Alex Liberati may not be the first person in the world to brew beer with grapes. But as far as he knows (or I know), he’s the first to launch a brewery solely dedicated to it.
In 2007, the Italian native opened one of Rome’s first craft beer bars, Brasserie 4:20. In 2009, he began brewing under the award-winning label Revelation Cat to broaden the range of styles available in his homeland. But in 2014 as the bureaucratic and financial difficulties of doing business in Italy began to pile up, Liberati decided to relocate—eventually settling on Denver, Colorado, for its entrepreneur-friendly environment and robust beer culture. Granted, both ensured the city was already home to breweries galore. But how to stand out in such a crowded field?
Grape ales didn’t initially occur to Liberati. Years prior, he’d experimented with blending wine and beer to no avail. As he explained, “It was never one plus one equals 2.1; it was always one plus one equals 1.9.” In other words, the result amounted to less rather than more than the sum of its two parts, detracting from the character of both.
But shortly before he left Rome for good, a home-brewing friend of his asked him to sample a beer he’d made with 10 percent local grapes—“and it was mesmerizing, mind-blowing,” he says. “It was like Orval [a Trappist ale] on amphetamines. That was the spark. I started going around to beer events and bars, asking, ‘Hey, do you have a grape ale?’”
Very few did, of course; the style is highly uncommon, not least because it’s extremely difficult to make well.
“Grapes have an enormous amount of sugar,” Liberati notes. “They’re volatile in character. They’re aromatically charged. They have all these different acids, like malic acid, which we have to convert to lactic acid,” a standard winemaking process called malolactic fermentation that “doesn’t really happen in the world of beer at all.”
Figuring out how to do it is just one of many challenges Liberati and his brewing team have faced since resolving to open Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers (“oenobeer” being his word for their creations, which may legally be defined as beer so long as they contain less than 50 percent of fermentables other than malt, in this case wine grapes).
Take his experience in making a stout with a red varietal, which meant “playing around with tannins, acids, hops, and roasted malts” all at the same time. At first, “we got a flavor of burnt, wet bread crust,” Liberati admits. “It’s terrible, it’s acrid, you don’t want to taste it ever again—and unfortunately we had to taste it over and over, because we had to understand where it was coming from. It’s a completely new flavor that doesn’t exist in any winemaking or brewing book. So how do we solve it, how do we prevent it?”
It’s a rhetorical question; the answer, of course, involves no small amount of chutzpah. “It’s so fun, because we get to be scientists in uncharted territory,” he says with a grin.
The stout they finally did make in time for the brewpub’s late October debut, Dictum Factum, contains 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, which “has the right amount of tannins to combine well with the roastiness of the malts.” While the latter dominate on the tip of the tongue and on the finish, acid on the mid palate makes for a pleasantly startling, deliciously disorienting sensation.
Liberati calls that the “duck-rabbit” effect, in reference to a famous optical illusion: “If you look at it one way, it’s a beer; if you look at it another way, it’s a wine.” His In Medio Stat Virtus, a clean, crisp golden ale made with 48 percent Chardonnay, is another great example—vinous up front, not the least bit fruity in back.
Simply put, to taste through all his creations to date is a revelatory endeavor. If some indeed seem to oscillate on the palate between wine and beer, others seem to evolve from one to the other, while still others more closely resemble one or the other—but not exactly.
An instant favorite of mine is the Verba Volant, a Belgian-style dubbel featuring 49 percent Malbec—which would be a dead ringer for what Liberati calls “a New World fruit bomb,” loaded with berries and spice, if not for the hints of caramel that sneak in here and there. Another is an as-yet-unnamed dessert style containing Nebbiolo and Barbera, luscious with daringly oxidative notes of dried figs and nuts.
Though Liberati’s inaugural lineup consisted of nine beers, it’s growing by the day. In fact, with 42 taps to play with as well as dozens of beer styles and thousands upon thousands of wine grapes to consider, “we’re literally scratching the surface,” says Liberati. “Think of South African Pinotage in a coffee stout. Think about a Vermentino from Sardinia, the sea-saltiness of it—think about that in a gose. What we’re doing here is part art, part science, part guessing, but the possibilities are endless.”
Ruth Tobias is a longtime food-and-beverage writer based in Denver, Colorado. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, RuthTobias.com, or follow her @denveater on Twitter and Instagram