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Practical Blending

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.

Barrels awaiting a blending session.

Barrels awaiting a blending session.

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.

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Many beers in the pipeline! Two berliner weisses, flanders red, lambic, flanders brown, and an amber ale.

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.

Planning.

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?

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Lots of airlocks means lots in the pipeline!

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.

Beer.

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.

Materials

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.

Setting up for a blending session

Setting up for a blending session

Method

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.

Packaging

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.

I'll often use 1/2bbl kegs as brite tanks, then rack to a corny for parties or serving.

I’ll often use 1/2bbl kegs as brite tanks, then rack to a corny for parties or serving.

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.

Sources:

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.

8 Comments

  1. An article that appeared just in time for me.

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting my first oud bruin for months and months now, but during a “Learn to Home Brew Day” party with friends I invited them into my cellar to sample the lambic and oud bruin I had going. In shifts of course, someone had to mind the boil on our cream ale.

    My lambic made with De Bom was kind of meh. Floral, citrusy, pleasantly sour, but lacked a brightness in the acidity that I hoped for. We all voted to give it more time but agreed it was a good beer as is. I’d buy it, so it’s got that going for it.

    The oud bruin however, was a shocker. On the nose it was heaven, malt, caramel, sour cherries, spice, and just a hint of funk. On the tongue it was just about the sourest beer I’ve ever tasted. All the things I smelled were there (cherries all over the place) and everyone loved the scent, but the acidity was intimidating. Only two of us went back for more of the warm, flat, sour pint.

    Since then I’ve been considering how to deal with this one. I knew about blending in general terms, but lacked a solid set of guidelines. A buddy of mine has a Belgian strong dark ale that’s nearing six months old now, I might see if I can convince him to bring over a sample and maybe share some in return for an equal share of the result.

    • bhall

      November 7, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Sounds like you have a GREAT candidate for blending! Acidity is something we look for in sour beers, so when blended down to a more desirable level it should yield some nice results. To keep your heavenly nose and flavor, I’d find a similar beer to blend with. A belgian dark would be great – although I wouldn’t go too dark if you’re going to be blending with much of the Oud Bruin. You want that bruin to shine it sounds like. See if you can get that sample and mix it with your beer on several levels – 30/70, 60/40, 20/80. See which one you like best. Good luck!

  2. Great article, Brian! You do some major blending. I’ve only blended 2-3 beers, never something this complicated! One thing that I find is that after the beers carbonate they change a bit. I don’t know if it’s because my beers aren’t completely stabilized or if it’s something else. I’ve had this experience with a beer that I kegged and kept chilled… it just tasted a little bit different once carbonated. Is this something you find as well?

    • bhall

      November 7, 2014 at 10:32 am

      It could be a stabilization, or if you are bottle conditioning, you’ll also notice a change in flavor with the additional fermentation. How old are the beers?

      If you are force carbonating, I would expect the flavor change to be much less, although keep in mind you are going to get a different mouthfeel sensation that will lead to different perceptions in flavor.

  3. I’ve had one that was just too young (well, it was a sour beer blended with a clean saison… that one changed A LOT). However, I kegged and chilled another that didn’t really change dramatically, but after it was carbonated it did have a different set of subtle flavor changes. I think you are right about the carbonation changing the mouthfeel, and also brightening certain flavors. I’ve often wondered if a different way to blend is to bottle condition one bottle of each beer directly from the fermenter, and then blend them. Have you ever considered this method?

    • bhall

      November 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      Are you saying bottle condition both, then blend them, then re-bottle? Not sure I’d do that.

      I would suggest that if you’re not distributing these beers to anyone else then that is a great way to blend, especially if the blend is close to 50/50.

      I blend off my kegs all the time, its fun to experiment. Additionally, if I have some beer on draft, as well as still in the fermenters, I can blend carbonated and cold, then know what it will come out like. That’s only if you’re making a lot of the beer you plan on blending 🙂

      • Sorry, I meant bottling just one bottle from each beer, allowing those to condition, then tasting different ratios of each of the carbonated beers. Then, after determining the ratio that works best, blend the rest of the beer that is still in the fermenters. So, basically the idea is to carbonate the samples that are pulled from the fermenter before testing the blends. I dunno… I might be hung up on nuances too much, but I feel like carbonation changes everything (‘changes everything’ may be a little over dramatic)!

        Thanks so much for the tips! Cheers!

        • bhall

          November 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm

          Gotcha. That would be a great way to work it, although keep in mind that the blend can still change the overall fermentation. Extreme example, imagine a malty clean beer (plenty of unfermentables, by sacc, that is) blended with a sour beer that has brett in it as well. The brett would eat through any priming sugar as well as the malty clean beer too, drying out the entire bottle, rather than just the half you had previously bottled. Hope that made sense.

          I think carbonation changes some, bottle conditioning changes a LOT.

          Cheers! Anytime!

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