The History, Art, and Mad Science of Beer Blends
Walter and I took a short beer trip a month ago that made a strong impression on us. We made our first visit to Schnitz Brewing in Jasper, and later stopped in at CYO Brewing across the river in Owensboro, KY. Drew Mitchell, the owner and brewer at CYO, isn’t making his own beer yet, but the nano-system he is installing is a sight to see – two parallel 1.5 barrel containers that will be used for mashing, sparging, and boiling. Then the boiled wort falls through a plate chiller on its way to the fermenters in the basement directly below. The entire three-barrel system fits into a space the size of a closet and can be used half at a time for pilot brewing. Amazing.
But this isn’t our subject for today. While were sitting at the bar, I mentioned to Walter about a short story I had recently read on “beer suicides.” As with the soda suicides of your childhood, a beer suicide is made using a splash of every beer on tap. I can’t imagine many beer slingers or brewers allowing people to have a suicide – how would you price it? And worse yet, what is a brewer saying about his/her beer if such an abomination is allowed?
Chris Jones at Blind Owl Brewery said that he can remember one fellow many years ago asking for a beer suicide. However, the request came late in the evening at a bar, not a brewery, and apparently the already inebriated patron regretted his choice immediately. There is no record of what was mixed together in that instance, or whether it smoked or corroded the glass, but this isn’t true for all suicide experiments. A 2009 post from the Northwest on Beer Musing PDX talked about beer suicides, and related the results of an evening of suicides. They even listed all the beer included in different suicides and how they came out, hit or miss. I guess if you’re OCD enough, you can turn anything into a scientific experiment.
As Walter and I discussed the concept of a beer suicide at CYO, Josephine behind the bar added an incredible story. She has a degree in history and told us about an old custom (1700s – 1800s) of combining into a single bucket all the left over beer and alcohol that customers left behind in their mug or glass at the pub. If you didn’t have enough money for a proper pint, you could drink cheap from the “swill bucket.” Whether this is true or apocryphal, she did say she had also read pub men that used to cheaply sell off what they could wring out of their sponges (called spong) or their bar towels (mung shot). It’s amazing what you can learn if you sit at the rail long enough and listen to the people you meet. Beerslingers almost always have amazing knowledge in some other area; they’re rarely educated only in beer.
So beer suicides aren’t really new, even if the idea of them remains disturbing. But they do bring to mind the idea of mixing beer as a legitimate libation. If you’ve been sampling different craft beers for any amount of time, it is likely you’ve had a blended beer, whether you knew it at the time or not. Some lambics are beer blends called gueuze. In these cases, one year old lambic is blended with 2-3 year old lambic. Famous American gueuze beers include the Coolship Resurgam from Allagash that Walter and I got to taste at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting last year and Duck Duck Gooze from The Lost Abbey. You can also blend a lambic with a lighter, sweeter beer or with light beer and brown sugar to create Faro, as in that produced by Draai Laag in Pittsburgh (Walter heartily recommends a visit to Pittsburgh for beer).
Closer to home and more geared to what a brewer might produce from day to day, cuvées (the French term for blended beer or wine) occur regularly now. Brewers might blend beer aged in a barrel with beer not aged in a barrel, or beers aged in two different barrels, like the bier de garde from Transient Artisan Ales that Walter and I tried last weekend. This beer was split into absinthe and red wine barrels, and then blended back together in some proportion of each to produce a final beer.
Moreover, beer blends have taken on a sort of underground life as well. You go into a brewery and try a bunch of beers. Your server looks left and then right, and whispers under her breath, “You want something interesting, try our chocolate milk stout mixed 50/50 with the pineapple/habanero American wheat.” And of course you try it because she wants you to and and because she’s willing to spot you 5 oz. for free. Sometimes you end up wishing you had no tongue and sometimes you smile big and order a pint.
But not every blend is so covert. Josh at Blind Owl is reported to try different blends all the time, and he’s more than willing to offer suggestions if he thinks you might be up for it (can you guess where I was when I wrote this piece?). And “The V” at Three Wise Men Brewing (a 50/50 blend of their Centennial Martyr DIPA and Golden Zoe IPA) is just the most popular of the several blends they have on their menu. It was suggested by a regular customer, as was the Two Pull at Granite City, a blend of their golden American lager (called The Northern) and their Bennie, a bock. On the other hand, Tristan, one of the bartenders at Heady Hollow, came up with a blend of the 1872 Imperial IPA with their 60 Horses Scotch Ale called the Hop Scotch Ale. Danny Boy Beer Works posts no fewer than eight different blends of their beer on the beer board. Truly, blends can come from just about anywhere and be suggested by anyone.
