Muri Is Coming to the U.S.
Murray Paterson and I have been circling each other for a couple of years now. I first reached out to him in 2021, when I caught wind of the no- and low-alcohol beverages he was making under the label Muri, and earlier this year I finally tasted a few of his products. Soon, Muri will be available in the U.S.: Annie Beebe-Tron of importer De Maison Selections tells me it's supposed to land here sometime in late summer or early fall. So, I figured it was time to put together a lil' letter about it. (Note: This is not a sponsored post. None of my messages is! I’m just interested in what the team at Muri is making.)
Born in the U.K., Paterson spent his young adulthood working what he calls "a series of boring corporate jobs in finance." Always more interested in food and drink, he eventually left his former field for the U.K. cider industry. "I really got into blending at that point," he says. "Some of these master cider blenders are every bit good as wine makers in the way they piece together a drink from different varietals, almost like a jigsaw puzzle."
Despite his admiration for great cider-making, Paterson eventually grew tired of what he saw as a traditional-or-nothing approach in the U.K. and moved to Copenhagen to work as a distiller at the innovative Empirical. "Lars [Williams, Empirical's co-founder] sees building a drink very much like composing a dish," says Paterson. "Some components are virtually undrinkable because they're so acidic, but it's all about seasoning and layering and balancing by blending, kind of in chunks. That's something that we use very much in Muri."
Below, please find some pieces of the conversation Paterson and I (finally!) had last week.
Paterson: It's harder to make nonalcoholic drinks than it is alcoholic drinks because alcohol is such a great conveyor of flavor. One of the things that we've thought long and hard about is that we don't want to be a copy of an alcoholic drink. If you're trying to be a gin, for example, you inevitably run into the problem that (A) it's never going to taste as good because alcohol is such a good conveyor of flavor, and (B) it's a sightly less fun product, at least in the minds of consumers.
Bainbridge: I understand why, at this point in the conversation, we're talking about these beverages in the context of alcohol, but my hope is that we move into more of a direction of where Muri is, where these are just...beverages. You can call them what you want, but they're inherently nonalcoholic and built from the ground up that way. And I agree with you on consumer reactions: I think you're always going to be a little disappointed if your expectation is that you will have the same experience as you would drinking, say, a gin and tonic that uses gin with ethyl alcohol in it. Alcohol behaves a very particular way on the palate, it provides a certain amount of body, it's an extractor of flavor, as you said, and more beyond that. You're always going to feel like a piece is missing, so why set ourselves up for failure?
Paterson: I couldn't agree more. I think and I hope, certainly, that the development of the category is going to go beyond substitutions. There are going to be drinks with real craft and technique that are built from the ground up, as you say, that kind of destroy the nonalcoholic category. As in, there's just the drinks category and it's categorized upon deliciousness rather than this binary choice, alcohol versus no alcohol. You're beginning to see restaurants go that way. Lots of people kind of dip in and out of the wine pairing and the nonalc pairing there. That really excites me. There are enough quality liquids on the market now that people feel comfortable doing that.
Bainbridge: Consumers deserve clarity about the alcohol content in their beverages, but I hear what you’re saying. When I was doing research for my book, I stopped in Charleston, South Carolina and went to a now-closed restaurant called McCrady's. I remember having the nonalcoholic beverage pairings with the tasting menu, and when it came to the duck course, a cup of smoky lapsang souchong tea come around the bend. The gentleman sitting next to me, who was having the wine pairing, caught a whiff and asked his server, "When I get to that course, can I actually have the tea with it instead?"
Paterson: It's great that we're getting to that stage. You know, I was thinking of opening up Muri initially as an alcoholic drinks company, but there's so much tradition in alcohol that I think it's harder to promote new methods. It certainly was in cider, anyway, and it just seemed to me that the nonalc sector was a really interesting place to go and play. The idea came to me that we could blend together fermentations in an interesting way that would fulfill the wine occasion. I don't want to try a de-alcoholized Chardonnay. I want to try something from someone who's applying crazy techniques with interesting ingredients. I guess we're just trying to produce the kind of thing that I would find interesting on a wine menu.
Bainbridge: There are a number of brands taking a similar approach of building a wine-like beverage from scratch, but few rely on fermentation as much as Muri does, to my knowledge.
Paterson: We're a product of Copenhagen and specifically Noma, which is a kind of melting pot for fermentation knowledge, but it's also an obvious starting place. Wine is delicious because it's fermented. Beer, sake—all the delicious drinks are fermented. Natural wine has complexity because, over the course of its fermentation time, different yeasts have come and gone and created different flavor compounds. We obviously can't do that because it will create alcohol, but if we chop those up into lots of short ferments, you can start to build up complexity by blending them together.
Muri launched two years ago and, so far, there are three "blends of different fermented fruits with foraged botanicals, basically," says Paterson. Here's a rundown:
Passing Clouds: A white sparkling mixture of quince water kefir, gooseberry wine, jasmine tea, kvass, and foraged herbs. "I really like the kind of champagne that has biscuity notes," says Paterson. "Kvass is a drink that's usually made with toasted bread, but we've hacked ours a bit and used a caramel malt that we almost make like a beer, but don't boil it, so there's less sugar and [thus] less alcohol produced. We ferment that with a sourdough starter to get those bread-y notes." He brings together those blends and force-carbonates the liquid, "because we haven't found a way of carbonating yet without going over the 0.5% alcohol mark."
Nuala: A still red blend of blackcurrant piquette, supernatant kombucha, chamomile flower kefir, and the same kvass, this time with some wild fig leaves and pine needles. Paterson ferments the supernatant, a byproduct of commercial yeast-making, as a kombucha with a SCOBY and then rests it with oak "to make it a bit more wine-like."
Yamilé: "Yamilé [Abad] is a mate of mine—she's probably the most knowledgeable person on fermentation I've ever met—and she taught us about carbonic maceration, which I think is an amazing technique for nonalcs because you start to get funk without the alcohol," says Paterson. The Muri team puts raspberries in a tank, pressurizes them with CO2—"they sort of ferment intracellularly and almost kind of explode and get nice and funky"—and then combines them with a gooseberry mead, which is a mixture of honey and gooseberry juice fermented with a wine yeast, as well as lacto-fermented rhubarb smoked over beechwood chips. (Phew!) All of that is then blended with a goldenrod kefir. "Goldenrod is a flowering kind of anise-like plant in Denmark that grows wild in the forests that Paulinna, a witch, gets us," says Paterson. "And we kind of double down on the aniseed vibes with a little bit more star anise, and then we add some blanched pink peppercorns." It ends up like a sparkling rosé, he says.