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The Latest Wine-Beer Hybrid? Italian Grape Ale

Innovation has been a hallmark of beer since its inception. Over a millennium, fermented grain water has benefited from spice and the inclusion of hops. Science has helped identify yeast strains and streamline the brewing process. Agricultural strides have brought new crops to the glass. With each new improvement, brewers have also created new styles and categories. Among the latest to enter the realm is the Italian Grape Ale (IGA).

“IGA, more than any other style, is not a style,” says Agostino Arioli, the founder and brewer of Birrificio Italiano. “The category is so wide it is really a theory of beer.”

This “theory” dates back to 2006 when Italian brewers Birrificio Barley and Birrificio Montegioco began to experiment with adding local grapes to ale recipes in an effort to highlight terroir. There are loose taste and aroma guidelines that largely revolve around the varieties brewers choose to use in their beers.

IGA also differs from the other beer and wine hybrid category, oenobeers, which use grapes, must and pomace from global regions. Notable brewers in the United States pushing that style are Russian River Brewing Company, Dogfish Head and Trillium Brewing.

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IGA must use Italian grapes and brewers are digging into obscure and classic varietals. Arioli’s brewery has a number of IGAs on the market including Marzarimen, a spontaneously fermented ale blended with Marzemino grape must. The 7.5% abv ruby colored ale is barrel aged before packaging.

Another is “I’M,” which uses Incrocio Manzoni grapes, named for the professor who created the cross between Riesling and Pinot Blanc. The brewery uses a lager yeast strain and ferments at cold temperatures in stainless steel. “This is not even a very popular grape in Italy,” says Arioli. “But it’s very interesting. And we love it.”

It is more than grapes that brewers are embracing with IGA. Arioli says he has used vines and rootstocks in his beer. Brewers are experimenting with both inoculation and wild yeasts for unexpected and vibrant flavors.

The IGA, Ariolo says, is also helping change the perspective of Italian beer.

“Some people see beer as not posh, Arioli says. “Wine is tops and wonderful, and beer is to be shared during the football match. Now with beers made with grapes, people will see what we make is a high-quality product.”

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!