The use of clay in winemaking dates back more than 8,000 years to the nation of Georgia, where pots called qvevri were used to age wine underground. Similar dolium have roots around the Mediterranean, while egg-shaped vessels called tinaja are linked to Spain. Amphorae, smaller jars, trace origins to ancient Greece and Rome.
Recently trending among today’s winemakers and wine lovers, various terracotta vessels are being embraced by other beverage producers, too.
Sebastian Degens, owner of Portland, Oregon’s Stone Barn Brandyworks, is one. While several spirits like mezcal, pisco and shochu have traditions in clay, Degens says his inspiration for the distillery’s nocino and grappa came from the wine industry. Both are aged in amphora-like pots called novum made by fellow Oregonian Andrew Beckham of Beckham Estate Vineyard.
The sole commercial amphora producer in the U.S., Beckham’s produced pots for dozens of wineries. He’s now also seeing interest from distilleries and breweries.
Lead Brewer Ryan McNeive of Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, was allured by the mineral and earthy qualities made possible by clay contact.
He first experimented with clay last year. A mixed-culture Belgian-style golden strong ale aged for six months together with whole-crushed Vignoles grapes from local Les Bourgeois Vineyard in a Tuscan amphora. Called Test, the limited release was packaged in 750ml bottles. This year, McNeive plans to age the ale for 11 months.
“When you age beer in wood you get oak tannins and leather, but with [clay], it’s totally different,” says McNeive, who likens the sensation to “licking a brick.” These tactile characteristics are what offer a similar appeal to bartenders.
“The number one difference is texture,” says Douglas Derrick, a district manager for Campari America. He’s credited as one of the first to merge cocktails with clay. In 2015, he filled a few 24-liter amphorae with the ingredients of a Negroni and aged them underground for three months.
“There’s a textural element that’s different from a classic Negroni, and there’s a rustic oxidation quality that comes through,” he says. It’s something Nick Korn, owner of Offsite, a Boston-based event and brand strategy firm, believes is the natural next step for craft cocktails.
“It’s not a gimmick,” says Korn. “It’s another tool for experimentation.”