Even more amazing, there are those beers that seem to blend with everything – the Rubaeus from Founders Brewing is the one that comes to mind for Walter. We had the Rubaeus paired with a Milk stout at Redemption Alewerks last year, and our server at Twenty Tap showed us how it pairs with light beers as well as heavier, darker beers. Part of the reason might be the flavor, a bright raspberry taste that shines through but isn’t cloyingly sweet, but I think the fact that it is served on nitrogen. The creaminess almost always adds something to a beer, especially if you think beers are often too carbonated, yet the nitrogen doesn’t cause you to lose the flavor. I swear, Rubaeus mixed 50/50 with the phlegm of an old toad with emphysema would probably be pretty good, at least three stars on Untappd.
Some blends are more about styles than specific brands or beers. A smoked pumpkin is a blend of a rauchbier and a pumpkin beer, while some people swear by mixtures of oatmeal stouts and sour flanders red ales. Guinness alone has seventeen or so beer styles that it can be blended with, including a pumpkin beer, resulting in something they called the Headless Horseman. The traditional Black and Tan (Guinness and Bass Ale) is still the hands down favorite, but can you believe that those Brits across the pond will also mix Guinness with champagne (called a Black Velvet)? Surely that will either cure a hangover or cause one.
Along with the Black Velvet, there are many traditional blends of beer and other liquids. The shandy is beer mixed with a flavored soft drink of some kind. Usually fruit-based, the soft drink might be a juice like orange juice or lemonade, or it might be a soda, such as ginger ale or lemon lime soda. Many breweries will produce shandys during the summer months, and I guess people drink them – they just aren’t for Walter or I. It’s one of the few beer issues that she and I agree on.
The original shandys did use ginger ale, but the name has come to encompass both citrus and non-citrus additions. If the soda or juice is lemon or grapefruit, you might call the product a radler. This dates from just after WWI in Germany, when both beer drinking and bicycling became popular again. A famous bar just outside of Munich was so inundated with cyclists that they almost sold out of beer. The owner starting mixing the beer with lemon soda, claiming he had invented a light drink just for the cyclists (radler in German means cyclist) – smart guy. In the US, the radler most likely to be encountered is Stiegl, in the orange and white striped can. It’s 40% golden lager and 60% grapefruit soda – like the Fresca your mom tried to get you to try.
There is a new brewery in Muncie called Elm Street Brewing that has embraced a version of the beer blend. They had a graf on recently (and may still) called A Touch of Strange. This is a blending of beer of and apple cider. The cider and the beer are fermented together, so it is different from a “snakebite” which is a blending of finished beer and finished cider. Along those same lines, Elm Street also has a braggot that they make quite often. The Bee Arthur is brewed with 49% of its fermentable sugar coming from honey. If it had 50% or more, it would be considered a mead and would be governed by a different set of licenses and laws. Mead and beer is a lot like cider and beer, you can ferment them together (graf or braggot) or you can blend them later, like the snakebite. In the case of mead and beer, the blend is called a “bracken.” I couldn’t come up with many (or any) examples of a true bracken on tap in the US; maybe it’s more of a British thing.
After all this discussion, I really haven’t come to a conclusion in my mind – is beer blending a good thing, or are you annoying the brewer who worked hard to develop and produce a beer that he/she thought you would enjoy? A 2010 post from Victory Brewing talked of how they were reluctantly starting to explore mixing their own beers – very reluctantly. Craft Beer Magazine’s definition for blending indicates that blending finished beers (as opposed to blending beers for some lambics and braggots or grafs) has become more popular in the last five years or so. Before that it was basically limited to a black and tan (in the US).
Walter and I have worked on blending only twice that I can remember. Once was in Tennessee, where a habanero pepper ale was so hot that we cut it with their black IPA and developed a pretty good beer that we called “Black Pepper.” The second was after a few beers at Shoefly Public House. We mixed a Victory Brewing Sunset Dunkelweizen with The Calling IIPA from Boulevard Brewing and called it a “Sunset Boulevard.” Our names might actually be better than the resulting beers, so perhaps we aren’t the best people to ask about blending beer. In the end, you’re the one paying for the beer, so go ahead and experiment all you want. Lightning might strike and you could have the next big cuvée.
Walter’s words of wisdom – Go to small town brewery’s to drink if you’re interested in economics – they almost always have cheaper pints. (Note: Transient Artisan Ales in tiny Bridgman, MI is a definite exception to this rule.)