This week, I tried to figure out what exactly what all the kerfuffle is about between beer geeks and wine geeks, and I had the help of CWE (certified wine educator) and author Jim Laughren to guide me through these treacherous fermented waters. When he is not extrapolating on all the drinks he enjoys, he is probably at the firm he founded, Winehead Consulting. Jim responded to my questions with extremely well-crafted summaries of some topics that cover dozens of books, and has distilled them down to palatable paragraphs.
JY: When you sit down to dinner, and wants to pair your food with a drink; how do you choose between wine and beer, what are the occasions and circumstances that you use to make the decision to drink either?
JL: You have to understand that I’m a wine lover, who also enjoys a great beer. So my default selection is wine, as there are literally thousands of wine types and styles to fit just about any situation or flavor profile. That said, beer can likewise be the perfect accompaniment to things like fish and chips, as it does a terrific job with deep-fried foods; or with a big burger straight from the grill on a hot summer’s day. Actually, when folks join us for dinner, I like to put out both a beer and a wine, or a couple of each, regardless of the food, and let everyone taste and play with all the combinations. It’s pretty interesting to see who likes what with what; it shows that we all have our own preferences.
Aside from pairing and all those complications, are there preferred times/seasons that you enjoy beer vs. wine?
Beer is wonderfully refreshing, a true thirst quencher, so for me summer is prime time for a great beer. I can’t imagine sitting down at the nineteenth hole after a sweaty round of golf and ordering a glass of wine. I’m thirsty and I need something I can belt back. Food wise, beers with some degree of maltiness go beautifully with grilled meats, so they’re my standard, warm weather go-to with ribs or steak when I’m not really interested in a big, overly heavy red wine. Wheat and white beers are another summer favorite. I particularly like that touch of orange peel and coriander in many of them. And of course, if I’m spending game day or a lazy weekend afternoon with friends in a bar, it’s usually beer time. The sad truth—if your bar is the exception, I applaud you— is that few “regular” bars have anything on the wine list worth drinking, but may carry fifteen or twenty excellent beers.
Can you talk about the main differences (aside from the elements that comprise them) of beer and wine? How they are both perceived and why?
Ah. There’s a topic loaded with historic, economic and sociological realities that get beer geeks all in a tizzy and make wine geeks seem snottier than they really are. But you asked, so….
Back in the day, in the earliest civilizations, aka Mesopotamia and the region of northwest Iran/southeast Turkey/southern Georgia, where beer and wine were first produced, beer was the mainstream drink of a warmer, lowland Mesopotamia simply because grains were easily grown and easily stored after harvest. Wine on the other hand, was produced from grapes needing a cooler, more elevated topography—and so had to be transported downriver from the foothills of the Caucasus regions, at some cost, of course—not to mention that grapes have to be used or consumed shortly after harvest. So very early we see the economics of supply and demand. Beer could be made at any time throughout the year and was readily available. Wine, on the other hand, could be produced but once a year, didn’t store well, and was expensive to obtain, but was sweet and delicious and had about twice the alcoholic punch of beer. So naturally, the elites, those with power and money, wanted to show off their status by offering their guests wine when everyone else could only pour the local beer. And thus began a divergence in attitudes towards these two marvelous beverages that continues to this day.
How did you come about studying/appreciating beer and wine? I believe sometimes they are perceived as oil and water, (i.e. you’re a beer guy, or a wine guy) but many of the brewers I have talked to enjoy both for different regards. How did this happen?
I guess I’ve always had an ecumenical palate, but your second question is actually the more interesting. Not only do brewers enjoy a good wine now and then, or more than now and then, but winemakers are rather well-known for enjoying a tasty brew.
The grape harvest and winemaking season, called “crush,” is a six to eight week period of non-stop work. Twenty hour days are common and lots of physical work and critical decision-making are part of the program. When break time comes, usually at the end of a grueling day, it’s amazing how satisfying a cold beer can be for an exhausted harvest crew. While brewers seldom labor under the same pressure to make everything right, right now, or lose their entire annual production, the two are kindred spirits. Both live in a complex world of fermentation and pumps and temperatures and protection from spoilage and both have the wisdom to enjoy and appreciate a well made product from the other’s efforts.
Can you talk a little about, some of the relationship between common aspects of both wine and beer? (Terroir, aging, bottling, etc.) Are we really dealing with two different “beasts” here?
Wine and beer are kissing cousins: plenty of relationships and commonalities but also distinct differences. Both grapes and grains carry with them a varietal character that impacts the final product, but the vagaries of vintage and terroir can mean everything for grapes while having a far more modest affect on grains. Remember, grain can be and is stored for months and years before ever being enlisted in the production of food or drink. Most barley malts are blended to provide consistency; differences in this basic beer ingredient being due more to roasting and toasting than to when the strains used were harvested.
As to aging, while there is a small group of folks into aging specific beers, the vast majority of beer should be drunk as soon after production as possible. Even sooner if it’s in a clear bottle. Even the lightest white wine is delicious for a year or two, the average red is probably in top form for three to five years or more, and the really good wines can age and evolve for decades. But then again, you can make a batch of beer in a couple of weeks (more or less, depending on specific style) while it’s at least six to nine months after harvest that wine is released and you only have one chance a year to make it.
