Miller Lite? Yeah right. Meiomi? You’re kidding me.
We’ve all had an amazing glass of beer or a breathtaking wine. One that makes us go “Ohhh daaamn that’s good!” An elixir that inspires us to splurge past our budget. A glass that keeps us coming back even after an epic hangover. But what is it about these suds and stems that is so special?
This week’s episode attempts to answer just that — what defines quality, and why are people so dang passionate about it! Listen in as we dissect the aspects and characteristics of a beverage that elevate it from good to great, but don’t just take our word for it. We’ve also interviewed professionals in the industry, brewers and winemakers, and avid collectors to get their take on why people dedicate so much time, talent, and energy to alcoholic beverages. But before we get started…
5 O’Clock Pils from Saint Arnold Brewing Co. (Houston, Texas): Saint Arnold Brewing Co. began making beer in 1994 and is one of the pioneers of Texas craft movement. And the brewery isn’t just a Lone Star favorite. In 2017, Saint Arnold was honored as mid-size brewery of the year at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. That means it collected the most awards for its beers that year in its size category. So if we are talking about quality, this is a perfect pick. I chose the 5 O’Clock Pils because it’s a solid display of the brewery’s craftsmanship. Pilsners are lagers, which means they are labor intensive and require a lot of precision to get the crisp, clean finish characteristic of the style. Many brewers say they are more difficult to do right. This one is a refreshing blend, true-to-style pils that’s light in body with high carbonation, giving it a wonderful effervescence. Pilsners are also traditionally hoppy beers, but the hops are used to add floral notes rather than bitterness. This one features Saaz hops that offer a bright finish.
Valle Secreto Cachopoal Valley Key Malbec 2014: I admittedly did not pick this bottle for myself, it was shipped to me from a wine club, but I chose a Malbec because it is the first style of red I remember sipping and enjoying, the first stepping stone into a life of wine soaked madness. This 2014 Valle Secreto Malbec is a great example of a flavorful, balanced wine – especially from a varietal that can be all over the board depending on region and producer. This medium bodied 100% Malbec wine is dark and sports it’s trademark purple color, there are dark fruits like blackberry, plum, and currant on the nose, and it tastes like toasty oak and spicy chocolate. I let this wine decant for about an hour before we drank it – just wish I had enjoyed it with a hearty meal! (Thanks Valle Secreto for the amazing pic!)
Vitis Vinifera vs Concord
When we talk about grapes in winemaking, we are speaking about a specific species called Vitis vinifera. This species originated in Eurasia about 65 million years ago and is the most popular viticulture grape in the world. While other species can be used to make wine (American natives Vitis rotundifolia produce muscadine wines and rootstock from the Vitis riparia variety is responsible for saving European vines from phylloxera), Vitis vinifera is the umbrella that covers the wine varieties we all know and love — Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malbec, and Riesling to name a few. Grapes we buy from the grocery store and eat in our fruit salad come from a different American species called Vitis labrusca, the most recognizable of which is Concord. This fruit produces flavors for your go-to grape jellies, juices, and candy. But why can’t you make wine out of both, or buy both at your local grocer? Even though they are both grapes they differ in a lot of ways.
The skin on a concord, or table grape, is very thin which makes it great for snacking on but not so hot for winemaking. The thick skin of a Vitis vinifera grape is what gives your wine all the qualities that make it drinkable. The longer crushed grape juice sits on its skin, the more color and tannins will be imparted. (The skin also has tons of polyphenols and antioxidants that are used in the vitamin and cosmetic industry too!) Concord grapes just don’t have this kind of tannic punch.
Another big difference is the amount of sugar. Vitis vinifera grapes are actually far sweeter than concord grapes (wine grapes typically contain 25-30% sugar while concord and table grapes is closer to 10-15%). Not only do the grapes naturally have a higher sweetness, they are also harvested much later than table grapes to develop more glucose and fructose. That makes them way too sugary to enjoy by the handful, but perfect for fermenting! The high sugar content provides plenty of food for yeast to consume as they convert the molecules into alcohol.
The last major difference is the size of the fruit and the amount of fruit the vines produce. Ideally, viticulturists want wine grapes to be smaller with a high skin- and seed-to-flesh ratio, and vines to be lower yielding than table grapes. This makes for a higher quality wine because the flavors are more concentrated, prominent, and pronounced. The high yield, large berry table grapes would make for a super watery and unimpressive wine, but that’s exactly what makes them so yummy to snack on!
Grape and region duos of note
Aaron Benson mentioned in his interview wine regions around the world that are renowned for a specific style of grape. I thought I’d provide y’all a quick list of regions and their iconic grapes to reference the next time you want to go out and buy a bottle for dinner. There are obviously great wines from lots of places, and many exceptions to the rules (and you can find far more in depth maps in Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson’s book The World Atlas of Wine) — but here are some classic duos:
France: Bordeaux (Left Bank) – Cabernet Sauvignon
France: Bordeaux (Right Bank) – Merlot
France: Burgundy, Mâconnais – Chardonnay
Italy: Tuscany – Sangiovese
Italy: Piedmont – Nebbiolo
Germany: Mosel – Riesling
Spain: Rioja – Tempranillo
Spain: Priorat – Garnacha
USA, Oregon: Willamette Valley – Pinot Noir
USA, California: Napa – Cabernet Sauvignon
USA, California: Sonoma – Chardonnay
South America, Argentina: Mendoza – Malbec
South Africa: Stellenbosch – Chenin Blanc
Australia, SA: Barossa Valley – Shiraz
New Zealand: Marlborough – Sauvignon Blanc
Where local beer meets local steer
Quality in craft beer starts with ingredients, including the grain. Brewers require literally tons of malted barley to produce one batch of beer and once they’re through with it, the byproduct is what’s known as “spent grain” — essentially trash. But as they say, one man’s trash is another’s treasure.
