Mathew Jacobs regularly visits the vineyards where he gets his grapes, talking with farmers about when to water and when to pick to get the optimal fruit he’s looking for.
But Jacobs isn’t making wine with those grapes, he’s making beer. The juice, skins and sometimes the entire fruit will flavor one of the small-production sour beers that Jacobs crafts at BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Paso Robles’ Tin City.
The beers are aged in barrels acquired from local wineries, racked just a few feet from the ales maturing in whiskey, rum and bourbon barrels in the brewery’s new barrel room/sour brewing building.
Over in the main brewery, meanwhile, brewers are tending to a boiling wort of rye, wheat and barley destined to become rye whiskey up the road at Re:Find Handcrafted Spirits, which also produces vodka and gin from grape juice left over from making wine.
It’s a prime example of how the wine, beer and spirits industries in San Luis Obispo County are co-mingling, leading to fortuitous collaborations, innovative creations and unexpected crossovers.
“This area is perfect for this kind of collaboration,” said Alex Villicana, a longtime winemaker who founded Re:Find with his wife Monica in 2011. “We’ve got all these different backgrounds mingling together.”
Even coffee, cheese and farming come into the mix, with local partnerships producing wine barrel-aged coffee beans, wine and bourbon barrel-aged cold-brew coffee, beer-washed and marbled cheeses and all manner of fruit-infused libations.
The resulting medley reflects the intermingling of a community of artisans, an ethos of sustainability and reuse — and a flavor revolution.
“It’s the culture now,” Jacobs said. “People are searching for unique, interesting, flavorful products from local producers.”
Where the wild things are
Aging ales in spirits barrels has been prevalent since the rise of the craft beer movement, as brewers seek to both mellow out alcohols and pick up notes of toast, oak and the liquor itself.
Much newer to the mainstream are sour and wild ales, tart-tasting beers fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria such as Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus in an unpredictable process. Compared with modern commercial brewing, it’s a brave new world — and growing fast.
Breweries locally and across the country are expanding to accommodate sour production, and BarrelHouse is holding the area’s first sour beer festival Sept. 24.
But don’t call these beers nontraditional.
“Sour beers have been around thousands of years,” Jacobs said. “This is how all beers were made in the past.”
In the old days, people fermented whatever they had around them to make alcohol drinks. And it’s what founder Tyler Clark does at Libertine Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo.
“The point of brewing is to use what we have in our region here to create something unique,” said Clark, who uses open-top soaking bins to allow the wild yeasts indigenous to the region to spark fermentation, creating what he called a unique Central Coast terroir — how a region’s climate, soil and terrain impact flavor.
Like many local brewers, Clark looks to nearby farms for ripe, in-season fruit — stone fruits, citrus, berries, passion fruits and prickly pears — which spurs secondary fermentation or contributes microbes from their skin to the brews.
He also has pulled buckets of seawater after surfing to use in his gose — a salty, tart ale. He’s heated rocks collected from Morro Bay to make a traditional stein beer in collaboration with a German brewer. He’s steeped golden ale on coffee beans roasted by HoneyCo Coffee Roasters — the folks behind San Luis Obispo’s popular Scout coffee shop.
“What I love about brewing is I can do anything now and no one bats an eye,” said Clark, deep in expansion mode with plans for a larger brewery, a Buellton offshoot, and restaurant at the San Luis Obispo location opened just over a year ago. “Ten years ago? No way. Now you have people looking for something new and different.”
Wine and beer ingrained
And then there are the creations that blur the lines between wine and beer, creating a whole new category of wine/beer hybrids.
For Bebe Feet, Clark and his 4-year-old daughter picked wild grapes they found in the Salinas River bed that she then stomped. He’s used picpoul blanc from Halter Ranch Vineyard, aged peach ale in brandy barrels from Castoro Cellars and collaborated with Tin City’s Field Recordings winery on a gose that incorporated chenin blanc from Santa Ynez’s Jurassic Park vineyard. For Gary, a Brett-fermented saison dedicated to his father, Clark added 35 percent finished chardonnay.
“It’s a really unique and cool hybrid,” he said. “People love it.”
After an initial cold soak, the nascent brews go into barrels, where each one ferments and takes on its own life and flavor. When it’s time, Clark pulls from different barrels to create the final brew.
“Every single barrel is different,” Clark said. “We’re more blenders than we are brewers.”
