This post is an attempt to tackle something which is probably considered the most difficult skill to teach or learn in brewing: blending. Blending is tasting taken to the next level, because as each beer is sampled the taster must anticipate how the flavors will mix together and what the final product will be. Mainly this article will talk about blending sour beers (as some of you know, those are my favorites right now) although the methods can be adapted to other styles.
Blending has been covered in many texts, most recently (and quite thoroughly) in American Sour Beers. Other good texts include Brewing Better Beer and Wild Brews. The method discussed in most of the texts are pretty close to the ones I have been using for the last couple years, with some slight modifications and additions which will be discussed later. Before we analyze a blending session, let’s first take a look at why we blend – our example will take a look at the history of bottling of gueuze.
The first known bottles of gueuze exploded; in 1875, Lambic was bottled, placed to age, and promptly blew up in the loft of a barn. It wasn’t until the 1897 World Fair in Brussels that Gueuze made itself known. Being clearer and more carbonated than traditional lambic was an instant hit –and the World Fair was a great way to advertise this new style of beer. Blending of lambics is referred to as “old geuze” and is distinctly different than the blended “capsulekensgeuze” (lambic with top fermented beer and back sweetened). [Van den Steen]
The traditional way of blending gueuze is to blend young, middle aged, and old lambic together. The young lambic has not finished fermenting, so after the blend is complete it finishes in the bottle (or keg) providing carbonation. It is extremely important that a blender is particularly careful in this step of the process as a small mistake can lead to two things: flat beer or bottle bombs. Personally, I tend to err on the side of safe – I’d rather have flat beer than glass shards.
Blending usually finds it’s way into discussion when talking about sour beer because of the re-fermentation it undergoes, as well as the varying flavors each sour beer produces. Barrels each have their own character, and on a homebrew level each batch of beer made has its strengths and weaknesses. Breweries more often will blend for consistency, while a home brewer will blend to achieve a certain flavor. Both outcomes are desirable; even Anheuser-Busch still blends their product to this day (Sparrow.) Blending for consistency is to have a product that consumers can rely upon. Home brewers aren’t generally as concerned with having a consistent product, so their blending focuses more on how to bring beers together to make the best beer possible.
The biggest mistake in homebrew blending is the attempt to cover up a mistake in the beer, or so called “save a beer by blending” – not good. It’s okay to blend strong flavors with weaker ones, but its going to be an uphill battle to cover up a beer you don’t find worthy drinking on it’s own. If you don’t take my word for it, Gordon Strong notes that blending to fix bad beer “can rarely be [possible] through blending…not something that is a serious practice.” [Strong.] Ed Coffey recently made remarks on his blog that despite even using a small amount of a sour beer that had some off flavors, the final blend was not able to hide the flaws. [Ales of the Riverwards] Having tasted this blend Ed did, I can support his analysis.
Not all blended beer has to be sour, either. If you wish to blend any old and young beer these methods can help. Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, and even a simple Amber ale can all benefit from a good blend; since hop flavors fade with time introducing a breath of freshness to a beer that has aged for many months or even years can easily compliment. [Strong]
When brewing sour beer at home, you’ll find that you often have several beers in your ‘pipeline’. This is a great thing! You might also notice that even if you’ve brewed the same beer twice in a row, it may come out different both times – especially when using barrels. I’ve ran my traditional lambic through the same French Oak barrel twice (Resulting in Lambics v 1 and 3) at the time of this writing and the second batch is already tasting quite different than the first. I’m anticipating I’ll need to find a funkier beer to blend with this version. I also have a two year old lambic (Lambic v2) that is quite sour so it will be a good match for the young one (Lambic v3). Anticipating what you’ll be doing with each of the beers you have available can help the blending session run as smoothly as possible. If your pipline isn’t full of sour beer, Liddil notes in Brewing Techniques, you can always add some “lightly hopped, unfermented ale” in place of a younger wild beer/lambic.
It should be noted, just as Sparrow does, that if you blend with a ‘sick beer’ you may anticipate several years of bottle aging due to the refermentation and the time it will take for brettanomyces to chew down long chains of sugar. This doesn’t mean not to, just think more about what you may end up with and how long you want to sit around waiting. Also importantly, blending non-sour beer with sour beer can help mellow out the rougher edges, however with enough time the final product will often resort to being “all sour.” Brettanomyces can eat through most anything and you may find with a few years time your beer will develop more funk than the initial blend. I had this happen once with an accidental blend of a Flanders Red with Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter. The initial result was fantastic; rich, velvety, delicious. I wanted to save every bit and enjoy it forever! Sadly, within a year brettanomyces had gotten hungry and my delicate blend had turned into a sharp ride in a hay carriage.
Blending at Home – What I do.