Many breweries throughout the U.S. partner with nearby farmers to recycle spent grain. A farmer will pick it up from one or multiple breweries and take it back to their farm to use as feed for their livestock. This is a winning partnership for several reasons. First, farmers essentially provide waste management services at no cost to the brewery, and in turn, the farmers are able to pick up free food.
This is a common practice in the brewing industry, but it requires that breweries be located near farmland — the spent grain needs to be transported before it molds or goes bad, usually within a week of it being used for brewing.
Back to quality: I wrote a story about this lifecycle of grain and one North Texas farmer told me that because his brewers are so picky about the quality of grain they use (void of pesticides and other chemicals), he is able to advertise an all-natural beef product when selling it to consumers. There’s even a brewery in McKinney, Texas that receives a spent grain-fed cow or several hogs from its farmer every year to cook and serve at a big party. Now that’s grain-to-grill sustainability!
Instant Pot wine recipe
Have an Instant Pot? You too can be a vintner! Follow these instructions and check out the video below to get a sense of what the result will taste like.
Huge thanks to those wonderful people that participated in the interviews for our second episode! We are truly blessed to be surrounded by such knowledgeable and passionate beverage enthusiasts, we hope you enjoy getting to know them as much as we have.
Juhee Williamson: Juhee was born in Seoul, South Korea and studied music in undergrad and graduate schools. She came to the States in 1996 and is now working in the IT advisory services field. Her love of wine started with tasting dinners with friends and has blossomed over the years with trips to Napa, Oregon, Washington, and France. She is an avid wine enthusiast and collector, and continues to host fabulous blind tasting dinners in her home for close friends and colleagues.
Georgina Solis (right): Georgina Solis began her career as a police woman before joining Peticolas Brewing Co. in 2015 where she was eventually promoted to brewer. In 2018, she joined the quality analysis and quality control team at Hedon Brewing Co. in Balatonvilagos, Hungary before moving to Houston’s Eureka Heights Brewing Co. to become brewer. Georgina also helped launch the first Northern Texas Chapter of Pink Boots Society, a national nonprofit focused on inspiring, assisting and encouraging women in the craft beer industry through education.
Aaron is passionate about history, geology, geography, travel, humanities, arts, food and culture, all of which culminate in the world of wine. He says he is grateful every day to work in a field that brings joy to so many, himself included. Aaron has managed and curated wine lists for several iconic Dallas staples such as Stephen Pyles, Dallas Country Club, and Sixty Vines. He is continually pursuant of greater milestones through study – having recently achieved the status of Certified Cicerone©, he is turning his attention toward the Advanced Sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers Americas.
Jeffrey Stuffings: Jester King Brewery founder Jeffrey Stuffings was a local homebrewer who started working on the concept in late 2007. He worked at Austin Homebrew Supply while developing the recipes and business plan for the brewery. Jeff and his brother, Michael Steffing, found an old machine shop in southern Texas, took it apart, and moved it to Austin and spent the summer of 2009 rebuilding it into a brewery. In September of 2010, Jester King brewed its first batch of beer, Boxer’s Revenge, a barrel-aged sour strong ale. In October of 2010, they sold their first beer to Draught House in Austin, Texas. Jester King bottled their first ever beer — Black Metal, an imperial stout. Jester King made the decision to abandon pure culture fermentation in 2013 and focus exclusively on mixed culture beer, thus putting Jester King firmly on its present day path. The brewery now owns 58 acres of land where staff farms herbs, fruits and vegetables to use in its beer; raises goats to make other products like cheese; and is currently planting a vineyard.
Jeanette Fitzgerald: Jeanette is a retiree who lives in North Texas and is in the midst of opening a family run winery this fall. After leaving the professional workforce she attended Viticulture and Enology classes at Grayson College where she graduated in spring of 2018. Jeanette is working hard to prepare for Fitzel Winery’s opening – she’s been busy this summer laying foundation, constructing facilities, and planting riesling and tempranillo vines. Her son plans to run the onsite restaurant and food truck, and there will be a game area for the whole family. Look for word on a grand opening party later this year! Here are some photos from planting day:
Jase Hicks: Moving from East Texas to Dallas Jase quickly jumped into the local craft beer scene in 2011, volunteering with Deep Ellum Brewing Company and Peticolas Brewing Company shortly after they opened. Known to bring bottles to share wherever he goes and quite possibly bringing a bendy straw for an opportune snorkel video he has ingrained himself into the community from brewery employees to craft beer fans alike.