April 4, 2015

Sour Blending Project: The Intro

My 2014 west coast beercations inspired me to delve deeper into the world of blending beer and particularly blending sour beer. I was particularly captivated by the blending programs at Firestone Walker that produce incredible blended sour beers and clean beers out of a range of base beers both barrel aged and non-barrel aged. What is most captivating about Firestone Walker's program (aside from the quality of the beer produced) is the range of base beers tapped for the blended products. The clean anniversary ales assemble everything from porters to barleywines to IPAs into a complex mix while the sour blends are comprised of base beers beyond the typical replication of Belgian sour beer styles. Most notably among the sour beers is what is probably the flagship for their sour program: Agrestic. Agrestic is a blend of barrel aged, soured Double Barrel Ale (DBA). DBA is an English-style pale ale fermented partially in a Burton Union system. It is sweet with oaky vanilla and hoppy with English hops. It's not a beer many would consider a good base for a sour beer but it converts into something unique and wondrous. Inspired by these unusual blends I set out to put together a sour blending program of my own which would include a wide range of base beers that can be combined into a multitude of both blended and unblended sour beers that would deliver beers beyond the expected lambic and Flemish brown and red styles.

My vision for the project is to take a set number of base beers and then split them up across smaller fermentation vessels where I could create a library of base beers with a range of ages and oak treatments. By brewing each base beer every nine to twelve months at five gallons I could sour them in a large vessel and then peel those beers off into one gallon jugs where they can continue to age with no addition or the addition of various oak varieties that have themselves spent time absorbing different wines and spirits. That would in turn allow me to blend individual base beers of multiple vintages as well as blend the different base beers together out of a variety of vintages and treatments. Given my limited space at this time I do not know how many one gallon jugs I can store so early batches will likely have to remain in their five gallon fermentors. I'll just have to see how much space I can occupy with this project.

Rather than start out picking particular styles to flesh out the project I opted to identify the attributes I desired in the base beers and then sought to fit beers into those attributes. So I selected:

1. Rye: I'm a big fan of rye and it tends to work effectively in sour beers (e.g. Bruery's Sour in the Rye).

2. The ability to blend the individual base beers across its own vintages and in conjunction with the other base beers: I mentioned this above but it's worth repeating that I want the beers to be interesting enough on their own to blend within their own vintages but flexible enough to be blended together in various combinations to produce an interesting range of beers.

3. A wide range of maltiness: Consistent with the goal of creating a range of beers I want to run the gamut of very dry, crisp sour beers to the maltier end of the spectrum in the vein of Flemmish reds.

4. A range of body among the beers: I enjoy a dry, spritzy sour beer but sometimes it is nice to find a sour beer with more body so keeping beers with a range of body will help add another dimension to the flexibility of the set of base beers.

5. A range of flavor profiles: I want something different than a handful of brown/red ales or a handful of pale/blonde ales. The base beers should run the gamut of styles as distant as possible while still maintaining their blendableness (not a real word) so the different combinations can capture a broader range of styles.

6. Flexibility to be soured or bretted in different ways: I want the flexibility to use different souring blends and brett strains across different brews of each respective base beer to further expand the variability among the library of beers in the project. I don't want to be trapped into having each beer have the identical fermentation profile.

7. No black/dark brown beers: I find souring beers using significant portions of highly kilned grains is tricky as some brett strains can take the flavor compounds from the darker grains and turn them into some really unpleasant rubber flavors. I don't want to have to worry about whether the rubber flavor will strike or whether I will have to age it out. So that strikes stouts, porters, schwarzbiers and similarly colored beers.

With the combination of these attributes I designed four beers that would give me a wide range of color, body, maltiness, ABV and flavors:

Rye pale ale: This beer will be roughly designed on Firestone Walker's Agrestic, which is based on DBA, which is more English than American. The hops will provide restrained acidity but also provide different flavor compounds to drive a different flavor profile from the typical yeast compound flavor development. This beer will otherwise provide the rye character and moderate the other attributes with mid-range ABV, malt character and body.

Belgian brown ale: This recipe is the same I used in a blended beer several years ago that isn't quite a dubbel but uses some unmistakably Belgian ingredients to make a brown ale. Belgian yeast will provide a platform for the typical sour beer flavors and low hopping will provide maximum sourness. This brown ale will provide more of the malt character than the pale ale but without using the typical caramunich/caravienne to get there.

Adambier: I am also going to use my adambier recipe adopted from the recipe for HOTD Adam in Barleywine to bring the upper limit of ABV and maltiness to the recipe. When soured I expect this beer to be similar to BFM's Bon Chien and I may have to poach the dregs of a bottle of it to find bacteria comfortable souring a beer that big.

Saison: A session-strength saison will provide the bottom end of the range of maltiness and body. The saison can be a good platform for brett character and some opportunity to use some different spices and hops for further complexity.

I expect most of the blends will use the pale ale and/or brown ale in one form or another with the adambier and saisons pulling the blends away from a mid-range amber or brown beer. I won't really know what the blends will look like until I have enough stock to start putting them together so it will be at least nine months (but more likely over a year) before I have anything to blend. So the first step will be getting some of these beers brewed. I will start off with the pale and brown ales and expect to get those brewed shortly.

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