When life gives you smoke-tainted grapes, make beer

Bryan Martin of Ravensworth Wines joined forces with Wildflower Brewing to make the range of beers. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Bryan Martin of Ravensworth Wines joined forces with Wildflower Brewing to make the range of beers. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

It probably seems somewhat obscure to be referencing Monty Python in this instance but when winemaker Bryan Martin was chewing on life's gristle after a harvest decimated by smoke taint in 2020, he didn't grumble, but gave a whistle ... and brewer Topher Boehm answered the call.

The two men had been friends for several years, sharing a passion and enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries in their field, for thinking outside the box, and now they have joined forces to make Bright Side beers, using the tainted grapes from Martin's Ravensworth Wines.

"After the year the winemakers had it would have been heartbreaking for everyone if we couldn't do something with the grapes," says Boehm. "You have to look on the bright side, we didn't want to see all that harvest go to waste."

The Bright Side beer range. Picture: Ainslie Cellars

The Bright Side beer range. Picture: Ainslie Cellars

Boehm is a brewer and co-owner of Wildflower Brewing and Blending in Sydney, who focuses on making beers using native yeast that is foraged off flowers around New South Wales. It's a process that is very like making sourdough bread from a mother. He'd previously used grapes, skins and flora from Martin's vineyard in Murrumbateman and this full range seemed like a natural progression, he says.

The Bright Side beers use Wildflower's Gold Australian Wild Ale as the base and it was mixed with grapes from five different wine varietals: shiraz, gamay, riesling, sangiovese and viognier. They are sold in wine-bottle-sized bottles and retail for $20.

Martin says he can taste the different grapes in each.

"There is a big difference between the viognier and the riesling, and the sangiovese and the shiraz," he says. "But it's the beer that shines through."

But the big question is can you taste the smoke taint?

"We knew there were going to be smoke compounds in them, in some ways the last thing Topher wanted to do was to hide that, he really wanted these beers to show the season I went through," says Martin.

"But at the end of the day, you see a little smoke in the nature of the aromas but it's not at the forefront at all."

Bryan Martin and Topher Boeham. Picture: Sam Boneham

Bryan Martin and Topher Boeham. Picture: Sam Boneham

Boehm says while there is still more research they could do, it's the different processes of making beer and wine that seems to counter the presence of smoke.

"It's likely one of two reasons, or a combination of the two," he says. "Firstly, there's the simple fact that the beer is diluted, the beer is not 100 per cent juice, the wine grapes make about 20-30 per cent of the total volume of the beverage.

"The other possibility is that the microbial pathway, the actual step by step fermentation that happens when the grapes are introduced to beer, particularly wild beer, is a completely different fermentation pathway.

"To be honest we're not really sure, I have made beers with smoke affected grapes in the past and we didn't see the effects of the smoke at all in that beer."

Both Boehm and Martin agree that it will be interesting to see what happens to the beers if they are cellared as such, if the smoke taint will become more prevalent.

"If it was wine I would say the smoke-taint would become more noticeable, but because the compounds operate differently in beer it could go either way," says Martin.

Boehm says the beers "move" more than any other beer he's made. By that he means the flavours change, as you pour it, as you drink it.

"You go at the beverage thinking it's going to be smoky but it's not, and then when you drink it, depending on the varietal, you'll get rose flavours, or smoked citrus, or red brambly fruits on the nose.

"They are fascinating beers and it's been great working with Bryan to get them to market."

Review

Bright Side (Shiraz); Wildflower x Ravensworth; Murrumbateman via Sydney; 6.6%. $20.

On the face of it, 2020 was rubbish. Without even mentioning the pandemic, the fires alone were enough to cast the year as a jumble of chaos and confusion. Nearby Bryan Martin's Ravensworth vineyard, the fires raged and the smoke hazed for months. His crop was on the cusp of being written off entirely. That is, until brewer Topher Boehm suggested they brew a beer from his smoke-tainted grapes. Bright Side is an optimistic illicit tryst of grape and grain, a co-ferment of wild ale and carbonic macerated smoke-tainted wine grapes. The shiraz is my favourite of the five. A salivate funk of tart, red and black berry fruit, with barely the barest hint of cinder or soot. Pollyanna would be proud.

Daniel Honan

  • Bright Side beers are available from selected independent bottle shops, including Ainslie Cellars, and the Wildflower website. wildflowerbeer.com
This story When life gives you smoke-tainted grapes, make beer first appeared on The Canberra Times.