Dead Fink Grape Ale

For those days when you really can’t decide.
  • Grain bill:  Eraclea Pilsner, Mecca Grade Shaniko, Rye, Honey Malt
  • Hops:  Cascade, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin
  • Yeast:  Omega Helio Gazer OYL-405, Red Star Premier Blank Yeast
  • Secret Ingredients:  Sauvignon Blanc grape concentrate, lightly toasted oak cubes


Origin Story:

Uncorking the Past by Patrick E. McGovern

A little dense for drunk-reading

I’ve been slowly working my way through Uncorking the Past, a book on the anthropology of alcoholic beverages (a gift from Henry).  The historical record makes it clear that human beings will try to ferment just about anything.

Given that, I’m intrigued that when it comes to un-distilled alcoholic beverages, our race has pretty much standardized on five base ingredients:  barley (beer); grapes (wine); apples (cider); honey (mead); and rice (sake). While there are some regional specialties (chicha, anyone?), this is not too great an oversimplification.

It’s also clear that once you delineate these kinds of boundaries, it’s time to mess with them.  I can’t even look at the preceding paragraph without seeing a big, tasty Venn diagram, and a lot of homebrewers share this impulse.  In homebrew world:

  • Beer + Wine:  Oenobeer (also Grape Ale)
  • Beer + Cider:  Graf
  • Beer + Mead:  Braggot
  • Beer + Sake:   Ginjo beer
  • Wine + Cider:  Vinous cider
  • Wine + Mead:  Pyment
  • Cider + Mead:  Cyser

(There don’t appear to be well-known monikers for the Wine + Sake, Cider + Sake, and Mead + Sake hybrids that would complete this list of dyads.  And just forget about the combinations of three or more.)

In the real world, there are some technical complications with these hybrids—for instance, sake is fermented with kōji, not a yeast but a kind of mold.  Alcohol licensing requirements also treat these beverages differently.  But this isn’t the real world:  we’re in Homebrewland.

In prior projects I’ve edged around some of these combinations:  Murder Hornet and Mount Analogue both incorporated honey and Blackberry Way contained apple juice.  At the end of 2022, I decided the time for half-measures was through:  the state of the world called for a full-on oenobeer.

The essential creative decision here was white vs red grapes.  From there it’s a matter of standing up a grain and hops bill that complements the grape.  For a white grape—which is what I opted for this time—my gut would be less-modified grains and hops that highlight citrus and tropical fruit.  For a red:  slightly darker grains, hops with woody and berry overtones.  I assume I’ll get to this one at some point!

This brew day was strange.  My target ABV was ~14% – wine-level, with half the fermentables from the Sauvignon Blanc concentrate and the other half from grain.  This required a crazily high-gravity wort, but only half a batch:  a whole lot of grain, not a lot of water.

Mash-hopping: incorporating whole-cone hops in the mash phase of brewing

Whole-cone Cascade hops in the grain bed of the mash

“Mash-hopping” provided some amusing complications:  incorporating whole-cone hops in the mash is supposed to release thiols, compounds which creates even more vinous flavors in the presence of the specific yeast variety I used for this batch.

After the boil and cool, I filled the fermenter half-way with the wort and then topped it off with three quarts of concentrate and a whole lot of distilled water, which felt like cheating.   The fermentation went smoothly, with me adding some champagne yeast halfway through to encourage drying out the beverage as thoroughly as possible.  Toasted oak cubes were thrown into the fermenter for the last week just to encourage some of those fun oaky wine notes.

I first popped this early in January when it was still very young.  In truth, at that point it tasted pretty much like wine with some off-flavors.  The initial take was that maybe a 1:2 grape:grain ratio might be preferable to the 1:1.  I’ve had it a couple of times since then and it seems to be mellowing productively.  I’ll figure it out before I move onto that Cabernet/Marzen.

The beer’s name is collateral damage from the oenobeer pun I found irresistable.  If you like that one, there’s a lot more where it came from.  A Dead Fink would be a hollow and pretentious person, usually associated with an art scene and definitely not Bryan Ferry.  I asked panditricko from Indonesia to whip up some appropriately pretentious beer-related collage art and he gave us something to deconstruct for years to come.

Music Pairing:

Aron’s Records was on my drive home from work at the Disney lot for most of the first 10 years I lived in LA.  All those times I was mysteriously a half-hour late to dinner at home?  Blame Aron’s.  Among their impeccably-curated inventory was a Krautrock section and the practically irresistable Uneasy Listening section.  It was here that I bought my first Sun City Girls album, my first Nurse With Wound album, the elusive Plunderphonics 69/96 box set.  Having long since left the Princeton Record Exchange nest, Aron’s was my musical foster parent.

Alexander Calder, Spider, 1939

One option for assembling a compelling pop song

A Game of Cards, on the micro-indie Transparency label, sat on the Aron’s Records We Love wall for what seemed an eternity.  In retrospect, I suspect W.A.C.O. (a David-Koresh baiting abbreviation for Wild Acoustic Chamber Orchestra) leader Steve Gregoropoulos probably had friends at the store, since the band was locally active at the time.  For some reason the cover drew me in and I accepted the retail recommendation.

This music is almost a master class in how to layer contrasting elements.  No lie:  this is in fact a small acoustic chamber orchestra, no electric instruments.  Gregoropoulos writes sweet melodies—”Elvis Evangeline” practically soars—but the orchestration bristles with sour notes.  Gregoropolous’ own braying vocals, which are downright homey in a punk context (cf. his original band The Wild Stares, which itself birthed W.A.C.O.), hang angrily off this music like the blobby counterbalance on a Calder mobile.  I’m also entranced with the way this song kicks in with a gallop and everyone seems to reconsider the tempo after a few seconds.  Wooziness is a vibe.

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