Blending Homebrews

There is nothing new about blending beers, wines or spirits — humankind has been doing it for centuries. It is often done at the bar, notably with cocktails, wines made from different grape varieties and with beers such as “black and tan,” where Guinness and a pale beer are mixed in the glass.

When I first started drinking beer in the South of London, the local custom was to ask for a “light and bitter,” the light ale being bottled and the bitter on draft. The supposed reason was that the higher carbonation of the bottled beer would add some sparkle to the relatively flat cask-conditioned bitter. Actually it was a little bit of a trick, because the drinker would ask for it to be served in a pint glass and for the draft beer to be pulled first. The barman would almost always pull more than a half-pint from the beer-engine, so that with the half-pint bottle of light ale the drinker got more than a pint, but only paid for a pint. So the happy customer figured he had gotten a free beer by this trick.

But I digress, for I want to talk about blending beers in the brewery, not at the bar. In this case you are not just looking at creating a new taste, but with creating an entirely new beer, one that is more than the sum of its constituents. Many large brewers blend all the time, even in a brewery making only one kind of beer. That is because they prize consistency over other considerations – Budweiser does not want Bud Light to taste different in New Hampshire than it does in New Mexico. But that’s just ironing out small differences, not making a new beer. So what do I mean by that?

Apart from achieving consistency there are three reasons to blend beers, the first being to make a disappointing, or even downright bad beer acceptable. In other words you add a good beer to a bad one in order to save throwing away the one that you don’t like. This is not a procedure I would recommend, as all you are doing is just dragging down the good beer. If you have a beer that you find undrinkable, either give it to someone who does like it, or bite the bullet and throw it away. But if you do the latter, do try to determine clearly what was wrong with it, and be sure you can fix the fault the next time you brew it.

The second reason is simply to tickle the flavor of a beer a little so as to get it where you want it. Say you have a pale ale that is a little too hoppy, and you also have another pale ale, or bitter, that you think could use a little more bite. Mix the two together and you have a beer that suits your palate, but is not really very different from the original. And you might decide that rather than blend the beers in bulk, you could simply mix them by drawing off equal proportions into your glass.

The third reason is to blend two different beers so you come up with something significantly different from its two components. You can of course do this purely on an experimental basis by mixing two different beers together just to see what comes out. Since this can be a disaster if it doesn’t work well, it is best to start off by mixing small amounts together at first, tasting the results and deciding whether it is going to work or not, before you start committing whole batches. Above all this is a hit-or-miss approach, and is perhaps starting from the wrong end of the street.

A better way to blend beer is to decide what you want to achieve in blending, that is how you want the blend to turn out. Do you want a stout blended with a sour version so as to give it a little extra bite? Guinness has done this for years, producing a special flavor extract in Ireland that can be added to a beer produced overseas so that it tastes like a genuine foreign extra stout. Guinness has kept details of the extract secret, and its formula and production methods have changed over the years, but it was certainly originally a second beer which was aged in oak vats so as to develop both a mature flavor and a significant amount of lactic acid. This could then be added in portions to a new beer in order to achieve the requisite trademark flavor of their extra stout.

Of course blending of beers is a common practice in Belgium, where lambic sour wheat beers are often blended. The most common form of these is that of gueze, where a young lambic is mixed with an old one (perhaps one to two years in age), in order to create a further fermentation as well as to modify the flavor. The gueze may itself be aged for several years before drinking. This makes the blending a complicated procedure in terms of deciding which beers to blend in order to get the final desired flavor. I know there are US homebrewers out there making this style of beer, and that there are a lot of craft brewers making sour beers, and some of those have already gotten into blending this type of product. However, I have not tried any of them, and in any case I regard a sour beer as a brew gone wrong, and I don’t propose to tell you how to go about making your own sour blends.

I have dealt with Ireland and Belgium in my stories for BYO, and I’m not acquainted with any blended beers from Germany or the Czech Republic, so what about England? Well, it isn’t common there either, although it was once regular practice for brewers to blend old and new beers, especially porters and stouts. The old or “stale” beer as it was called was held in wooden vats for months or even years and was blended with young or “mild” Porter before shipping out. Sometimes the blending was done in the pub; indeed an early beer-engine was designed in the late nineteenth century by one Joseph Bramah for exactly this purpose. There still are English examples of beers blended in this way, a notable one being Strong Suffolk Ale from Greene King, England’s foremost producer of cask-conditioned ale. Strong Suffolk is a 6% ABV beer made by blending 5% pale ale and 12% ABV Old 5X, the latter beer having been matured for up to two years in wooden vats. That means that the blended beer contains about 14% of Old 5X. Part of the idea here is that the British beer drinker is not generally into very strong ales, certainly much less so than his North American counterpart, so that sales of 12% ale would be expected to be very limited. The other part of the idea is that English beers are taxed on alcohol content, and a 12% beer would pay significantly more duty than one at 6%, and have to be sold at a much higher price (over and above processing costs considerations).

