Wine vs. Beer: In Vino Veritas. (In Beer, Refreshment.)
For all the similarities that exist in making beer and wine, consumers’ perception of the two beverages couldn’t be further apart. For too many people, beer is the inexpensive, generic, blue-collar drink of the masses that washes down brats and burgers and celebrates mundane victories, like a sub-90 round of golf. On the other hand, wine is the expensive and refined drink of the sophisticated elite, worthy enough to christen battleships and toast weddings.
The disproportionate respect for wine over beer is perhaps most extreme in the USA. One brewer, Garrett Oliver, attributes this legacy to our English ancestors. When William the Conqueror from French Normandy defeated the English at Hastings in 1066, it ushered in a bias for everything French, including the wine-drinking habits of the Norman nobility. It also prompted a profound disdain for everything connected to the common Anglo Saxons, including their taste for beer.
I recently decided that I should learn about the various connections between beer and wine, so I registered to take the Certified Specialist of Wine exam. While I had previously assumed that brewing and winemaking were not at all alike, I soon learned that there were many similarities. I consequently gained a deeper appreciation of both beverages.
Beer and wine have been around as long as human civilization. The two drinks first became established in areas where the climate and soil were conducive to raising the respective crops that produce them—grain or grapes. Throughout history, numerous grains have been used to brew beer: barley and wheat in Europe; corn in Central America (to produce chicha); sorghum in Africa (shakapro); and rice in East Asia (sake). And even though many grains are used in brewing, I will focus on barley to simplify the discussion.
While the majority of wine drinkers can only dream of affording the world’s greatest wines, any average Joe can afford the world’s best beer. Perhaps it’s simply supply and demand. Farmers can raise brewing grains in all kinds of soils and climates from the northern and southern latitudes to the Equator. They can also ship their malt economically to brewers almost anywhere in the world. Wine grapes, though, are more finicky. They grow best in temperate climates with well-drained soils and must be processed in relative proximity to the vineyard. The grape-friendly climate of the Mediterranean and southern Europe is the reason Spain, France and Italy have such a rich legacy of wine production.
It is interesting to note that Belgium, wedged between the wine-drinking French and beer-drinking Germans and Brits, is an example that illustrates that the divisions between beer and wine are not always that obvious. Even though Belgium is too far north to support proper vineyards, Belgian brewers have incorporated many wine-like practices in their brewing processes. They package many of their beers in bottles with corks, age their beer in wood barrels, produce beers with alcohol content comparable to wine, and sometimes add the juice or fruit of cherries, peaches and raspberries to their fermenters.
Beer and wine are both fermented beverages—that is, they use yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. Grape juice provides the fermentable sugar in winemaking, and the local climate, soil, and seasonal weather influence the quality of the juice at each harvest. For this reason, wine drinkers highly value wines from certain viticultural areas and even from particular harvests that produce exceptional vintages. In this sense, wine drinkers expect variations in quality from year to year because weather can upset the balance of sugar, acid, and tannins within the grape.
On the other hand, beer drinkers expect brewers to produce consistent-tasting beer year in and year out, even though weather also affects the quality of the starch in the barleycorn. For example, hot, dry summers may reduce the amount of starch and increase the protein content of the kernel.
While grape juice naturally contains fermentable sugar, the brewer relies on the maltster to prepare the starchy barleycorn for conversion to sugar through a process called malting, which is simply the controlled germination of the harvested barley. Germination triggers the release of enzymes that break down starch into sugar, which feeds the new plant until it can produce its own food through photosynthesis. The maltster stops germination by carefully drying the barley and leaving the sugar-producing enzymes intact. Mixing the malt with hot water (140 to 160 degrees F) reactivates these enzymes in the brew house where the starch is converted to sugar. The manner in which the maltster and brewer process the malt can help compensate for seasonal quality variances and maintain a homogeneous product from year to year.
Color and Flavor
In earlier times, many spices flavored beer (and still do today in select beers), but the principal spice of modern beer is hops. It adds a bitterness that counteracts the sweetness in malt and also contributes spicy aromas. The flavor of grapes is naturally more complex than raw grain, so wine is produced without spices. (One exception is vermouth, which is a fortified wine.) Yet, the principal purpose of fermentation and aging in oak barrels is to add flavors from the wood.
