In late 2018, Trillium Brewing opened its newest restaurant in Boston’s Seaport District. Its owner, Jean-Claude Tetreault, knew that he needed a wine option for diners, though its liquor license prohibited serving anything other than beer.
There’s a lot of exploration and experimentation with the style. With no strict definition, brewers tinker and have a chance to make it their own. The only restriction? At least 51% of fermentable sugars in beer must be derived from grain, according to the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
In the past, breweries rested beers on a range of wine grapes to infuse flavors, or they used wine barrels to age beers. With oenobier, brewers either coferment must and wort together, or they use another technique to create a beverage that lives in its own category.
For Trillium Brewing’s oenobiers, “it is not fair to call them a hybrid.” Likewise, serving them at the Seaport District location wasn’t seen as a replacement for wine, Tetreault says.
“It was something that is familiar, but still very exciting and exploratory for somebody who wouldn’t call themselves a beer fan,” he says. “It draws them in, helps them understand this massive range of possibilities that beer can be when it is not constrained by the wine world. There are such rigid definitions in wine, whereas beer, at least in the modern sense, really has colored outside the lines quite a bit.”
A recent Trillium offering was Oenobier Sémillon. At 10.8% alcohol by volume (abv), the brewery claims it has “aromas of fresh pear, lychee and hand-zested lemon. As the beer opens up, a bouquet of floral notes wash over the palate.”
In 2019, the brewery released Cuvée de Tétreault, a wild ale aged in both Bourbon and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels on black currants and Cab grapes. The idea, according to the brewery, was “initially designed to model the layered flavor of red-wine barrels and the whole-fruit maceration process that some winemakers utilize.”
Other breweries have pushed the boundaries of oenobier. Among them is California-based The Bruery, which has long worked to fuse beer and wine in harmonious ways.
Last summer, The Bruery worked with chef Brooke Williamson to create The Vine, identified by the brewery as “an ale aged in oak barrels with Central Coast Grenache Blanc grapes from our friend Andrew Murray, and Viognier grapes.”
Jeremy Grinkey, The Bruery’s production manager, says he planned to spend last year hosting pop-up dinners with Williamson across the country to build interest in The Vine and two other beers on which they collaborated. However, the novel coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.
“It’s not the kind of beer you’re going to pick up at the grocery store, but it is what you would get at a specialty shop,” says Grinkey. “We’re trying to get it into the hands of some restaurant owners and then see if it will play in a by-the-glass program that winemakers and the wine industry uses to get some placements. It would get people to just try it, and the serving size is important.”
For now, Grinkey says that oenobier is unlikely to take off in the same way or be as popular as IPAs, but that there’s a market worth exploring.
“If we don’t lead this charge, someone else will,” he says. “We don’t want that to happen, and right now the winemakers we are talking with and working with are really excited about what we are doing and what we might be able to do.”
Now, the brewers just need wine drinkers to come along on the journey.