Monday, October 24, 2011

Sour Beer Blending Experiment

The seven beers arranged by color.With three of my beer nerd friends (Alex, Dyan, and Matt) having their first children in 2011, it seemed like a good excuse to trick them into bottling some beer for me. I respect all of their palates so I invited them over (along with my friends Nathan and Peter) to help blend and bottle a selection of sour beers I’d been aging for between 9 and 18 months. Sadly Dyan’s child had been born only a week earlier and Matt was busy (apparently children these days are no longer capable of raising themselves), but we decided to go forward with the plan anyway and just give those two a few bottles.

Blending is one of the only aspects of brewing that is an art (as opposed to a craft or janitorial work). Being able to taste a variety of beers and mix them together to get something greater than the individual components is difficult and takes practice, especially since bottle conditioning will alter the flavor of the beer. Most of my experience with blending is from combining commercial beers or homebrews in the glass. This was the first time that I had enough beers ready at the same time to conduct a legitimate blending session.

My friends enjoying some post-blending burritos.There were seven beers available: Berliner Lambic (5% brightly acidic Berliner weisse), Fruit Salad (a blend itself of a Golden Sour on soursop and the Quick Oud Bruin on raspberries and black raspberries), Dark Saison III (with buckwheat honey, figs, and fall spices), Apple Brandy Golden Solera (sharply acidic, and pretty oaky), Buckwheat Amber (young and fairly restrained), Irma (the amber saison Nathan and I brewed at McKenzie Brew House last fall... the "Extra" barrel aged version of which is running a 4.3 on BA), and Capitol City ESB on Brett (the last of a keg I won, which I pitched Brett Brett B into a few months ago).

After tasting and discussing each of the beer on its own we began playing with different combinations, taking notes, and passing around our favorites. After the initial round of tasting no one liked the Fruit Salad (the soursop gives it a weird Parmesan flavor), or the Cap City (too young and hoppy still) enough to include them so I put those carboys back for further aging. When we started to get close to our targets for the actual blends we measured the ratios by making 100 g samples on a scale. It was easy to figure out the percentages and a reasonable sample size to get a real taste of the beer. We took 50 g of each blend and poured it into a separate cup, that way after taking a sip there was still a reserved amount that could be adjusted from a known starting point. Below are the blends each of us settled on:

Nathan sanitizing bottles... so may bottles.50% Apple Brandy
30% Berliner Lambic
20% Dark Saison III

33% Dark Saison III
33% Irma
33% Apple Brandy

66% Berliner Lambic
18% Buckwheat Amber
16% Apple Brandy

40% Buckwheat Amber
40% Dark Saison III
15% Berliner Lambic
5% Apple Brandy

With all the blends determined, Peter checked the math to ensure that we'd have enough of all of the beers to bottle two gallons of each blend and still have at least two gallons leftover of each beer to bottle straight (luckily we did).

Before we started bottling I distributed one packet of rehydrated champagne yeast between the carboys (to avoid having to add yeast to each of the eight buckets to come). Ideally we would have had a scale with a large enough capacity to use weigh to dial in the blends, but I didn't so we used the marks on the side of the bottling bucket as a guide to measure by volume. All of these beers were similarly dry, so we did not bother to factor in an adjustment for the switch from weight to volume. When blending like this an auto-siphon is a must, but hold the end of the tubing above the beer until the air is cleared from the line and the next beer starts to flow (otherwise you’ll be oxidizing the beer as the air bubbles in the line out).

My share of the day's blending and bottling.Before priming the blender tasted the scaled up combination to see if any adjustments were needed, in Peter's case the beer was not as bright as he wanted so we a quart of additional Berliner Lambic. To prime the blends I boiled 5.5 oz of table sugar in 1 pint of water, adding 1/2 cup for each two gallon. For the plain batches I made individual priming solutions tailored to their specific flavor/volume. One gallon of Peter's blend and one gallon of the straight Buckwheat Amber each went onto one pound of sour cherries. I had considered dry hopping some of the beers as well, but did not notice one that called for it. Lots of tasting to come in a couple months.

