Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Why Are Brewing and Winemaking so Different?

On their surfaces the fermentations of beer and wine seem like they should be similar. A cool, sugary liquid is inoculated with Saccharomyces cerevisiae (or a close relative) and the eventual product is packaged with a goal of minimizing oxidation. Why then are the two approached in such fundamentally different ways from yeast pitching rate to the use of oxygen scavengers?

I’ve only made a handful on wine kits over the years so I’m by no means an expert vintner. That said, I’ve been thinking about cider while I wait for TTB-approval to begin production at Sapwood Cellars. The question is, do we approach it like a beer or a wine?

Wine yeast for a Flemish Red

Wine yeast has a different history than beer yeast. Where ale and lager strains have been domesticated for centuries, most wine strains were at best semi-domesticated until the last few decades. A big reason for that is the seasonal production differences between the two products. Dried grain and hops store and ship easily compared to grapes, so harvesting and repitching yeast was common in beer long before wine (which relied on an annual spontaneous fermentation).

Wine strains are still less domesticated (more wild) and thus tend to be more “competitive” than beer yeast, producing kill factors and generally being able to bootstrap up from low cell counts. As a result, suggested pitching rates for wine are usually much lower than for beer. A typical pitching rate for a 1.080 beer might be 3 grams of dried yeast per gallon, where wine is usually 1 g per gallon. This is also reflected in the package size for the strains (5 g vs. 11.5 g).

For home winemakers anyway, it is difficult to find best-practices for things like pitching rate and oxygenation. We can certainly debate the credibility and accuracy of the advice, but homebrewers have widely referenced formulas and targets for these based on original gravity and type of yeast (ale vs. lager).

Riesling Fermentation

Wine must isn't boiled to avoid destroying its fresh fruit flavor, so without chemical intervention there is no “clean slate” to begin fermentation. Even pitching a pure culture of yeast wouldn’t guarantee a product that doesn't eventually sour or go off. That helps to explain the common uses of antimicrobial sulfite and sorbate (which winemakers have widely referenced formulas for dosing rate). Chemical stabilization also allows the packaging of sweet wines, where brewers have mash temperature to control fermentability.

Most of the analysis of wine, must, and fermentation has happened since the 1970s. Where some of the earliest work on microbiology (not to mention scientific measurement) was from breweries a century earlier. Beer became science-ified first thanks to the earlier industrialization of brewing (again a result of the differences in ingredients). 

Saison Fermentation

Modern breweries are built upon keeping oxygen out of the beer post-fermentation. Much of this is accomplished with purging with carbon dioxide or nitrogen and transfers and packaging under pressure. Conversely, conventional wine production relies on dosing with metabisulfite (a potent oxygen scavenger) to neutralize oxidation while the process doesn’t do as much to avoid it.

Part of this is that breweries may make 25 or more batches of beer in a given fermenter each year, while seasonal wineries don’t have this luxury. This means even smaller breweries can afford to spend more on their equipment allowing for transfers under pressure rather than pumps. Dealing with force-carbonation makes pressure vessels a requirement. There are also stages of winemaking, like punch-downs or separating the skins from the fermented wine, that are nearly impossible to do without introducing some oxygen. There is also an expectation of stability and ageability with wine.

Traditionally beer was naturally carbonated, which allows the yeast to scavenge oxygen introduced during packaging. Combine that with typical quick consumption and oxidation wasn't as large of a concern until recently.

Natural wineries that avoid the addition of sulfites do take some cues from brewing in limiting oxygen, but this is currently a growing but still niche winemaking approach.

Chemical additions for a white wine kit

Beer has always been a recipe: grains, water, and herbs at a minimum. Sugars, fruit, spices etc. all have a historic precedent in brewing. It is no big surprise then that brewers are more likely to add 100 different ingredients than vintners who can make wine from crushed grapes alone - although adulteration had a historic place. Most of the wines I see with a "flavor" addition (e.g., chocolate, almond etc.) are inexpensive gimmicks. The lone exception is herbs in wines like vermouth. Where most of the expensive highly sought-after beers contain additions that fall outside of the core ingredients.

Modern wineries add all sorts of processing aids, acid/sugar adjustments, nutrients etc. but generally with the goal of balancing, showcasing, or heightening the fruit expression. Wine strains are now carefully selected to have specific interactions to increase aromatic compounds (e.g., the ability to converts the thiol 3MH to 3MHA). Wine yeast blends are also popular with one strain freeing a compound and another converting it. All things that are rarely considered for brewing.

Brewers have only relatively recently begun to embrace aging in oak barrels, something many wineries never gave up on when stainless steel became the standard. Brewers have very much relied on the secondhand barrels from wine and spirit production rather than buying new or directly supporting coopers.

This goes after the larger point that brewers are currently less tethered to their industry's recent past than wineries. The most popular craft beers of today don't look or smell like any beers that were produced 30 years ago, while wines have remained relatively unchanged. Much of the American craft beer boom was based on taking dead or dying styles, ingredients, and techniques and resurrecting them. It is great to see the same becoming more popular in wine with the resurgence of orange wine, obscure varietals, and natural winemaking.

