Carl Kins's picture

Italian Grape Ales: Why Grapes Aren't Just for Wine Anymore

Italian Grape Ales: Why Grapes Aren't Just for Wine Anymore

There has been a resurgence in grape-based beers in recent years. It seems that plenty of brewers are aiming to bring the gods Bacchus and Ceres together in harmonious union. However, the origins of grape-based, wine-style beers are murky. Moreover, the definition, or at least the beer style description of what a grape ale is, is certainly open for debate.

First, let us have a glance at the history of the style, starting in the 19th century. Indeed, before that, studies (e.g. ‘The history of beer additives in Europe - a review’ by Karl-Ernst Behre) have shown there are books about brewing mentioning different types of fruit, but grapes are not listed. Whether that is an omission or whether grapes indeed were not used is still open to debate. On the other hand, if you are more interested in grape-based wines, you might want to check weekly web wine auction.

Georges Lacambre wrote his “Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières” in 1851, describing the European brewing methods, and only mentions the use of grape sugar as a form of glucose. As such, the fruit is not mentioned. What is known is that a few decades later, lambic was one of the most popular drinks in Belgium, especially in and around Brussels. Lambic was not only produced close to the Senne river, but also close to or around other small rivers around Brussels. One of those rivers, the river IJse flows through the region of Hoeilaart, Overijse, Huldenberg etc., which is Belgium’s grape region.

In 1865, the first greenhouses were erected there to grow table grapes, which are not really suited for wine making. Shortly after, local brewers started adding these grapes to their lambics. Grape lambic production stopped when the sale of tuns of faro and lambic to the pubs diminished around WWII. It took Jean-Pierre Van Roy, Cantillon Brewery’s owner, to start production again in 1973. Living in Overijse and driving daily to Anderlecht, he saw a publicity sign for a long-gone grape lambic and decided to revive the style. That was a very small batch, and it took over ten years to get at it again with ‘Cantillon Lambic de raisin - Cuvée des 9 Nations,’ which ultimately became known as ‘Vigneronne’.

In 1993, Van Roy launched another grape ale called St-Lamvinus. Since then, both are regulars in the brewer’s production. After Jean-Pierre’s son Jean took over at the helm, a lot of other grape ales have been produced using French, Italian and German grapes, including pinot noir, carignan, cabernet franc, sangiovese, Riesling, etc. A recent evolution with Cantillon is to use grape residue after the juice has been extracted for wine making, i.e. grape skins and seeds.

Plenty of international brewers are big fans of lambic, and so it was to be expected that some of them also tried their hand in making beers made from grapes. Logically, it started in a country known for its wine: Italy. Birrificio Baladin was the first brewery to officially produce an Italian Grape Ale from 2000 to 2002, called Nöel Perbacco, using 25% Dolcetto/Nebbiolo grape must. However, it was never commercialized and only used for special tastings, sometimes with the indication "do not touch for 10 years at least."

birrifico baladin noel perbacco
Birrificio Baladin was the first brewery to officially produce an Italian Grape Ale (called Nöel Perbacco, above). However, it was never commercialized and only used for special tastings, sometimes with the indication "do not touch for 10 years at least."

Then in 2006 Birrificio Barley officially launched BB10, while Birrificio Montegioco officially produced its first IGAs in 2006, but released only a few examples in the following years: Tibir, Open Mind, Baccanale and Mobir. These Italian brewers have led the way in the field of grape ales, with many Italian brewers, such as LoverBeer and Birranova, following in their footsteps, actually leading to the denomination ‘IGA’ or Italian Grape Ale. Another example is made by J63 Craft Brewery of Torre a Cenaja called JLips (pictured in the header image.)

Since then, the floodgates have opened and you can find plenty of examples of grape ales worldwide, from China to Tasmania and everywhere in between.

Given this emerging trend gaining momentum, the Beer Judge Certification Program decided to describe IGA as a separate ‘local style’ in 2015. Not surprisingly, the guidelines were written by Italian Gianriccardo Corbo. Main characteristics of the style include: a pleasant ‘grape/wine character’ and ‘a communion between beer and wine’. But most importantly, ‘grape content can represent up 40% of whole grist. Grape/grape must can be used at different stages: boil, primary/secondary fermentation or aging’.

Clearly, BJCP wants grapes to play an important role in this new taxonomy. But where do the grapes start and the beer end in this style? Indeed, the inspiration and innovation of brewers is endless, and they try all kinds, whereby some do not hesitate to call plenty of different beers ‘grape ale’, aiming to boost sales. Over recent months, I have seen the term used for beer with one or a few of the following: wine/champagne yeast, raisins, grapes, grape juice, cooked grape must, wine, pomace, marc… and even for beer only aged in wine barrels!

I discussed with Gianriccardo, who mentioned an updated BJCP description is on its way, and we concurred that the grapes themselves should definitely play the most important role. As such, the use of wine yeast is excluded in the style definition even though that yeast has a relation to grapes; it insufficiently affects the taste. Think of champagne yeast, which is actually used in plenty of styles – even IPAs. Belgian examples are Malheur’s Brut beers and Bosteels DeuS.

Since 2006, the floodgates have opened for IGAs and you can find plenty of examples of grape ales worldwide, from China to France (such as Cantillon Brewery, pictured) to Tasmania and everywhere in between.

Furthermore, beer aged in wine barrels is a question mark. If a lot of wine was still in the barrel before adding the beer, there may be a winey effect, but this is quite seldom the case. Hence, we would consider all those to be simply classified as barrel-aged beer. And actually, in certain competitions such as France’s Bière Challenge barrel-aging is excluded when referring to grape ales.  

However, Gianriccardo brought an additional topic to the discussion, that of wild grape ales. Style-wise, he would classify those under ‘fruit lambic’ and/or ‘American wild ale’ and does not consider them to be grape ales per se.

Nice Belgian grape ales, next to the grape lambic beers now include beers from Bokke with the Wijngaard range, Antidoot with the L’Ambigu range, Heilig Hart Brouwers with Epiclese and many more. 

All in all, I have tasted and judged plenty of grape ales and I love them, as long as they are delicately made with the style guidelines in mind. These beers let the grape character shine and are not produced to simply follow trends and cash in on buzzwords.

With plenty of options now available, I suggest you seek out a grape ale soon to explore this fascinating style.

Table of Contents