Blender Bender

From classic sour styles to barrel-aged beers to innovative beer-wine hybrids, blended beer takes America’s favorite adult beverage to a new level. Blending beer is a traditional technique in brewing with modern applications.

Combine two or more component beers to produce a different end result, and you’ve got blended beer. Every bartender knows you can fill a pint glass halfway with pale ale, top it gently with Guinness stout and create a black and tan—it’s blended beer straight from the tap.

But at the brewing level, the process is more complicated and risky. Add the wrong component and you could jeopardize the whole batch.

If you succeed, however, the beer you produce will be more complex and surprising than any single portion you have added, offering something new for sophisticated palates.

The term blended beer does not refer to any one style of beer specifically. It can apply to myriad kinds of beer but best describes barrel-aged brews, varieties of classic sour beer such as gueuze, and beers that are mixed with unfermented wine grapes into a beer-wine hybrid.

Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, CA, is known for its straightforward hoppy beers. But the company has recently segued into integrating beers. “We have really just gotten into beer blending, with our Mixtape series,” says Stone’s brewmaster Mitch Steele. Vol. 1 of the Mixtape series came out in April 2012.

“We evaluate fresh beers, barrel-aged beers, and archived and aged beers to create interesting and fun blends,” Steel says. Lukcy Basartd is a blend of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale and dry-hopped Double Bastard Ale.

With collaborations like Woot Stout 2.0, released this past July, Stone bourbon barrel-aged a portion of the beer and then blended it back in. “This is a process that we do about four times each year, and we usually bring in people from a great account of ours to help with developing the blend,” he says.

What is the advantage of taking a risk on blending beer when a brewery is already well established and known for a different style? “I think it’s just a great way for people to try something new from a brewery—something that a lot of effort went into creating,” Steele says.

Blending also allows brewers to expand their boundaries, “With beers like the Mixtape series, it allows some creativity and the opportunity to come up with something completely different than the beers that go into the blend,” says Steele.

Barrel-aged beer blends

Beer that has been barrel-aged often requires blending. Goose Island in Chicago is one of the most successful breweries to delve into aging beer in bourbon barrels: Its Bourbon County Stout contributed to the rise in popularity of bourbon barrel-aged beer.

This stout is aged in bourbon barrels for months, then tested and blended to form a viscous, black beer. The brew smells of char and vanilla, tastes of caramel and tobacco, and weighs in at a whopping 14% to 15% ABV (depending on the year).

Equal in intensity but different in style is Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s Anniversary blend series. If blending were an extreme sport, these guys would be your champions.

The Paso Robles, CA-based brewer’s annual release may be the ultimate blended beer: XVIII Anniversary (2014) incorporates seven unique component beers aged in bourbon, brandy and whiskey barrels.

The components and their blending percentage include Parabola (Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout, 38%), Helldorado (Blonde Barleywine, 16%), Bravo (Imperial Brown Ale, 16%), Stickee Monkee (Central Coast Quad, 14%), Velvet Merkin (Oatmeal Stout, 5%), Hydra Cuvée (Hybrid Dark Ale, 4%), Wookey Jack (Black Rye IPA, 3%), Ol’ Leghorn (Blonde Barleywine, 2%), and Double Jack (Double IPA, 2%). The brewery brought 14 local winemakers in to assist in the blending process.

“I’m not aware of any other beer that is blended like this, from so many distinct components,” says Firestone Walker’s brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “That’s why we bring in the winemakers.”

The company’s 13% ABV Anniversary XVIII release is available now. The blended beer has a suggested retail price of $23.99 for a 22-oz. Bottle.

But are most customers prepared to drink beers of this strength and complexity?

“It’s not difficult selling a well-made type of barrel-aged beer,” says bartender Tom Cathcart, who has been serving craft beer at the casual-chic Chicago bar and restaurant Uncommon Ground for nearly 10 years. “Of course, I wouldn’t push it on the guy who wants a Schlitz, but most of my guests know the different styles these days.”

Customers also know the different prices of specialty beers, Cathcart adds. “Five years ago, a 10-oz. pour of a barrel-aged stout for $9 raised eyebrows. Recently, folks see that as a steal.”

Cathcart says that his guests enjoy New Holland Brewing Co.’s barrel-aged beers, such as its Dragon’s Milk stout. “Dragon’s Milk is on draft again, and we always have success with that. It’s familiar, and it’s a big beer.”

Sweet on sour beers

For a blended beer that’s lower in alcohol, brewers often make sour beer using blends of different component beers that have been exposed to wild yeast such as Brettanomyces and/or “bugs,” as bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are called.

Gueuze, which is an old style of beer originating from the Senne river valley in Belgium, mixes young and old sour lambics to create complex but balanced flavors and aromas.

