While in France in April 2009, my wife and I visited La Franche, which is a tiny little beer brewery (!) in a tiny little village called La Ferte in the Jura region.
Walking in, we had no idea what to expect. We thought we would make the best of it by indicating a beer to try and perhaps buying a couple of bottles to take with us, getting out pretty quickly. There was a small group of people inside watching a video and a man and a woman behind the counter. The man turned out to be the brewer, and after an attempt with the woman, his student, we were thankful that the brewer’s English was good enough to describe his beers to us with decent detail. We chose to try the blonde ale, and when he poured them for us from the bar he told us that he was about to give a tour. Amazingly, one of the tour members happened to speak excellent English (turned out she’s a high school English teacher!) and was happy to translate for us as we went along.
The tour was fascinating. This guy started brewing in his garage and after awhile managed to wrangle some odds-and-ends equipment and some extra space which enabled him to start making larger quantities of beer. It’s not big at all…just 2 or 3 people working 4 or 5 days out of the month to make some beer. The brewer is a big fan of IPAs and other heavily hopped beers, which influence his own. The real treat, and the main reason we came, is that he has created a vin jaune based beer.
Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” is a heavily oxidized white wine specific to the Jura region of France. It is aged for 6 years until all sugars have fermented and much of the water has evaporated, leaving it dry and concentrated. It smells much like sherry but tastes like no other wine on earth. We have been able to obtain a bottle of it in Portland, but it is super expensive and only imported from one producer. So we came to experience (and buy) it straight from the source – the winemakers of the Jura themselves.
The ‘Une Fausse Blonde Au Vin Jaune’ beer is not only unorthodox because of the brewer’s attempt to impart the flavor of Vin Jaune to a beer but also because of the way it is done. The beer is not aged in vin jaune barrrels or soaked in vin jaune oak chips but 5% vin jaune is blended with their blond beer. After this step the beer is bottle conditioned without filtration.
Blending beer and wine or distilled beverages is not a common procedure, even among “extreme” brewers. In most cases, aging the beer in a barrel that held the alcoholic beverage of choice (wine, whiskey, sherry) is the preferred method. Of course, such an approach is not possible in the case of alcoholic drinks that are not barrel aged such as gin, unless unorthodox steps are being taken such as in Rogue’s John John Juniper. For brewers who dislike the taste of (new) oak, but like to impart the flavor of another alcoholic beverage to their beer, using very old barrels or blending is the only option.