It was not a question that I thought of as remotely legitimate. After all, is it even a contest? Think Earthly v/s Ethereal, Bourgeois v/s Hoi Polloi, Hot Dog v/s Charcuterie. Eclectic v/s Everyday. If that sounds snobbish, so be it. But lipstick on a pig really does not work.
There are fundamental differences in the way each libation is made that impart very different characteristics to wine v/s beer. Take the substrate used in brewing for example – beer is fermentation of starches, wine is fruit sugars. Therein lie significant variations in chemistry that impart nuanced expressiveness and complexity to wine that is missing in beer. Can you imagine terroir reflecting in beer? That connectedness to the earth, the specificity of the grape environment as it carries all the way into the glass and, most of all, the story it tells in a single swirl and sniff – surely that is unique to wine?
As I read a piece in my favorite daily on the advent of the micro-brewery and even further – the nano-brewery, I decided to find out. After all, if the New York Times dedicated an entire column to the subject, I figured the craft beer movement was here to stay. And being an avowed fan of all things eclectic, it was time to take a closer look.
So it was that during a layover in Tampa, FL on a recent visit to the sunshine state, I chose to dine at Cigar City Brewing – an airport extension of a local craft brewery. One amongst numerous such establishments that now dot the country. The sampler I ordered was the perfect way to test my hypothesis – that beer and wine are incomparable. Nothing tells you more about a wine than a side-by-side tasting. The presence of a benchmark makes sensory judgment that much deeper and discriminating than doing it in isolation.
Five taster size beers came out on a special tray. Following the traditional, see-swirl-sniff-sip regimen, I started making my notes. Colors were all hues of yellow and brown – from very pale to dark. Body ranged from light to heavy. The most impressive part, however, was the names. Unrestrained by rules of nomenclatures and appellations typical of their wine brethren, craft beer makers are extending their creativity to exotic names for their creations. So the Helles Lager had a sweet overtone, the Maduro Brown Ale was distressingly chocolaty, The Jai Alai Pale Ale was even sweeter than the Helles Lager with a hoppy bitterness to boot, The Florida Cracker White Ale was lively, bright, effervescent and lemony without being sour. The yellowish brown seasonal creation Minaret was pleasantly salty with a bitter aftertaste. My favorite by far was the Tony Jannus Pale Ale. Its deep yellow hue belied an herbal, almost floral flavor with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. A hint of tobacco lent an extra layer of pleasing complexity.
So what was the verdict? Call me biased, but the two really are in a class of their own. And a brewmaster is no winemaker. Vive la vino !!!