Juice from both white and red grapes is essentially clear. The color in red wines comes from the pigment in the grape skins, not the juice. Carefully separating the juice from the skins minimizes color, while leaving the skins in contact with the fermenting juice extracts color. Skins also contain tannins that contribute structure and mouthfeel, especially the astringency common in bold wines like Cabernet.
While there are numerous varieties of barley and growing regions, they hold less importance for the brewer than growing regions and grape varieties do for the winemaker. While it might be common to find a wine label that extols the importance of the grape variety, soil and climate of an area, like the Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County, breweries usually don’t go into such exhaustive details. A beer label rarely mentions the origin of its ingredients, other than to indicate that the malt or hops are imported.
Malt is responsible for the color in beer and is a major contributor of flavor. Pale malt receives brief drying in the kiln at low temperatures (80 to 100 degrees C) to minimize color and flavor development. At the other extreme, the roasting of dark malts at high temperatures (200 to 250 degrees C) develops coffee- and chocolate-like flavors. Other variations in kilning produce caramelized sugar and various degrees of color and flavor. The intensity of kilning or roasting and the proportion of dark malt in the mash determine the color of the beer.
Many people mistakenly believe that a dark beer denotes high alcohol content, but don’t be fooled. Alcohol strength has no significant effect on color, perhaps only deepening the hue due to the higher concentration of extract. Even though draft Guinness is an opaque black beer, it’s lower in alcohol and calories than pale-blonde Budweiser!
The alcoholic strength of beer depends on the amount of malt relative to the water in the mash. For example, beer produced with 100 pounds of malt per barrel of water will be stronger than beer produced with 50 pounds of malt. Since the winemaker simply ferments the grape juice, the sugar content of the juice determines the strength of the wine, while the grape variety and growing conditions will affect the sugar content of the grape. Ideal sugar production occurs between 68 to 86 degrees F, provided sufficient sun strikes the vine’s leaves and grapes. Because excessive vine growth diverts nutrients away from the fruit and shades the grape clusters, soils and climates unsuitable for other crops create beneficial stress on the vines that limits vegetative growth and improves the quality of the grapes. Grapes that have not sufficiently ripened tend to be low in sugar and high in acidity. Rain before harvest may plump out the grapes and dilute the sugar content. For grapes naturally low in sugar or for the production of sweet wines (Trockenbeerenaulese), grapes may hang on the vine until evaporation shrivels the grapes to raisins, in order to concentrate the sugar.
Wine grapes range in sugar content from 15 to 25 percent by weight, typically resulting in alcohol levels of 8 to 13 percent by volume. The majority of beers, on the other hand, contain original extract of about 11 to 12 percent sugar by weight and alcohol of 4.5 to 5.0 percent by volume. However, brewers maintain the ultimate control over the strength of their beer by adjusting the quantity of malt. Not surprisingly, certain strong ales are called barley wines because their alcohol content resembles that of wine.
Brewers boil the sugary solution produced from water and malt (known as wort) before it ferments and becomes beer. Boiling sterilizes the wort and concentrates the sugar, which is another way to increase the alcohol content of the beer. Some brewers may add sugar to the wort to increase the beer’s strength. Strong abbey-style ales produced in Belgium are fortified with candy sugar for this reason. While adding non-malt adjuncts like sugar, corn or rice is often criticized (and even prohibited by the German Purity Law), these adjuncts have become accepted in many beer styles.
Wine drinkers may also frown on adding sugar to the must (the unfermented or fermenting juice pressed from grapes), but it is a useful way to increase the alcohol content of wine or balance its flavor. Adding sugar is known as chaptalization, which is particularly useful in years when the sugar content of the grapes is less than normal.
Alcohol is a waste product created when yeast metabolizes sugar to support growth and reproduction. At high levels, alcohol eventually becomes toxic to the yeast. For this reason, the concentration of alcohol produced solely by fermentation is limited to a maximum of about 15 or 16 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Achieving higher alcohol levels requires some means to concentrate the alcohol by removing water. The most common method is distillation, and grapes and grain can both be the basis for distilled spirits. Brandy is distilled wine, and fortified wines like port and sherry have distilled grape spirits added to them. Scotch and bourbon are essentially spirits distilled from unhopped beer made primarily from malt and corn, respectively.
It’s common for many breweries to place great importance on the unique characteristics of their proprietary yeast strain and to guard that information closely. Furthermore, the two broad classifications of beer (ale and lager) are based on the unique qualities of the different types of yeast that produce them. Ale yeast typically ferments at, or just below, room temperature. The warm temperatures tend to produce beers with a fruity character. Lager yeast ferments at cooler temperatures of about 50 degrees F, followed by a long conditioning, or “lagering,” period near freezing. The cool temperatures produce fewer fruity flavor compounds. Consequently, lager beers are known for their clean taste, which is often described as “crisp.” For the brewer, the specific yeast strain is essential in defining a specific beer and creating an authentic style.
Winemakers use yeast strains that are generally more alcohol-tolerant than brewer’s yeast, and winemakers make no distinction between wine categories based on yeast. While wine generally ferments at warm temperatures similar to ale, winemakers also influence the character of wine by regulating the temperature. Red wines may be fermented at temperatures that can climb as high as 90 degrees F. This is done to maximize the extraction of tannins and color from the skins. White wines are fermented at cooler temperatures (60 degrees F) to preserve the “fruity” character of the grape.
With the exception of the spontaneous fermentation practiced in Belgium, brewers are fanatics about cleanliness and sanitation, partly to prevent microbes other than their pure yeast strain from acting on the wort. After sanitizing the wort by boiling, the brewer goes to great lengths to protect the beer from any intrusion of wild yeast or beer spoilage microbes.
In earlier times, winemakers relied totally on naturally occurring wild yeasts found on the grape skins to ferment the juice. Today, it’s more common for winemakers to pitch cultured yeast strains because they produce a faster, more complete fermentation with consistent results. Because winemakers normally do not stabilize the microbial content of the must with heat, they add sulfites during the winemaking process to inhibit the growth of bacteria and wild yeast. The importance of the specific flavor characteristics from a pure-cultured yeast has not gained the same importance as in brewing.
Modern observers may forget that in earlier times, the purpose of fermentation was not simply to produce alcohol, but to produce a stable food product that would not spoil. Our ancestors could not store grapes from season to season, but they could store the fermented juice. Most people are aware of the bacteriostatic properties of alcohol and that a beverage’s susceptibility to spoilage decreases with increasing alcohol content. (Hey, who worries about 80-proof Scotch going bad?)
Yet another important factor is acidity, since many spoilage microbes cannot tolerate an acidic environment. Because organic acids are another byproduct of fermentation, acidity also protects fermented beverages.
Most beers have a pH level between 4.0 and 4.5. Because grape juice naturally contains acid, wine has a lower pH of about 3.5. (The lower the pH value, the more acidic the solution. Distilled water has a neutral pH of 7. Values above 7.0 are alkaline, and those below 7.0 are acidic.)
Compared to the average beer, wine is more acidic, contains more alcohol, and has a longer shelf life. The combination of wort boiling, alcohol, and acidic pH stabilizes beer, but because beer has only moderate levels of alcohol and acidity, hops became the preferred flavoring. Bitter acids in hops not only balance the sweetness of the malt, but they also inhibit the growth of spoilage bacteria. Because no human pathogens can survive in beer even though it is relatively low in alcohol, beer has provided humankind with a safe source of drinking water throughout history.
While pathogens do not survive in beer, beer spoilage organisms can ruin the flavor. For this reason, many nationally distributed beers are heat-pasteurized. While pasteurization provides biological stabilization, the heat can accelerate staling oxidation. Many locally distributed beers are not pasteurized because they are bought and enjoyed shortly after packaging. However, Coors is an example of a nationally distributed beer that is unpasteurized, so it must be shipped cold to prevent spoiling. Keg beer is also shipped cold and typically consumed shortly after packaging, so it’s not pasteurized, either. Sterile filtration is an alternative for biologically stabilizing beer without heat, but that tight filtration can also filter out protein and hop constituents that would otherwise add body, head retention, and flavor.
Exogenous sulfites protect the grape must and wine from oxidation and microbial contamination. While normal-strength beers immediately undergo flavor deterioration after packaging due to even the smallest intrusion of oxygen, some wines (especially tannic red wines) mellow and improve with age. Even storage in the bottle can soften and improve the flavor of bold red wines, principally through the slow oxidation of harsh tannins and the release of aromatic compounds bound to these tannins (i.e., bouquet). For this reason, it is desirable to allow some young, harshly tannic red wines to “breathe” before serving by decanting them from the bottle. Decanting mixes air with the wine, which accelerates the oxidation and mellowing of the tannins. However, prolonged exposure to air will eventually ruin the wine and turn it into vinegar. Tannins also have a preservative effect, allowing tannic wines like Bordeaux to benefit from many years of aging.
