Exploring the methods and styles of beer blending
If you look at the production of beer, it really is often just that, production. There’s a standard recipe, made from ingredients with little variability, and the process is often machine-controlled. For that reason, chances are the Fat Tire you drink today will taste just like the one you enjoyed five years ago, and the same will go for the one you will crack open five months from now.
In the not-too-distant past, nearly all beer produced aimed for consistency. But as the world’s beer palate has developed, the hunger for new flavor experiences has increased. To address this growing trend, many breweries have begun to try new ways to satisfy both customer curiosity and demand. Be it producing small-batch, one-off beers, or adding depth via barrel aging, there’s one thing that many of this relatively new class of beers has in common: blending.
Like a fine wine, brewers have to carefully blend batches and barrels to achieve their desired concoction. Whether to combine batch strengths, marry young and old vintages to pull out the best of both, or throw together wholly different styles (stout and barley wine, for example) to create something entirely new, beer blending is no doubt on the rise.
While beer blending may have been nearly nonexistent for the last century or so, it’s not actually a new concept. Back in 18th-century London, publicans liked to blend the young, roasted “brown ales” with the barrel-aged versions that had been allowed to sour, resulting in a deliciously tangy beer with all sorts of cellar complexities. And one can’t forget gueuze, the centuries-old blended style, which has continued to be artfully produced ever since. A mix of 1-, 2- and 3-year-old lambics, the result speaks for itself, driving beer geeks to drop serious dough to travel all the way to the Senne Valley to enjoy it at the source.
But before diving headfirst into beer blending, it’s crucial to understand what exactly is going on. Why blend? What are the best techniques and methods? What are the specific goals of each? And what current beers and breweries best exemplify each blending style?
To get a strong foothold before we take off, we’ll first take a look at the wine and spirit worlds, where blending is a cornerstone of production.
Analyzing the wine industry and its age-old blending techniques, you’ll find two general categories: the blending of multiple barrels of a single varietal and the blending of multiple barrels of multiple varietals. (While the latter is what is actually referred to as a “blend” in the wine world, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of blending happening with the single varietal method as grapes are often collected from multiple acreages, all with their own microclimate, not to mention various vintages, to create the ideal bottle.)
Regardless of whether the end product is single or multi-varietal, the overall blending process is the same. The blenders collect samples of each wine they plan on adding to the mix and create various blends on a very small scale, for example, finding the precise amount of a Petit Verdot’s jammy fruitiness needed to soften the tannic nature of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Once the ideal blend has been settled upon, larger batches of the same ratio are constructed, and the key element of storage comes into play. As Ksenija Kostic House, winemaker at Oregon winery Ovum, whose attention to single-varietal blending has garnered a cult following, notes, “Each fermentation vessel creates a specific environment that leads to different textures, aromatics and flavor profiles. Those differences act as building blocks in the final blending of the wine, creating layers of complexity.”
Spirit production is another industry with a tradition of carefully blending various parts into a superior whole. Customarily, large spirit producers follow a blending formula, with the final product being a pre-determined mix of vintages, without a lot of tinkering. The goal for this year’s bottle of Jim Beam is for it to taste identical to last year’s. But just like with beer, new-generation distilleries are bringing a fresh take on blending, using techniques such as aging products in assorted barrel types (e.g. brandy, bourbon and fresh oak) to have a larger palate from which to blend.
Maggie Campbell, head distiller at Privateer, a rum operation also gaining attention for its dedication to blending, explains, “The blending process really starts right out of the still. How it tastes determines what type of barrel it goes into. For example, a rum with delicate aromatics will go into a brandy barrel so it’s not overwhelmed.” From there, these artisan spirit producers follow the same process as winemakers, experimenting with small-scale blends, before upping the batch size and re-casking for a short period before bottling.
Types of Beer Blending
Nearly all of the techniques employed by wine and spirit blenders can be carried over to the realm of beer with a counterpart for just about every aspect. For instance, how the fading hoppiness of an aging barley wine isn’t all that different from the juicy fruitiness of a young wine that slowly melts away into the oak. Or how a large spirit maker can deliver a consistent product batch after batch by attentively blending a vast number of barrels is really no different from how Founders Brewing Co. blends hundreds of barrels of KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) each year to create an annually unswerving beer.
With the basics of blending in mind, let’s examine the four most commonly used methods in beer blending today.
Single Vintage Blending: Consistency is the goal for these regular (and often annual) offerings.
From a pure volume standpoint, the most widely used approach is that of single vintage. This also happens to be the simplest kind of blending. These beers are typically created once annually from a tried-and-true recipe, barrel-aged and then blended with batch-to-batch consistency in mind.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout is a prime example. Each year’s batch of this fan favorite is aged in bourbon barrels, which have been regularly taste-tested until determined to be ready. Next, a handful of samples from randomly selected barrels are blended and evaluated by a panel that uses a combination of memory, previous tasting notes and lab analysis to assure its profile is consistent with previous vintages.
Once this is accomplished, every barrel is then analyzed to ensure that it harbors no off-flavors or has issues that would detract from the established, expected profile of the beer. While some barrels are taste-tested, given the large scale, most are lab-analyzed (the same approach is taken with large-scale wine). Barrels that don’t make the cut are dumped (in Bourbon County’s case, the percentage is usually in the low single digits) and the remainder is blended and bottled.