Unfortunately, probably because it can only be produced in small quantities, Strong Suffolk does not appear to be available in the US. However, a somewhat similar beer is sold here, and that is St. Peter’s Old-Style Porter, also brewed in the county of Suffolk but in a brewery much smaller than that of Greene King. This porter is a blend of “old mature ale and a younger light ale,” and weighs in at just 5.1% ABV. For me this is an excellent beer, for it has some of that plummy raisiny flavor of a well-aged big beer, yet is low enough in alcohol to be very drinkable, and to fit the description of “session beer.”

Truly a case of having your cake and eating it, too! St. Peter’s do not reveal details of these beers, so we don’t know how old or how strong the aged ale is. From the flavor of the beer I would guess it must be at least six months to a year old, and it is probably somewhere around 7–10% ABV.
While writing this I came across a very interesting blended beer produced in the US by Cigar City Brewing, Tampa, Florida. It is a 10% imperial stout called Nielsbohrium (after the great physicist), and is made by blending two other 10% imperial stouts, Bohr and Dirac. The blend is then aged in a used rum cask, with added raisins and cinnamon.

Doing it yourself

I think the best approach, at least as a first shot is to look at this last idea of making an “instant” mature-tasting beer, which can be drunk in reasonable amounts without your head making unexpected contact with the floor. As is mostly the case in blending beers you have to do a little planning ahead. The first choice is which kind of beer will benefit from blending, coupled with which kind of beer you like. After all, you might not want to do it with a very hoppy IPA, because the beer is going to lose so much hop character if it is aged for a year or more. Similarly, you probably don’t want to add some aged character to a Pilsner, since the chief appeal of such a beer is its crisp, clean flavor. So, fairly obviously, porters, stouts, and old/pale ale combinations are the way to go.

You have two possible approaches, the first being to keep a few bottles of every beer you brew, something that may be easier said than done. Preferably save enough so that you can taste one of them every now and again, and measure that taste against the beers you are currently brewing. That way you can decide which of the saved beers might go best with the new beer, and you can follow that up by mixing the two in a glass and checking whether you will actually achieve a good result. If you have saved enough of the aged beer, then you can add it to the bulk of the fresh beer, before bottling or kegging the result. Note that in this case “enough” is defined as what you have measured in the tasting session, in which you will have taken careful notes. If you do not have enough of the older beer, you at least know what to expect in the future and can proceed as in the next paragraph. You might think this is a laborious and hit or miss procedure, and it is, but it is also a wonderful way of training your palate!

The second approach is to decide what beers you are going to blend right at the start, and then brew the beer, which is going to be aged. Store this carefully, preferably in bulk, and preferably in a soda keg. Use of the latter enables you to purge with CO2 at regular intervals, so as to keep out oxygen as much as possible. Taste occasionally, and when you judge it to be ready brew the second beer. Do a little more tasting when this is ready, just to determine how much you are going to blend; it is likely that you will want to add 10–15% as aged beer. The best and safest way to do this is to rack the required volumes into a separate sterilized soda keg, which you have previously purged with CO2. When full, purge again with the gas, shake the cask a bit to mix the beers, and you are done. Above all, be scrupulously clean and take steps to prevent ingress of air and oxygen during this whole blending process or the final results will be disappointing.

You can make two beers with the same relative proportions of malt or extract in the grist, or you can make a different aged beer. You are probably only going to use a small amount of the latter, so it makes sense to produce a relatively neutral beer just kept for blending. For example, you might consider a strong ale at, say 8-10% ABV, and about 40 IBU, even though you plan on blending it with a stout. That’s because you want that mature flavor, rather than the regular malt and hops flavor of a fresh beer. And, of course, you could consider making the aged beer with a Brettanomyces yeast to sour it, and blend that to make an “authentic” porter or stout, or whatever else you fancy. Blending beers is a whole new craft, and one in which there are few rules, except let your palate be your guide.

Issue: May-June 2012