In winter 2021, a specter arose.
The ominous word “Phantasm” started appearing on the labels of breweries like the Veil, Modern Times, and Other Half. In a few short months, Phantasm was everywhere, its name scrawled in graveyard font across the cans of America’s most hop-obsessed breweries.
The ingredient debuted with little explanation. Just when words like “Pilsner malt” and “Citra hops” had taken on meaning in the average beer drinker’s mind, Phantasm suddenly materialized just like its namesake suggests.
Fourscore Beer head brewer called it “completely next level.” Brandon Capps, owner and founder of Colorado’s New Image Brewing, said that Phantasm unlocked the “one ultimate realization of what hazy IPA could be.”
That all sounds exciting, but what exactly is this ghastly new product?
Making Grapes into a Ghost
Phantasm started life in the vineyards of New Zealand’s south island. Jos Ruffell had opened Garage Project Brewing in Wellington in 2011, and ever since, he’d been studying the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc production happening just across the Cook Strait. Determined to unlock the secret of New Zealand’s highly aromatic wines, Ruffell began working with wine researchers in the region.
Six years later, he finally cracked it.
Thiols. These organic sulfur compounds are present in hops like Citra and Hallertau Blanc – abundant in Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The high concentration of thiols and thiol precursors in New Zealand white wines is the X factor that makes New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs exhibit an intense gooseberry and passion fruit flavor when compared to those from France, South Africa, or California. But how to get those thiols out of the wine products and into beer? Ruffell found the answer in a discarded byproduct.
“We knew that thiols were present in hops, just in relatively small amounts,” Ruffell says. “It came to this one particular moment, just being like, ‘Oh shit, I wonder if there’s a significant precursor left in the skins after pressing, and if we can capture them, maybe we could get them into fermentation.’”
Brewing with wine must is nothing new. Dogfish Head and Trillium have long since unlocked the juiciness wine products like grape can impart on a beer, often pairing the ingredient with Nelson Sauvin, a New Zealand hop known for its white wine flavors and “extreme fruitiness.” But wine beers are impractical to make on a large scale. They’re expensive, and like wine, beholden to the agricultural cycle of grapes.
Ruffell cracked the code on getting the best aspects of Marlborough’s wine into a beer without hybridizing the two drinks. He developed a process for pressing the spent wine skins into a powder that can be pitched into any brew.
He called the powder Phantasm for the preternatural aromas it can create, calling it an “MSG flavor pop” for beer.
Stillwater Artisanal founder Brian Strumke has known Ruffell for over a decade. When Ruffell was getting ready to launch Phantasm, he sent a batch to Strumke. Strumke’s early experiments went the typical route with triple IPAs; he was soon moving into other styles. He added Phantasm to a dry-hopped gose, resulting in a hugely fragrant tart beer called First Crush. From there, his curiosity has only grown.
“I looked at [Phantasm] as a building block to create a beer that tastes more like a wine without actually using typical wine ingredients,” Strumke says. “I have a wild ale that’s been in a foeder for over a year. We’re gonna dose that with Phantasm and see where that gets us.”
Though Phantasm has a powerful effect on beer, thiols and hot-side additions are difficult concepts to explain to the average drinker. There isn’t enough label space to explain why this expensive, intangible element imported from New Zealand makes a beer worth buying, so Strumke doesn’t really bother. He lets the beer talk for itself. When you open the tab, and the sultry bouquet spills out of the can, the technical specs are irrelevant.