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Tainted love: Beers give smoky grapes a bright side

Bryan Martin of Ravensworth Wines, left, and Topher Boehm of Wildflower Brewing & Blending.

It’s easy to look on the bright side when you’ve got beers and back stories like this…

For Topher Boehm of Sydney’s Wildflower Brewing & Blending and Bryan Martin of Ravensworth Wines in Murrumbateman in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales they’d both like to think their Bright Side project is a one off, a frivolity of a time and a place that whilst best forgotten at least salvages some degree of a positive outcome. But knowing what we know of the effect climate change has on our environment, and the fact Australian producers are often operating in areas that are so prone to bearing the brunt of that, their pentalogy of Australian wild ales made with smoke tainted grapes are a small but altogether legitimate response to a problem we will no doubt witness again in the future.

To be released on May 7 and followed by Bryan and Topher going on an eight stop nationwide promotional roadshow, the five Bright Side beers are the public’s only chance to capture an expression of Ravensworth’s 2020 harvest after Murrumbateman and the surrounding region was one of, if not the, worst affected areas for smoke tainted grapes in Australia following the devastating bushfires of the Summer of 2019/20.

A year and more in the making, each beer features a separate varietal of Ravensworth’s hand harvested, carbonic macerated, whole bunch wine grapes (Shiraz, Riesling, Viognier, Gamay and Sangiovese) that have been blended for eight months with Wildflower’s freshly fermented mixed-culture wild ale ‘Gold’ as their baseline. Then, after the beer and the fruit were separated, the blends went through a further three-plus months of bottle conditioning and maceration.

“Back in February (2020), when we hatched this plan B, it was a way of us going ‘OK, let’s do something’ because what’s the alternative? Just sit on our hands and look back and go ‘we should have done something?’,” Topher told Beer & Brewer adding that $1 from the sale of each bottle of Bright Side beer will be donated towards bushfire relief or future prevention.

“So we’re looking at the bright side in terms of challenging the idea of what waste is. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail right? Instead, we should be looking at situations like this in terms of ‘how are we going to add value here?’.

“I see what we’re doing as similar to the ‘eat the problem’ food movement about dealing with invasive species by means of cooking the problem away. I don’t love the characterisation that smoked tainted grapes are a problem, as we’re showing with these beers, but in a way let’s just drink the problem away and have fun with it, you know?”

The five 750ml blended beers: Bright Side: Shiraz (6.6%), Bright Side: Gamay (6.7%), Bright Side: Riesling (6.4%), Bright Side: Viognier (6.1%) and Bright Side: Sangiovese (6.7%). Across the five, which aren’t in equal amounts, more than 800 cases have been created. Wildflower would normally release no more than 100 cases of any one of their releases.

The insurance policies

Much like the risk of serious reputational damage for a winery that chooses to release wines made with smoke tainted grapes there was a similar gamble for Topher in choosing to embark on this project. If the wine industry so heavily frowned on tainted grapes, so much so growers would sacrifice an entire year’s crop and accept the economic hardship that would bring, what was to stop his wild ales, and hard fought public approval, succumbing to a similar fate? He did have some anecdotal evidence of what effect smoke tainted fruit would have on his beers after releasing blends in 2018 that harnessed grapes that were deemed as waste following bushfires on Mount Canobolas in the Orange region of NSW. But the level of smoke that year – and the composition of the smoke oils that had tainted the fruit– was much lower than the 2020 harvest so this was very much unchartered territory.

But the compulsion to see the grapes not entirely go to waste – not least to help Ravensworth recover a portion of the cost of their 2020 harvest – saw them press on.

“It was a punt for myself and for Bryan and I had to back myself and go ‘let’s make the beer, we’ll see what happens’. In the back of my mind was the idea that if they’re crap, and we totally hate the result, then at least I’ll have some parameters for going forward. Which was like my insurance policy. I may not release them but at least I’ll know what the upper threshold of smoke flavour is going to be.”

A second insurance policy was the fact smoky beers are already a thing and that while his project may look a touch wild from the outside it had pre-existing parameters from beer’s own history to fall back on. You only have to look as far as a smoked porter or a Grodziskie, or even Wildflower’s own Foggy Morning wild ale – made with 100 per cent Stringy Bark smoked malt from Voyager Craft Malt – to find your reference points for the Bright Side project.

“So people shouldn’t be afraid of a little campfire in a beer. But a campfire characteristic is really only apparent in the Gamay. Out of the five releases it’s probably the only one that shows apparent smoke.”

The validation

Before the blending process began Bryan’s grapes were tested by the Australian Wine Research Institute for their levels of smoke taint. The same was then done with the resultant beers and the results showed the level of smoke taint had been greatly diminished by the grapes undergoing the beer’s fermentation process.

“Our big gamble paid off I guess,” Topher said. “There’s a validation for us in the fact there is actual value in the fruit outside of just making wine.

“Now does everyone want to sit down and drink a six per cent mixed culture beer that takes more than a year to make? No. And I’m in no way suggesting this is the way that we deal with all smoke tainted fruit in the future. Not at all. We’re just challenging that idea of what goes to compost and what can just be used once more before it goes to compost.”

Obviously some reduction in the level of smoke taint naturally occurred via the act of the fruit being diluted in the beer but Topher said the new fermentation pathway the grapes were taken down was the key factor.

“The grapes were introduced to an already alcoholic environment that was already very micro-biologically active with our Saccharomyces, our Brettanomyces and our wild yeast and that changed their fermentation. The role of the beer is to create the environment that potentially diminishes the negative attributes of the smoke. The fruit itself isn’t wrong. You taste a smoke tainted grape and it doesn’t taste smoky. It’s only through fermentation that it exposes itself. So by changing that fermentation pathway, you change the outcome.”

A masterpiece from Florence

You could easily be fooled into thinking Bryan and Topher have engaged a new wave Jackson Pollock to design the labels for the Bright Side series – and while that may prove true in time when the artist comes of age – they are actually an extension of the project’s core waste reduction policies – albeit one that came with a little less planning than the beers themselves.

At age two, Topher and his wife Bernadette’s daughter Florence (now three-and-a-half) had been painting and, as is often the case when toddlers do craft, much of what was produced ended up in the bin.

“But I was like ‘I kinda like that one honey’ so I got it out and flattened it out and took a photo of it on my phone. I’ve had it for for a year and a half where I had just been thinking ‘oh, I wonder what this will be good for one day?’.

“It’s rescued from the bin and seen in a different light – much the same way the grapes were… If I had planned it like that I would be a marketing genius but it honestly just all came together by accident!”

Bryan and Topher’s whirlwind eight stop Bright Side roadshow kicks off on Friday 7 May at P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants in Sydney before moving on to Paranormal Wines, Canberra (May 8), Limone Dining, Griffith (May 9), The Wheaty, Adelaide (May 15), Bar Romantica, Melbourne (May 16), BESK, Perth (May 20), Si Paradiso, Perth (May 21) and Havilah, Launceston (May 23).

“As much as the roadshow is us getting out there and seeing people and seeing friends again, it’s also to showcase what isn’t a standard product,” Topher said. “Firstly, it comes from us – so it’s mixed culture fermented, it’s funky, it’s different. And secondly it’s using smoke tainted grapes. So there is definitely an educational aspect of what we’ll be doing too.”

Check Wildflower’s website for roadshow ticket information when it becomes available – as well as those bottle shops and venues that will be stocking the Bright Side beers from the May 7 release date.

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