Before you start blending, think about what you’re trying to do. Are you looking to make a consistent product? Great! Are you trying to cover flaws? If yes, don’t. Do you know what you’re looking to add to a beer? Do you have an idea what your final product is going to be?
Set aside a couple hours for the process. It’s going to take time to get the samples – without contamination – set everything up, taste, and ultimately settle upon what you want. I like to get the same sized samples to visually think of the beers as equals – don’t ever think in terms of “I need to get rid of X gallons of this beer and fill 3 kegs.” You can always bottle the extra beer later on.
Make sure you have several good beers and one that really shines. Blending is easiest when you have one base beer that you’re trying to work with. It’s hard to blend when you’re using several beers in equal amounts. Once you have decided on your base beer, taste it thoroughly. You don’t need fill out a BJCP sheet for it, but make sure to take notes as you try it. Serve it warm, taste it again – let nothing hide! Its worth mentioning for some, make sure your beer is done with major flavor changes and has stabilized. Not only do you not want extra carbonation, you also don’t want drastic flavor changes in any of the individual brews.
Clean Space/Limit Distractions
Just like in any judging or tasting scenario, you want to have a clean workspace; ie don’t make curry the same day you blend, no scented candles, don’t have the TV running. I like to put on some reggae, whatever works.
I like to use glass containers because they are inert and easily cleanable and clear, so I can see what the beer looks like. Mason jars work great for this, small erlenmeyer flasks, beakers – whatever you have available. Other hardware includes disposable pipettes (for measuring/transferring beer without spilling), a small scale, small tasting glass, a dump container, some paper for making notes and water. In addition to the samples I also bring out a few varying hop oils and some lactic acid – both allow me to play around with what the beer might taste like with other flavor enhancers.
I put my samples in their containers, label them, and start by tasting each beer individually. I write or make mental notes of what beers have different qualities I like, and which ones seem like they’re missing something. Usually having tasted the beers ahead of time, I already have one in mind for the base beer. Looking at the others, I try to think of how one beer could help the other. Perhaps one has a large sour component, but minimal funk and vice versa. I’ll pair them up and see how they can complement each other and the base beer.
After I have a rough idea of what I’ll be using, I start with some trial and error on a small 100 gram scale. I shoot to start out using 5 gram increments (which is a tiny amount of beer!). 20g of the base beer, 10g of another, 5g of another, and so on until I find a blend that is close to what I want. Then, I’ll fine tune it to figure out the exact ratio, which can take anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. Sometimes breaks are needed and I’ll walk away for a few minutes or so and do something requiring less concentration. It allows my palate to cleanse as well as my brain relax. This might sound silly, but taking a few minutes really makes a huge difference.
All of this blending I like to do at room temperature, as it allows all the flavors in the beer to be exposed. Once I have determined my top three blends, I will then pour a small amount of it (50g or so) into a frozen glass and see what it tastes like at serving temperature. Sometimes adjustments need to be made, often times I find that the blend tastes better once chilled.
My final test is to share my top three blends, chilled, with someone else. Generally this is my wife (although lately she knows what’s up and tries to guess what is going on rather than simply taste for flavor.) Find a few friends, take some to a homebrew meeting. If your beer is truly stabilized, a couple days or a week won’t change anything between when you taste and when you package.
Even though I’ve blended by weight, I ultimately blend by volume. Generally I keg the blend as it allows me to make adjustments later if need be. If you’re bottling, you’ll be doing the same thing in a bottling bucket and packaging. Once I’ve determined the ratios, I go to rack the beer into a keg. For measuring, I use a stainless steel rod or a long spoon as a depth gauge to know how much of each beer is going in the keg. Make sure that when you fill, you save some of your base beers to allow for future adjustments (good advice from Tonsmeire.)
One thing I find valuable is to leave ¼ or ½ a gallon headspace in the top of the keg. This allows you to make any small adjustments after the beer has been blended in case once carbonated you notice something doesn’t fit as well as you thought.
After a week or so of carbonating, I’ll taste the blend and see how it’s doing. If it is lacking in anything, that headspace allows me to fill a little more of this or that into the beer. I like to hit blended beers with a little extra carbonation so if I do add some more to the blend it will still be adequately carbonated.
Finally, relax. Enjoy your blend. Keep your notes! Compare it with any beer you were trying to match and see what you might need to change in the future. Remember, it’s a skill that takes time to learn, just like tasting beer. If you don’t want to blend before packaging, try mixing a few of your favorite beers on the finished side – right out of the bottle or keg. Find out what work, and what doesn’t. Remember, practice makes better.
Van den Steen, Jef Geuze and Kriek: The Secret of Lambic
Strong, Gordon Brewing Better Beer
Tonsmeire, Michael, American Sour Beers
Sparrow, Jeff Wild Brews
Liddil, Jim, Practical Strategies for Brewing Lambic at Home. Brewing Techniques, Sept, 1997.