Multi-Vintage Blending: By expanding their toolkit to include multiple ages of beers, blenders can take complexity to the next level.
As beer ages, it loses much of its fresh, “beery” aspects, such as malty sweetness, and hop flavor and aroma. However, if the beer is strong (8% or above) or has an acidic profile, as it ages it will develop certain “vintage” characteristics that can lend a huge array of flavors not normally encountered. In the case of a barley wine, the initially harsh alcohol presence will transform into sweet, gooey caramel notes, and in a lambic, the bright acidity softens to yield subtle funky, fruity nuances.
This is where the concept of multi-vintage blending comes in. With this method, the best of both young and old vintages are combined, allowing each to complement the other. In some instances, a beer is first aged for years, giving it the opportunity to mature and develop before being blended with a young portion to add vibrancy.
Gueuze is a classic example, being a blend of various vintages of the same recipe. Jean Van Roy, who handles beer blending (along with just about everything else) at one of world’s pre-eminent gueuze producers, Cantillon, puts it simply, “In gueuze, the young lambic brings vitality to the blend.” As the spectrum of flavors that a lambic can produce through the years is extensive, samples are pulled from a number of vintages and barrel types and blended in small batches to find the perfect mix. Upon deciding on this ratio, the batch size is increased, ready for production.
Firestone Walker, of Paso Robles, California, borrowed the multi-vintage blending concept from its wine-growing neighbors when it began producing barrel-aged high-ABV beers more than seven years ago. Both the barrel-aged barley wine, §ucaba, and barrel-aged imperial stout, Parabola, are created from a collection of barrels stemming all the way from the initial batches, thus achieving a high degree of depth, complexity and drinkability.
Opportunistic Blending: Forgoing consistency, this process seeks to showcase the best characteristics of a single batch.
There are many small boutique wineries that, rather than blend their wine to create consistent vintages, home in on each year’s individual strengths and blend accordingly to highlight them.
The beer world now boasts many of its own “boutique” breweries and blenders that take this same approach. Many are making beers that, as they are fermented with wild yeast strains and/or seasonal ingredients, vary from batch to batch. It’s the blenders’ job to determine what makes each batch special and use their blending palate to bring the resulting beer to its full potential.
Casey Brewing & Blending, a tiny operation in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, announced how serious it takes blending when choosing its name. Owner Troy Casey is quickly building a national following with the thoughtful blends of his saison beer; each batch delivering a bevy of intricacies. “Blending is the best part of our job,” declares Casey. “It’s the art of making one plus one equal three. It isn’t cutting something down to make more of it; it’s creating something totally new. We let the beer speak for itself and go from there.”
Casey lays out how opportunistic blending happens. “We’ll pull samples from every barrel that is of age and may be ready to use. We’ll identify the ones that we think are ready and take notes on everything. After that, we’ll start mixing different flavors together to see what we like.” Where this manner of blending sets them apart is in how they determine just how much beer they end up with. “The blend size is based on flavors and what we have available, not production goals. We’re not afraid to dump bad barrels or have less production than we might like if the beer’s not ready.”
Mixed-Style Blending: The ultimate blending challenge, merging completely different beer styles to create an entirely original, superior one.
The final type of blending, and for many the most exciting, is that of mixed-style blending. Like a Bordeaux winemaker blends distinctly different grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to create something unique, enterprising breweries out there are blending two or more completely different styles for an innovative beer.
One brewery leading the charge is Side Project, based out of the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood, an aptly named operation run by Cory King, who is also Perennial Artisan Ales’ head brewer. King dreamed of producing a portfolio of beers that are 100 percent barrel-aged (no keep-the-lights-on flagship six-pack), and it has definitely been realized. King embraced the fact that barrel-aged beers and blending came hand in hand. “With the beers I make, I feel as though the blending is what is truly important; it’s what makes the difference between barrel-aged beers and exceptional barrel-aged beers,” says King. “I fully hope to one day be known more for my blending capabilities than my brewing.”
When King decided to take on a mixed-style blend, he went for it in a big way with his highly acclaimed Pulling Nails. The first batch contained four very different beers: Flander’s red, wheat saison, dry-hopped red saison and spontaneously fermented, lambic-style beer. This unorthodox combination proved difficult. “Pulling Nails is a real challenge for me because there are no rules, it can be a blend of any of the beers that I have—I don’t plan on a certain beer before I start blending. It usually evolves with the process—I taste a beer that is deep and complex, but feel it needs a touch of brightness, so then I add one that I know has a brightness or tartness that I like, but it needs depth, and another element is wanted or needed, so then I look for those beers. … Really, it’s a frustrating blend and often takes several weeks of playing around before I am happy.”
The Future of Beer Blending
Blending is coming back with force. And fortunately, as beer drinkers continue to thirst for the new and exciting, the various blended styles should continue to make up the creative frontline. As more breweries begin creating beers that require these processes, further technique will inevitably emerge, and brewers may very well end up blazing their own paths instead of looking to the tradition of wine and spirits.
Patrick Dawson is the author of Vintage Beer, a book that explores the cellaring of beer. When not at home in Denver, he’s traveling the globe in search of new and exciting brews to add to his cellar.