NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Champagne and beer don't usually enter the same sentence unless someone's trying to mock or sell you a Miller (TAP - Get Report) High Life, but a small batch of brews is worth bringing into corked bubbly corners this New Year's.
Boston Beer (SAM) and German brewing partner Weihenstephan unveiled their Infinium collaboration back in November and, in doing so, brought one of brewing's seldom-seen styles closer to the mainstream than it's ever been. Whether it's method champenoise, Biere de Champagne or Biere Brut -- depending on the secondary fermentation and bottling processes that give said beer its trademark carbonation -- the bubbly and sometimes fruity brew is making its way slowly into American craft beer after kicking around Belgium, France, Italy and Canada for years.
While decidedly different from the grape-derived sparkling wines they're emulating, these bubbly beers have the carbonation, alcohol content (between 5% and 12% alcohol by volume) and strong flavor profile of their classier vineyard cousins. The main reason Americans haven't seen much of it made domestically is that the style isn't that distinct from several other Belgian varieties."Barring further cellaring time ... there's not much more to be done to a bottled beer to improve its disposition," says Matt Simpson, owner of The Beer Sommelier, running through a list of improvement techniques used by brewers including blended beers, filtering, reintroduction of yeast and sugar and centuries-old bottle conditioning methods. What it is, however, is a not-so-subtle attempt to take on a wine industry that's booming as the beer sector shrinks. The Wine Institute notes that wine shipments in the U.S. were up 2% last year from 2009, while Beer Marketer's Insights saw a 1% downtick in beer shipments during the same time. Sparkling wine shipments, meanwhile, were up 10% and represented 4.6% of all U.S. wine sales. That seems to make it prime for an attack by the similarly growth-minded craft beer segment, which grew 11% by volume last year but has only a 4.3% share of the overall U.S. beer market. That's a small niche for yet another niche product to chip away at, but craft beer's 22-ounce and 750-milliliter high-alcohol offerings are already making a play for the dessert wine segment that grew from 13.9 million cases in 2000 to 29.1 million just last year. Convincing consumers to swap out a sparkling wine for a similarly sparkly craft beer would give brewers a piece of sparkling wine demand that's grown to 15.4 million cases from 11.4 million cases in a decade. "In my opinion, the method is redundant -- just another way of achieving those results we already do -- but worthy of attempt in our burgeoning craft beer revolution," Simpson says. "In short, why not?" With New Year's Eve just days away and even non-Champagne sparklers such as cava and prosecco in demand, we've put together a sampler of five Champagne-style beers to consider uncorking this holiday: