Bridging the Beer-Wine Gap
Thanks to taxes and regulations, Americans reflexively divide alcoholic drinks into three categories: beer, wine and liquor. But, if we take an open-minded look at how these products are made, how they’re consumed and how they taste, something becomes obvious. While fermented beverages and distilled spirits are truly distinct, beer and wine are more alike than they are different.
Both beer and wine are naturally fermented, along with their cousins—saké, mead and cider. Both are remarkably delicious, refreshing and adept food partners. Beer and wine are healthful and nutritious, thanks to their wholesome raw materials. The extraordinary activities of yeast during fermentation drive the flavor complexity of both beer and wine, not simply the original barley malt or grapes.
However, despite the clear family resemblance, the mainstream perceives a clear beer-wine divide. This is usually framed as a question of merit: beer is cheaper, wine is finer—despite scant evidence for a qualitative distinction.
Both brewing and winemaking alike can be geared to either quantity or quality. Just as commercial brews are cranked out by the tanker-full by brewing giants Anheuser-Busch or InBev, so too are oceans of inexpensive plonk churned out by Yellow Tale, Gallo and Franzia.
Small-estate winemakers can produce epic wines if they commit to growing prime fruit and applying rigorous standards. Ambitious brewers can achieve world-class results as well, with meticulous small-batch brewing and top-notch ingredients.
Is it true that, in centuries past, more resources were devoted to improving the image of wine? That beer’s cost-effective recipe led to more exploitation for volume? Of course. But, change a few variables and the roles might be reversed today. If beer had held the place honor at the Last Supper rather than wine, fine ales might now be as over-intellectualized as cru-ranked Bordeaux. If barley were more scarce and perishable than grapes, the economic calculations of supply and demand could have crowned cheap wine as the pedestrian drink of the masses.
Today, the patterns of history don’t hold us back: beer and wine are each expanding into territory traditionally dominated by the other. The beer world is raising the gastronomic bar, brewing up more diverse and delicious stuff than ever before. The wine world is reaching a wider audience, delivering better product at lower prices than in the past. The bottom line is that beer and wine are equals when it comes to what really matters at the end of the day—their extraordinary potential for complexity of flavor and affinity with food.(