It’s a similar story at BarrelHouse, where 175 barrels — some white, some red, some with parts chenin or sauvignon blanc, and some with petite sirah or zinfandel — sit for up to a year and a half before Jacobs blends and bottles them.
“They’re the components, whether I need more acidity or less acidity or more mouthfeel,” said Jacobs, who worked at Eberle Winery before coming to BarrelHouse and whose father is a longtime local winemaker. “The cellar is my palette, just like a winemaker.”
The results are beers that often appeal as much — or more — to wine drinkers as beer drinkers. When wine-tasting tours end up at BarrelHouse and someone says they don’t like beer, Jacobs hands them a sour.
“When your palate is adjusted to the acidity of white wine, these make an easy transition,” said Jacobs, now working on a sour version of BarrelHouse’s latest mashup, a beer/cider combo called SnakeBite.
For Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s new wine/beer hybrid series, Feral Vinifera, Barrelmeister Jeffers Richardson partnered directly with area winemakers. Batches 1 and 2, produced with Andrew Murray Vineyards, start with sauvignon blanc, muscat and chenin blanc from David Walker’s vineyard.
The juice co-ferments with a wheat-based wort, ages in French Oak barrels, then is blended with one of Firestone’s wild ales. The result bends the mind and the senses, Richardson said, with funky yeasts, woody tannins, tropical notes and tart acidity.
A two-way street?
At least one local winemaker is reversing the course, pulling ingredients from brewing into his wines.
“Why can’t we do cool stuff like this with just our grapes?” he asked himself. “What would happen if we put some of our best grapes into the mix?”
So he tossed some whole-cone Citra hops into a grenache-based rosé.
The resulting Citra Rosé was enough of a hit that he went even further with the next release, Field Recordings and Chill, chenin blanc blended with Czech Saaz hops, coriander, sea salt and dried grapefruit rind.
“There are a few people that just can’t get their head around it and feel it’s too weird, but overall it’s been pretty hot,” said Jones, a pioneer of canned wines and one of Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Top 40 Under 40.
Jones is forging ahead with the Franken-wines — “tons more possibilities,” he said, hinting at new creations in the works for fall and winter.
Spirits of collaboration
While the region’s wine industry has been a boon to local brewers — providing grapes, barrels and inspiration — it’s the craft spirits scene’s very reason for existence.
It started with Villicana’s yearslong search for something to do with the juice bled from red wine grapes to concentrate flavor before fermentation. This so-called saignée is sometimes made into rosé, but it often just runs down the drain.
“It takes all this energy, material, manpower, water to produce this juice, and it just seems like a waste to throw it away,” he said.
Eventually he hit on the idea of fermenting and distilling the saignée to make a grape-based vodka. Gin followed soon after, by redistilling the vodka with a blend of mostly locally sourced botanicals. Villicana now gets saignée from 20 area wineries and estimates the project saves 25,000 gallons of free-run juice every year.
“That’s the equivalent of a 50-acre vineyard being farmed and thrown away,” said Villicana, who’s added a cucumber vodka and limoncello made with regional fruit, and who confessed that mason jars filled with farmers market finds and alcohol often dot the shelves at his home.
As local craft beer gained momentum, Villicana began dabbling with rye whisky, using grain primarily from BarrelHouse and SLO Brew — which also partners with Re:Find on its own version for its newly reopened brewpub.
“It’s fun collaborating with their expertise, because I know a lot about winemaking, but I don’t know a lot about beer-making,” said Villicana, who expects to increase whiskey production and eventually bring some brewing in-house when construction on a second distillery in Paso’s historic Fox Theatre is complete.
Neighboring wineries have taken note of the venture, with at least a half dozen getting into the distilling game, along with a handful of independent spirit-makers, in the past few years.
Villicana welcomed the growing cluster of fellow distillers, noting it’s another chance for collaboration. The group has already come together to create the Paso Robles Distillery Trail, which held its first communal tasting event early this year, to promote the local spirits scene.
“It’s just like the wine industry,” Villicana said. “When there were a dozen wineries, no one knew where Paso Robles was. You need a certain critical mass.”
Plus, Villicana said, more people distilling means less juice down the drain.
“In the future, if we remove all this waste from the winemaking industry, isn’t that a good thing?” he asks. “We’re ultimately becoming more sustainable with our resource.”