Aging strong barley wines can have the same mellowing effect on the harsh phenolic flavors derived from the grain husks of roasted malts. Aging also adds complexity through the production of sherry-like qualities from the oxidation of alcohols.
While brewers promote “born-on dates” to denote freshness and wineries date their vintages to indicate the benefits of aging, the stability of the raw materials that go into wine and beer have properties that are diametrically opposed. Grapes are inherently unstable and must be processed soon after harvest, before they brown or rot. Because grapes are unstable, wine must be produced to store from one growing season to the next. Drying malt renders it stable and capable of maintaining its high quality from one growing season to the next. While beer is more susceptible to flavor deterioration over time, fresh supplies can be brewed as needed over the course of a year.
Both wine and beer may be filtered to remove haze produced by yeast and protein-tannin complexes. Although fine wine is less likely to be filtered than beer, both brewers and winemakers use filtration to accelerate clarification, even though filtration can strip both beverages of certain positive characteristics. Over time, hazes will sediment, and cold conditioning, especially for lager beers and certain white wines, is employed to accelerate the process, since these hazes are less soluble in cold solutions. Fining agents (including gelatin, bentonite, tannic acid, and special forms of nylon flakes) are mixed into beer or wine to clear it. The fining agents join with the haze particles to increase their molecular weight and cause them to fall out of suspension. Another method of clarification utilizes a centrifuge to spin the beer or wine to increase the settling force of gravity.
Since sediment will collect in the bottom of a bottle whose contents are unfiltered, another purpose of decanting is to separate the wine from its sediment before serving. Beer drinkers can simply pour unfiltered beer carefully into a glass leaving the sediment behind. However, drinkers of unfiltered wheat beers usually consume the whole content of the bottle, yeast sediment and all.
Serving and Drinking
The lack of respect for beer in the United States is everywhere. Even in quality restaurants, it’s common for the waiter to place a bottle of beer on the table and act annoyed if the patron requests a glass. Then the patron is lucky if it’s a proper beer glass and not the ubiquitous tumbler that also holds soft drinks. Conversely, wine is always served in the appropriate stemmed glass, regardless of the quality of the bar or restaurant.
In contrast to America, the beer-drinking cultures in Belgium and Germany demand style-appropriate beer glasses, and the glassware is often more elegant and costly than wineglasses. The shape of the glass enhances not only the appearance but also the bouquet of wine and beer.
Serving temperature is important for both wine and beer. Cold temperatures suppress aromas. Clean-tasting and refreshing white wines and pale lagers are served chilled, but not ice-cold. Red wines, most ales, dark beers and strong beers are best appreciated at cellar temperature to preserve their complex aromas and flavors.
Beer and wine are both great partners to food. Wine relies on its acidity and tannic astringency to clean the palate; beer, on its carbonation and bitterness. Wheat beer and Champagne each fit nicely with a brunch featuring omelets, because the effervescence scrubs the palate of the coating effects of eggs. Spicy red wines and bitter hoppy beers stand up to spicy Mexican or Thai cuisine. A tannic Cabernet or malty brown ale complements the roasted flavors in meat. A rich port, barley wine, and chocolaty Imperial stout go nicely with desserts or a cigar.
Although wine gets most of the press, research indicates that moderate consumption of both beer and wine has health-positive effects. The tannins in red wine are often noted for their antioxidant and cholesterol-fighting benefits, but similar phenolic compounds from grain husks and hops provide the same benefits in beer. Moderate amounts of alcohol also have artery-clearing properties. Beer contains a range of B vitamins (especially unfiltered beer with yeast) and significant amounts of certain minerals, including potassium, magnesium and bone-building silicon.
Ultimately, when it comes to comparing beer and wine, one fact seems absolutely clear to me: beer beats wine hands down for quenching thirst. While the various styles of beer and wine offer a range of fabulous and unique flavors, beer not only tastes good, but it also refreshes. Nothing is as satisfying or rewarding than a cold beer after working all day in the hot sun or in a stuffy office. As a clergyman once told me, “After a job well done, that’s when you can really drink a beer to the glory of God.” What more can you say about it? Beer is just good stuff, no matter what you compare it to—even wine.
In memory of Steve Means, a friend and wine lover, who provided inspiration for this article.