The benchmark example of this style comes from the Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels. Their traditional gueuze is extremely carbonated, with dynamic aromatics and intense puckering power. It is also rare, so any bar that offers this beer will sell it at a premium.

At The Hopleaf in Chicago, for instance, 375-ml. bottles of Cantillon Gueuze typically sell for $18 when available. Bottles come in 375-ml. and 750-ml. bottle formats.

For a more widely available but equally traditional imported gueuze lambic, try Lindeman’s Gueuze Cuvee Rene. The large-format bottle is a great choice for a special occasion—think a beer substitute for Champagne—dry and not offensively sour or funky.

At renown beer bar Church Key in Washington, D.C., a 12-oz. bottle of Cuvee Rene sells for $15 and is served in a tumbler. The Church Key sells another traditional Belgian gueuze, Hannsens Oud Gueuze, in a large-format 750-ml. bottle for $42.

Domestic examples of this style are hard to come by, however. If you find a bottle of Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gueuze or New Glarus R&D Gueuze, you have struck gold.

Visit the Avenue Pub in New Orleans for an amazing selection of sour and barrel-aged beers at reasonable prices. Look for The Bruery’s Rueuze, a blend of sour blondes aged in oak barrels; you can share a 24-oz. bottle for $30.

Wine and beer blends

If it’s innovation you’re looking for, one of the biggest trends in blended beer is in merging beer and wine together. Dogfish Head Brewing Co. of Milton, DE, produces Midas Touch year-round. The first in their Ancient Ales series, it combines honey, white muscat grapes and saffron to yield an evocative finish.

These boundary-pushing beers are also being made in collaboration. Alex Davis is a Certified Cicerone and the general manager of Library Ale House in Santa Monica. Davis carefully curates a beer menu that offers reduced Happy Hour prices in the afternoon, and a full lineup of Southern California brew.

“One of our local breweries, Smog City Brewing Co. (Torrance, CA), just teamed up for the second year with 21st Amendment Brewery (San Francisco, CA) to make California Love, an Imperial Red brewed with pinot noir grapes,” Davis says. “Smog City also makes a Grape Ape IPA with different grape varietals in every seasonal batch.”

Blending beer with spirits is also on the rise, as more operators and guests warm to the idea of beer cocktails. Uncommon Ground mixes a blended beer into a seasonal favorite cocktail, Cathcart says. “We serve a Dragons Milk Manhattan all winter long,” which is a mixture of vanilla-infused Four Roses, sweet vermouth and house-made cherry-vanilla bitters, shaken and strained with a Dragons Milk float.”

Tips for marketing blends

Because of the time and care involved in blending, pricing these rare beers can be a challenge. “If something is good but expensive, I can always reduce the pour size to get down to a price that I feel comfortable charging,” says Davis at Library Alehouse. “I hate going over $9, as it seems like an un-beery thing to do.”

Davis says he generally uses a 12-oz. snifter, which allows for a 10-oz. pour with head, for strong barrel-aged beers and sour beers. With sour beers, he notes, bars and restaurants often want “to get more servings out of a particularly desirable keg so more guests can enjoy it.”

Anything from Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, CA, for example, tends to be popular, Davis says. The brewer makes a Blonde Ale aged in used chardonnay barrels from local Sonoma County wineries.

But it’s not just cost and quantity that influence pour size. “For high ABV beers, limiting serving size has as much to do with responsibility as it does with price. I do everything I can to avoid over-serving,” Davis says, noting that some of blended beers are as strong as wine.

At Uncommon Ground, flights allow consumers to comfortably experiment: “The appeal to the consumer is a change, I think. Get away from hops. Get away from your standard pilsner. And trying something unique,” says Cathcart.

“Sour beers and barrel-aged beers always show up in flight orders, since it’s a good way to branch out with one 4-oz. taster instead of committing to the full pour,” he adds.

Erika Bolden is a freelance writer and Certified Beer Server. She is a frequent contributor to L.A. Weekly, West Coaster SoCal and All About Beer magazine.

It’s All in The Barrel

Using oak barrels to age beer, whether they are fresh from the cooper or previously host to wine or spirits, produces flavor complexity and depth. Every barrel is different and the barrel-aging process will impart slightly different results from one vessel to the next. In order to compensate for these disparities the blender/brewer will combine contents from many barrels until the desired result is reached.

Wood is porous, allowing small amounts of oxygen to permeate its walls. This “breathing,” along with intricate texture, is an ideal habitat for the bacteria and wild yeast that make sour beer sour.

The oxidation creates sherry and port-like flavors in barrel-aged beer. Actual chemicals in the wood dissolve into the barrel’s contents, imparting oaky flavors into the brew.—EB

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *