selected. Like in beer, we try to really showcase a variety of flavors and styles, with the general theme being ‘it has to taste delicious!’ You can buy bottles online or swing by one of our locations to get a pour!”
Crooked Run Fermentation
Crooked Run is a relatively small operation – especially compared to the two aforementioned breweries. But, the Sterling, VA-based brewery doesn’t feel limited by its size. In fact, that’s likely why it’s had the opportunity to experiment and get creative.
“During the height of the pandemic, we had some breathing room and decided to pursue a winery license, which is relatively easy and inexpensive to attain in Virginia,” shares Crooked Run’s co-owner Jake Endres. “We were already working with a lot of locally grown fruit, including grapes, in our mixed-ferm[entation] and coolship beers so it was kind of a no-brainer to go ahead and get licensed to make wine as well, which a lot of our production team is pretty into.”
In fact, the Crooked Run team has so readily adopted winemaking, that they’ve changed their name from Crooked Run Brewing to the more beverage-inclusive Crooked Run Fermentation. And, their regular consumers have been excited with the change.
“Consumers have responded quite positively,” Endres says. “All of our releases have sold out quickly and we’ve gotten some enthusiastic folks attending our tastings in our barrel room. There’s a good overlap between people who enjoy mixed-ferm sours and wine.”
So far, Crooked Run’s wine production has been fairly limited with less than 100 cases of six wines initially released. But, that success means that the team is already working towards 2022. “We’re currently underway with crushing and fermentation, with a goal of 250 cases of eight different wines,” shares Endres. “Right now, our wines are only available at our main facility in Sterling, VA, but our plan is to distribute some to some of the beer and wine stores we already work with and also offer them at our Leesburg and upcoming DC location as well.”
That means fans of Crooked Run’s wine experiments will have wider access to this robust lineup of fermented grape juice. Endres and his team have fully embraced the natural wine processes with their wine — locally grown grapes, no added sulfites, spontaneous fermentation — leading to wines that are as fun as they are complex. And Endres isn’t surprised that established beer drinkers can’t get enough of the stuff.
“Plenty of beer consumers are already into playful and irreverent recipes,” notes Endres. “Then you’ve got sour and lambic drinkers who are already on board with Brettanomyces and other wild stuff. So if you hand a beer drinker a really cool natural wine with notes of cherry Gatorade, they are more likely to say ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ Versus someone whose ideal wine is already formed.”
Speciation Artisan Ales / Native Species Winery
Craft beer cult-favorite Speciation Artisan Ales has been producing unique and wine-forward beers for years. So no one was really surprised when the Grand Rapids, MI-based brewery announced Native Species Winery, a natural wine side project.
“We started making it because I was interested in making wild fermented wine with Michigan-grown grapes,” shares founder Mitch Ermatinger. “Plus we use almost entirely wine equipment at our brewery anyways, so the upfront equipment investment was almost nothing – just some macro bins!”
Like with Speciation, Native Species prefers a minimal intervention approach. That means that Ermatinger encourages a true expression of the grapes – no additives and only wild fermentation. Despite Speciation Artisan Ales’ relative proximity to the world of wine, fans of the brewery were a little skeptical.
“Our consumer base was initially hesitant but have definitely jumped on board,” mentions Ermatinger. “Especially to pet-nats and piquettes, which we will be focusing more on in the next few years.”
Native Species is still a new project, but Ermatinger has already released nearly 20 different wines ranging from more traditional, straightforward wines to fun, creative offerings like the aforementioned piquettes, bourbon barrel-aged wines, and cherry wines. For now, production is still understandably limited.
“We actually cut our wine production a bit this year,” explains Ermatinger. “We were making all kinds of different styles and brands to see what works and what our customers like. At this point, we have decided to primarily focus on pet-nats, piquettes, and a handful of Nouveau-style wines.”
So, folks interested in sampling will need to visit the Speciation taproom or scour around Michigan bottle shops to find Native Species wine.