Wildflower Brewing looks on the bright side of smoke-tainted grapes

Wildflower brewer Topher Boehm at his brewery with the range Bright Side beers.
Wildflower brewer Topher Boehm at his brewery with the range Bright Side beers. Photo: James Brickwood

What do you do when bushfires hand you smoke-tainted grapes? For winemaker Bryan Martin and brewer Topher Boehm, you make smoky, wild, fruit-forward beer.

The friends launched their Bright Side brews at the weekend, made with organic grapes smoke-tainted by the 2020 bushfires at Martin's Ravensworth Wines vineyard in Murrumbateman, near Canberra. 

"Bryan puts so much energy into growing his fruit every year, for an entire vintage to be cast out as cow feed or compost would have been heartbreaking," says Boehm, co-owner of Wildflower Brewing & Blending in Marrickville. 

Wildflower's smoky, wild, fruit-forward Bright Side beers.
Wildflower's smoky, wild, fruit-forward Bright Side beers. Photo: James Brickwood

"We also wanted to show it was possible to add value to a crop viewed by most of the wine industry as useless. We're taking a product that's faulty in the wine world, and drawing it across to beer where smoke flavour can be quite at home."

Smoke-taint occurs when wine grapes are exposed to smoke, even if the fire is many kilometres away from the vineyard. The (traditionally) undesirable characteristic can range from almost undetectable to ashtray-in-your-mouth.

Wine regions along Australia's eastern seaboard, including the Hunter Valley, Mudgee, Orange, Canberra and North East Victoria, were affected by smoke-taint in 2020 and many producers did not make premium wines as a result. 

'We hatched a plan to harvest the whole vineyard, which is something I never thought I would be able to do as a beer ...
'We hatched a plan to harvest the whole vineyard, which is something I never thought I would be able to do as a beer brewer,' say Topher Boehm. Photo: James Brickwood

"When Bryan sent his grapes to be tested for smoke-taint, the results were literally off the charts," says Boehm. "We hatched a plan to harvest his whole [three-hectare] vineyard, which is something I never thought I would be able to do as a beer brewer. 

"I was able to choose the picking date and varietals for harvest, and generally call all the shots."

Boehm has received multiple awards and international recognition for his beers fermented with wild yeasts foraged throughout NSW. 

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A Wildflower brew usually takes nine to 12 months to produce after fermentation in stainless steel, maturation in oak barrels, and further bottle conditioning for tart, complex, funky flavours.

Making the Bright Side beers was a slightly different process. Wild beer was brewed in Sydney, but instead of being transferred to oak, Boehm transported the young ale to Ravensworth last April and blended it with whole-bunch grapes already undergoing their own fermentation.

After eight months of further maceration and fermentation, the beer was separated from its fruit and bottled for additional maturation in Sydney.

Martin had some doubts the experimental process would create a quality result, purely because there was so much smoke-taint in his grapes. However, the winemaker is now more than happy with the outcome of his saved 2020 harvest. 

"I'm amazed by the quality and individuality in each of the five beers," he says. "The unique grape varietals really come through."

Each wine-bottle-sized Bright Side release retails for $20. The line-up includes a shiraz, gamay, riesling, sangiovese and viognier, the latter bursting with smoked citrus aromas, pear and stonefruit.

"I'm really interested to see how the beers are looking in four or five years," says Martin. "The smoke-taint could become more noticeable, which is what happens with wine, but smoke compounds operate differently in beer. It could go either way."

The Bright Side beers follow on from Sydney distillery Archie Rose working with Hunter Valley growers to use smoke-tainted grapes in a brandy currently aging for two years. 

Boehm also inspired Yulli's Brews in Alexandra to create a beer with smoke-affected grapes from Gilbert Family Wines in Mudgee. 

"Then six months after the Australian bushfires, I started receiving phone calls from vigneron friends in Seattle, Oregon, and California because of the wildfires happening in the US," says the brewer.

"I was able to give guidance on how our beers were looking and if it was worth harvesting grapes to create something similar.

"Making these beers has been a balancing act of mitigating the effects of smoke-taint, but not hiding them, while also showcasing the bloody great fruit Bryan grows."

Bright Side beers are available from selected independent bottle shops and the Wildflower website. Boehm and Martin have also started an eight-date road trip of parties, tastings and talks across the country throughout May. Sydney's launch event at P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants has been postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but dates in other cities are going ahead as planned. 

Saturday 15 May – The Wheaty, Adelaide

Sunday 16 May – Bar Romantica, Melbourne

Thursday 20 May – Besk, Perth

Friday 21 May – Si Paradiso, Perth

Sunday 23 May – Havilah, Launceston