In terms of production, I’d say the biggest difference is that beer making is precise, that essentially it is following a recipe. If you do it right, regardless of year or other considerations, you’ll end up with a very consistent product. And that’s how beer drinkers like it.
Winemaking, on the other hand, is more art than a science. Every vintage brings significant changes and differences in the chemical composition of your raw material. There are no set recipes that can be used; last year’s cup of flour is this year’s half a pound; and forget the salt and pepper altogether. It’s assessment and judgment and “listening” to what the fruit is telling you that makes for successful winemaking.
Your latest book was about how beer drinkers can get into enjoying wine… What would he recommend for the opposite of wine drinkers, that want to try to enjoy beer? Is this the same approach?
In so far as the approach is to be open and experimental, yes. Regardless of your usual sip, there are lots of great flavors on the other side of the aisle. Try them; try as many as you can.
How do you feel about both industries current developments right now? For instance, craft beer getting more of a “wine drinkers’ appreciation” with higher cost and harder to come by ingredients (in some regard) and so forth?
Craft brewing, as opposed to beer making, is still experiencing the exuberance of youth. With very few exceptions, the folks who started the great craft breweries (from Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada to Dan Kenary at Harpoon Brewery to Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head to Jim Koch at Boston Brewing to Gary Fish at Deschutes Brewery—I could go on) are still running the show. This is a first generation phenomenon with an ongoing blossoming of new talent and new names and faces. With youth and passion come mistakes—how else can you learn and improve? One of the “experiments” has been to pack too much into a beer: too much alcohol, too much intensity, too many spices. These brews are very compelling… for the first few sips and then they grow tiresome and undrinkable. I’m hoping these very promising, relatively new brewers reorient their focus less on the extreme and more on developing great, new, well-imagined beers of balance and drinkability.
The wine world, meanwhile, has fallen in love with so-called indigenous grape varieties. For the most part this is a good thing in that it will save many of these odd, unheard of grapes and wines from obscurity and/or extinction. But like everything else, some of them are very good and some are not. In many cases, these are minor grapes grown only in a pocket of obscurity by half a dozen families who still make wine the way their grandfathers taught them. Yet, hungry-for-new-selections importers and distributors are jumping at the chance to carry something you’ve either never heard of or never tried before. And while I will gladly, enthusiastically, try any and every wine that’s new to me, many of these new-to-the-market wines just aren’t very good.
So in both worlds, the world of wine and the world of beer, we’re seeing a significant amount of adventuring and experimentation. Overall, this is a very positive evolution that bodes well for the future, though we do have to weed through the mistakes to find the treasures.
Could you talk about the first glass of wine/craft beer that really broadened your horizons on the two?
Back in the 80s I was in the habit of buying a bottle of wine two or three times a week, both because I liked wine and to impress a certain lady I was seeing. Bordeaux was the usual choice—in those days one of the most readily available and affordable options. I bought, we drank, I liked. There wasn’t much more to it. Until… one day I picked up a bottle of Chateau Something-or-other. I have no recollection of the name or the vintage, but it took my breath away. It was so superior to my usual fare that I realized, for the first time, there could be elegance, power and complexity in this lovely beverage.
My first memorable beer experiences came when, in the course of a single week about ten years later, a friend offered me a Pete’s Wicked Ale, I tried a Sam Adams just to see what the hullabaloo was all about, and a waiter suggested that I try a Peroni with lunch. Wow. All were delicious, all had personality. Some may suggest that Peroni falls outside the craft beer parameters but it, like the other two, was a definitive example that beer could be so much more than the watery lagers I’d been raised on.
What is your “go to” wine and beer?
The next one, to be honest. It’s more about styles for me than specific labels. And trying things I’ve not had before. Every situation is unique and deserving of its own identity. If I’m in the mood for a rosé, I’ll try one I’ve never tasted before. If it’s a big, gorgeous Brunello I’m after, I’ll look for something I’ve forgotten about that’s in my cellar. A hot day and some light food? I’ll ask the bartender what they have in the way of a Hefeweizen or cream ale, and probably follow his or her lead.
What do you think about the current state of Craft Beer vs. Wine & spirits writing, are they still very different? Does he enjoy some writers or websites more than others?
I’m a fan of most drinks writing today. The wine mags are including beer and spirits articles, the beer mags are talking about wines, and the spirits publications often discuss all three. It’s a refreshing breaking-down of barriers. As our population becomes more sophisticated in regards to food and drink, editors are realizing that coverage needs to be broader in scope. A wine drinker would rather read a solid piece on Irish whiskey than another fluff piece on a second rate winery; yet columns have to be written and pages filled. So good writers and editors are realizing that the forty third article about Islay Scotch may be getting redundant, but that hot new craft brewery in downtown Glasgow is attracting some real buzz, so let’s show our readers a bit of respect and allow ourselves the freedom of diversity.
And then we have the internet, the great equalizer. So many new writers, bloggers, reviewers now have a voice and a chance to make their point. What a great turn of events. It’s not about agreeing with all these folks, obviously some are much more knowledgeable and some are much better writers than others, but how rich that all these voices are adding to the conversation. In the end, it’s not that your opinion or mine is the right or wrong one, it’s that we can discuss and dissect and trade thoughts and ideas concerning the things we’re passionate about.