Barrels for aging

I’m not here to argue that either brewers or vintners are better. I think there are things that each side could learn from the other. Why don’t we see dry hopped wine? Why don’t brewers add 5 PPM of metabisulfite as insurance for the hazy IPAs? Why don’t we see more wineries reduce their sulfite usage by purging their tanks and bottles? Why don’t we see more brewers celebrate the terroir of local ingredients? I even wrote an article for BYO about using wine yeast in beer.

Someone could likely write a similar article about distilleries, cideries, sake-producers, etc. The point is to get out of your box, and see what other experts suggest in their chosen domain. Determine if any of it is useful to what you do!

I've talked to cidermakers who operate just like a winery in terms of their fermentation and highlighting of the apples, while others are clearly more influenced by craft beer (take Graft). We'll likely take a hybrid approach for our ciders, using our best low-oxygen transfers along with winemaking techniques that make sense to us. Celebrating the character of the apples, but still sometimes having fun with additional flavors.


Clark said...

Another couple of things jump to mind.

One is storage, which ties into the point you made about aging. Beer goes out the door quickly most of the time, while wine has to stick around after fermenting, except for the cheaper stuff. That changes the economics of wine quite a bit since storage is another level of expense.

And then speaking of economics, the price range for wine varies enormously, while for beer the range is much tighter. A winemaker might sell a portion of its stuff to Costco for their own label at the equivalent of a very low price per bottle, while also selling the top of the line for 30 times as much per bottle.

As you obviously know, brewers have much less luxury to modify their product to hit different price points. They might get away with a premium price of only three times as much per beer as what they get for the cheapest beer, maybe only double.

Which means that it gets tough to spend a lot of money and time developing and brewing something special if there is little opportunity to recoup the costs. There is an incentive for a wine maker to spend five years putting in a new variety of grape, waiting for the vines to produce, experimenting for a couple of years, then aging in the hopes of selling a bottle for $50-$100. The incentives for a similar level of effort by a brewer over time are rarely there if it means in the end only being able to charge a $3 premium per six pack.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Pricing has really started to change for beer. The least expensive beer we sell is a keg of wheat beer to a bar for ~$150. At the other end a 16.9 oz bottle of barrel-aged sour for $18. That's $.0005/oz vs. $1.065/oz (a difference of 2000X). That's a pretty big spread, and certainly is one reason we experiment and create new beers each week and put such a focus on our barrel-program. Most of that difference is really direct sales vs. wholesale, but we've found novelty is the best way to bring people into our tap room.

Beer is slowly creeping up to wine pricing. With some breweries routinely demanding $30-50 for a bottle. On the secondary market, even newly released beers are frequently topping $100. I think the high prices make more sense for wine because they are driven by the fundamental amount of a certain year's harvest, while most breweries could brew more of a given beer if they wanted to (although barrel-aged, mixed-fermentation, and local fruit make perfect consistency more challenging)

Clark said...

I think you're right that beer drinkers are slowly getting used to the idea of splurging for specialty beers, but it has a long way to go. The gnashing and wailing I see online about spending $9 for pint in a bar amazes me. People don't blink about a $9 glass of wine of any quality.

But, beer drinkers are definitely getting better than they were, and if Jagermeister could convince frat brothers to buy at premium prices what had traditionally been an old man's digestive aid, I am sure brewers will crack the code that gets people to start thinking a lot more about $20 pints.

Of course, the spread between wine and single malt scotch must really drive distillers crazy. On a per drink basis, it's amazing that you can get a very nice bottle of 15 year old single malt for what you would pay for an equal number of drinks from decent but not special two year old wine.

ad├ęssio said...

" There are also stages of winemaking, like punch-downs or separating the skins from the fermented wine, that are nearly impossible to do without introducing some oxygen. There is also an expectation of stability and ageability with wine."

this king of oxygen introduction is beneficial for red wines because not only it provides oxygen for fermentation but also is critical for tannin depletion, lessening the need for long barrel aging https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0040402014012654

Niall said...

A winery here in London makes a citra/mosaic dry hopped sparkling white. One problem with this I believe, is that it can't technically be called wine, rather a wine based beverage.

Paul L said...

Hi Mike!

I'm a big fan of your work, and I agree that the spread in beer prices is more than just 2-3x, but I think you need to recheck your math here. A 16.9oz sour at $18 is indeed $1.065/oz, but unless your kegs hold thousands of gallons I don't think that wheat beer is as cheap as you claim.

Assuming an easier-to-handle 15.5 gallon (half-bbl) size, $150/keg yields ~$0.076/oz, which means a ratio of ~14x, not 2000x. That's certainly noticeable to brewers and consumers, and there are other breweries with even bigger spreads (e.g., Boston Beer Co.), but a least for now beer doesn't come close to the price variation you can find in wine and spirits.


The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Right you are, looks like I did the math as if the keg sold for $1.

simon said...

damn man that's some big as 8865 liter kegs u got there!! and cheap beer too!!!