If you had two hard-to-find great beers in your fridge right now, would you consider mixing them together to create an entirely new brew? What if they were vintage beers you could not replace?
Most people would not take the chance since the risks can be pretty high. You could find that the concoction doesn’t taste all that good—a sad case of the sum being lesser than its parts. Blending any beverage from individual liquids is not as simple as it sounds. Whether it is a cocktail or a meritage wine, the mixture is almost never as straightforward as combining equal parts of each component.
My personal enlightenment about the skills of master blenders came a few years back on a pilgrimage with some other beverage writers to the Canadian Mist Distillery on the Georgian Bay, north of Toronto. The freezing temperature and ever-present snow in the dead of winter were not the only challenges we faced between tours and tastings provided by our hosts from Brown-Forman. Canadian whisky is a blend of various grain spirits, including rye, wheat, barley and corn. Other spirits, such as brandy and sherry, can also be used in small quantities as flavoring agents.
After tasting the various blending components that had been placed before us, we each took a shot at creating what we thought would surely be the ultimate blend for a Canadian whisky. I recall my blend was barely drinkable and there were some others that were not even that good—so much for my dreams of a career as a master blender.
Many of our favorite beverages are actually blends. Beer blending is not really all that new. A number of classic beer styles, such as Düsseldorf alt and Belgian lambic, require brewers to blend component brews. Bartenders get in on the action, too. Witness the Black and Tan (stout and pale ale), Half and Half (stout and lager), and the Snake Bite (lager and cider), which are common in some Irish pubs. Before World War I, Germans created a summer session drink called Radler that is a 50/50 mix of beer and either lemonade or citrus-flavored soda. And Americans can buy packaged Black and Tans from brands like Yuengling and Saranac that are mixtures of porter and lager.
Increasingly, the trend in beer blending is moving more in the direction of creating something similar to a Grand Cru Bordeaux from the wine world: a marriage of great component parts that could stand on their own into something that reflects the science and the art available to the brewmaster.
At Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, MT, blending is used for two reasons: to create unique layered flavors and for consistency.
“Every time we do a barrel-aged beer, we end up mixing 10 to12 barrels together,” says Matt Long, brewmaster at Big Sky Brewing. For beers like Ivan the Terrible Imperial Stout, the beer comes from ex-Bourbon barrels. Big Sky Kriek, a strong ale aged in a variety of French and Hungarian oak barrels that original held cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, is blended and finished with local cherries.
When it comes to Big Sky’s award-winning Moose Drool Brown Ale, two 6,000-gallon batches are brewed and then mixed together in a 12,000-gallon brite tank. “We mix two batches together for consistency,” Long says. “We always want Moose Drool to taste the same.”
If you get to the brewery’s taproom in Missoula during the winter, you might get a chance to try Big Sky’s Winter Ale, which is a blend of Moose Drool and a hoppy IPA.
“Blending beers together is a challenge,” Long says. “You have to have foresight. We’ve found that blending malt-forward beers is often better than mixing hoppy brews.”
Mitch Steele says Stone Brewing in San Diego, CA, has “just dipped its toes into blending beers,” but says he expects to be doing more of it in the future.
If a brewer has an archive of aged beers, they will end up getting into it,” Steele says. “It’s fun and adds another element of art to the process. That’s what we all got into brewing for in the first place.”
At Stone, a couple of recent special releases were the result of blending beers from the brewery’s library. As part of the company’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2010 a special Stone Imperial Russian Stout included “eight or nine” vintages blended together, then Stone Brewing CEO Greg Koch created “GK Madman Mix” by using that beer as a base, adding another beer, along with vanilla, chipotle and other spices.
“I think we did a good job, but it was very difficult. You want to have a synergistic beer where the sum is better than the parts,” Steele says. “If you’re not getting that then why bother?”
The blending results have been successful enough that Stone Brewing is continuing them for special projects. Lucky Bastard was released in November as a dry-hopped three-beer blend using Arrogant Bastard Ale, Double Bastard Ale, and Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale. The 2011 Stone Imperial Russian Stout is slated to be a blend of two beers, one made with Stone’s house ale yeast and the other made with a Belgian ale yeast. Steele also hinted that an Old Guardian Barley Wine multi-year blend might be in the works for the future.
At Firestone Walker Brewing in Paso Robles, CA, the company has been influenced by its winemaking heritage and several of its brews are blends, including Solace, a summer seasonal that mixes hefeweizen and a Belgian saison. They have also been blending a special anniversary beer for the last five years with the help of area winemakers.
“We didn’t originally intend for it to go this way, it was kind of organic,” says Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker brewmaster. He believes winemakers come up with a final beer that has a more integrated flavor, while brewers given the same challenge would come up with a more aggressive character. “In using this process, we figured something out that was unique and special. Winemakers have a special vocabulary when it comes to tastes and blending is integral to making wine. It has proven to be a good technique and produced good results.”
Firestone Walker created the Anniversary Series to celebrate the brewery’s 10th birthday in 2006. For the latest version, winemakers used a selection of barrel-aged components to build Firestone 14, resulting in a final blend of Double Double Barrel Ale (31 percent), Sticky Monkey English Barley Wine (29 percent), Parabola Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (27 percent), Velvet Merkin Oatmeal Stout (7 percent), Good Foot American Barley Wine (3 percent), and Black Xantus Coffee Infused Imperial Stout (3 percent). The last four beers were aged in ex-Bourbon barrels, while the Sticky Monkey was aged in former Bourbon and brandy barrels.
We’re getting better at this, but we haven’t scratched the surface of what is possible in blending,” Brynildson says. “It means thinking differently. You are not trying to get everything in one beer. You can look at missing elements and brew a beer as a blending piece. By itself it does not have to be balanced.”
A lot of brewers have been blending beers and not talking about it,” Brynildson says. Blending has been a part of brewing to either blend away problems or create new flavors. The trend in barrel aging is pushing blending forward and we will see more of it in the future.”
Rick Lyke drinks beer and watches trends from his home in Charlotte, N.C.