One of the keys to blending is to have beers with a variety of characters. In this case we had a huge range since the beers were all brewed with different recipes, microbes, and with or without spices, oaks etc... but this is not the only way. If you are looking to make a more focused blend you can use the same recipe with different microbes (like the collaborative Isabelle Proximus), methods (as the Bruery does with Oude Tart – fermenting some spontaneously in the barrels for more sourness), or ages (as Lambic brewers do). Some brewers also keep a pale colored "acid beer" on hand that is used to lighten the color/flavor and add acidity without contributing much of its own flavor (with a pH of 3.1, that role was filled by the Berliner Lambic in our case).

It ended up being a successful Saturday afternoon. I got bottles, bottling assistance, and a variety of blends while everyone else got some free beer (half of their blend, and bottles of all the other blends and single batch bottlings). Hopefully with so many carboys now empty I’ll finally be able to start brewing for the Great Souring Experiment (which would lend itself perfectly to another session like this once all of the batches are ready).

The tasting results of these four beers, pretty, pretty, pretty, good.


beer_crafter said...

You don't worry about cross contaminating batches with the autosiphon? How do you take samples from your carboys, a wine thief?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Yep, wine thief to pull samples for tasting. Since these were all fully fermented/sour beers I wasn’t worried about mixing their microbes (all the blends are going to have microbes from several of the beers anyway).

The only exception was the Apple Brandy Solera, which had a bit of acetic acid. I always ran some sanitizer through the auto-siphon after pulling from it. Thos bugs are in all of the blends, but I wanted to discourage them from getting into the plain bottlings.

Morkin said...

Were these beers carbonated?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

When we were blending them? No. We considered carbonating them with a carbonator cap, but with such small volumes to be blended it did not make sense to use that much beer.

Morkin said...

So you blended with uncarbonated beer from the Carboy. Got it. I always wondered how you would blend a beer that was bottled already, as it would have carbonation. I remember reading in wild brew that you should blend 1 and 2 year old lambics, but who has 2 carboys that they can leave full for 2 years? Not I. Thanks for all the updates!

Anonymous said...

I have a Flanders Red that is about 16 months old. It is very sour (maybe too sour) and lacks complexity. I was thinking of blending it with another recently brewed Flanders that has not soured yet and still has a lot of residual sugar (by sour standards). I'll probably also throw in some bottle dregs. If I blend now it will become more sour, right? How long should I let the blend sit in a carboy before bottling?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Unless you are going to kill the microbes (heat, sulfite, or filtration), you'll have to wait until the gravity stabilizes. It only takes .002-.003 to get full carbonation in a beer, so theoretically you could bottle it early without priming sugar, but that is risky if you don't know where it will stop. You might be better off bottling both as is, and then blending in the glass at serving.

Anonymous said...

I never fully understood the idea of blending young and old sours. I can see where the blended version would be better in the short term, but over time won't the blend resort back to the profile of the older sour beer? Are blended versions for quick consumption or can they be aged while still maintaining that "blended" taste?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Many, although certainly not all, of the brewers who blend old and young beer are killing the microbes at packaging to retain the sweet-sour balance. In other cases the goal is for the young beer to provide sugars that will carbonate the beer, so changing is part of the goal. However there will always be something different about the beer as that young portion did not get as much exposure to wood and oxygen as the older portion. Bottle age is not the same as barrel age for sour beers.

formulac said...

Mike, how do you recommend killing the sour yeasts? I have a 7 mo old Flanders in 8 gal oak barrel. I have two goals; first stop the sour yeast (White Labs 655) attenuation, two, blend this amount with a young ale batch (non sour), ferment and bottle. The hope is to retain some sweetness in the bottle and not have a sour yeast take over.