When Krista Scruggs began working on her first vintage last year under her ZAFA Wines label, she ran into a serious roadblock when 95 percent of the feral vineyard she intended to harvest succumbed to a Japanese beetle infestation.
“I was working in Vermont,” says Scruggs, “and fortunately there are plenty of apples here, so I decided, rather than lose the entire harvest, I’ll make up the grape loss by co-fermenting with apples.”
Scruggs is one of a growing group of beer, cider and winemakers experimenting with co-fermentation, the practice of fermenting two or more fermentable sugar sources—wort, apples and/or grapes, etc.—in a single vessel simultaneously. (In winemaking, it can also refer to fermenting more than one grape variety in a single vessel.) The idea is partly geographical—a product of the adage that what grows together, goes together.
Beer, of course, can be made nearly anywhere, but apples and grapes tend to thrive in the same places: The Finger Lakes, for instance, as well as the Willamette Valley, the Monticello AVA of Virginia and, thanks to hybrid varieties, central Vermont. So it’s no surprise that folks would eventually ferment them together to create a unique beverage.
Many of these projects are the result of collaborations between makers. Scruggs, for example, has recently partnered with Shacksbury Cider on a line of cider-grape co-ferments they call “vinous ciders,” which will debut in a new shared space in South Burlington later this year or early next year. The collaborations will be under a new not-yet-named label, but will include equal input from both ZAFA and Shacksbury. “I’m curious about cidermaking and they’re curious about winemaking,” says Scruggs, “so our shared interest in learning more about the other side means we work well together.” Shacksbury’s director of business development, Luke Schmuecker, agrees, insisting that a collaboration was natural given their shared philosophies when it comes to winemaking and cider making.
Similar collaborations have sprouted along the East Coast. John Reynolds of Ovid, New York’s Blackduck Cider has co-fermented cider with local riesling and gewürztraminer grapes—he says he got the idea from Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider—as well as fruits from his estate. For his Black Flag and Red Flag ciders, he fermented red currants via carbonic maceration and then further fermented that base with tart cherries and cider. “It comes across as something completely different [than cider],” says Reynolds. “More wine-like, maybe in the pét-nat realm.”
But not everyone is so hot on the concept. Erik Longabardi, a wine and cider maker on Long Island working under the Floral Terranes label, says that years ago he dabbled with a cider macerated on grape pomace, but has never released one commercially. “I love the idea, but also have a Puritanical stance on it,” he says with a shrug.
Longabardi sees endless possibilities for co-fermentations, and he understands why they’re interesting to a lot of people—himself included—but thinks of them strictly as part of the landscape, the local terroir. “I don’t like the idea of co-fermentation using fruit or grapes from somewhere else,” he says, “or using your ego to craft a fermentation because you think it’s a good idea to make something ‘unique’ or ‘funky.'”
It might not be long before Longabardi is in the minority. Breweries are increasingly co-fermenting with grapes to give a nod to wineries they respect and appreciate. Modern Times in San Diego recently brewed their latest iteration of Analog, a saison-wine co-fermentation with riesling grapes from Santa Barbara County’s Lo-Fi Wines. And Tired Hands Brewing, outside of Philadelphia, has released a handful of co-fermentation beers under the Frequency Illusion series using grapes and unfermented juice from Pennsylvania and New York State, in homage to the natural wines that owner Jean Broillet is a fan of.
“Aside from the vinous cider projects, we’re sending pressed wild apples to Modern Times and we’ve sent our wild apple lees to Beachwood Blendery for secondary barrel fermentation,” says Schmuecker. “In general, we are very pro co-fermentation.”
Five Co-ferments to Try
Shacksbury & ZAFA Wines
Shacksbury and ZAFA plan to open a shared tasting room in South Burlington, Vermont, in the coming months. Look for several “vinous cider” co-fermentation collaborations available on draft in the tasting room and in bottles throughout their distribution areas.
Blackduck Cidery Black Flag
For this co-fermentation, cidermaker John Reynold first ferments black currents and chokeberries via carbonic maceration before a secondary co-fermentation with crushed heritage apples. The result is something altogether unique—neither cider nor wine but a bright, sparkling pét-nat-like beverage with a touch of funk.
Tired Hands Frequency Illusion
This series of co-fermented beers incorporates heritage grapes from Pennsylvania as well as vitis vinifera varieties from New York State. Frequency Illusion: Skin Contact co-ferments second-use merlot grapes in contact with a base saison for four months in an effort to channel “Georgian orange wine overtones.”
Modern Times Analog
The bold Gothic font on the label of this saison-riesling co-fermenation evokes classic bottles from the Mosel Valley. The San Diego-based brewery co-ferments the base beer with whole-cluster riesling grapes from Santa Barbara County in clay amphora with a house culture blend of brettanomyces, saccharomyces and lactobacillus. A strong minerality and funk shine through with big nose of honeydew and Meyer lemon.
Jester King Terroir Project 2018 Texas Syrah
Inspired by the Firestone Walker Brewing Company-lead Terroir Project, which features co-fermentations from all over the world, Austin’s Jester King sourced syrah grapes from Sulphur Bluff, Texas, for this co-mingling of grapes and grains.