May 8, 2016

Sour Blending Project: First Year Blending

It's been a little under a year since I brewed the first renditions of the two base beers for what I hope to shape into my house sour beer blending project and now it's time to start blending and see where I need to make adjustments. After attending the New Belgium Sour Symposium I was full of ambition to blend sour beer and as I usually do let my ambitions run wild and tried to bite off more than I could chew. To help organize this rather lengthy post I'll quickly run through the two base beers and explain through the naming conventions, talk about how the base sour beers developed and then run through each of the blends I created.

A Recap of the Base Sour Beers and Naming Conventions

Originally I envisioned this project to have four base beers with two of those beers forming the core of the project. I thought this was too much to start with and paired down to the two core beers: a pale ale and and a style unspecific Belgian brown ale. 

The pale ale, which I guess we can call a sour pale ale, was brewed in the image of Firestone Walker Agrestic and Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga rather than the style that is forming around the term "sour pale ale" which is either a dry hopped sour beer or a kettle soured pale ale. Agrestic and Luciernaga begin life as a pale ale that with time and brett lose hop flavor and aroma and the bitterness from the hops melt away into a tannic presence. Both of these beers lose their bitterness but not before restraining the lactic acid bacteria so there is good balance to the beer. This is definitely not one of those wretched sour IPAs with clashing bitterness and acidity. This beer was fed oak cubes soaked in Tempranillo wine and fermented with dregs from a bottle of Firestone Walker Lil Opal and a Jolly Pumpkin beer (I forget which one). 

The Belgian brown ale is a beer I brewed in an earlier blending project and lucked into creating a really great recipe by accident. It's a good recipe clean but turns over a lot of interesting flavor to brett. It's not quite an oud bruin, Flemish red, or dubbel; and there's not really a Belgian brown ale style that squarely fits this recipe. It's probably most akin to Leffe Brune and similar beers. This beer was fermented with my Oregon Special mixed culture which includes, among other things, Ale Apothecary and De Garde dregs. 

When I started brewing these beers I didn't have names put together for any of the beers. Shortly afterwards I gave the pale ale the name Proletariat after a joking response on Facebook to a post by Mike Karnowski who was considering what to call his saison-like beers. He didn't feel like farmhouse or saison was appropriate but wanted something that reflected the rustic nature of the beers and their inspiration from nineteenth century working class beers. I jokingly suggested Proletariat ales. Then I decided I liked the name and took it for myself. 

I didn't have a name for the brown ale until blending day when I decided to give it the name Bourgeois and subsequently name everything with the blending project something related to the Soviet Revolution. Not because I'm an avowed communist. I have a general interest in history and political science and there's lots of interesting options for names with the subject. Plus, it gives a convenient naming convention for the two beers. Proletariat Pale and Bourgeois Brown. That makes it easy to identify each beer. 

How the Two Beers Turned Out

Pale ale on the left, brown ale on the right

The first step in any blending is to taste the available blending components. It's necessary to identify whether the components are ready to blend, whether they should be blended, what are the positive attributes and the shortcomings. Beers should not be blended blindly or to hide flaws. Blending should create the best beer possible. So here's what I ended up with.

Bourgeois Brown Ale

I expected this beer to develop a good amount of acidity and a prominent brett presence, hopefully with some of that evergreen forest character Ale Apothecary possesses. What I got in return was somewhat on the mark. The beer developed a good amount of acidity with ph reading at 3.4 although it tastes far less acidic. The aroma is herbal in ways that remind me of Ale Apothecary and De Garde. The flavor is strongly earthy in a good way. The malty backbone is present but transformed away from the sweet caramel flavors towards stonefruit and darker caramel flavor, similar to a Flemish red but less obvious. The yeast character dominates. It could pass off as a brett heavy oud bruin. I'm happy with how it turned out. This beer is a lock.

Proletariat Pale Ale

This beer I expected to be less acidic with a firm tannic presence due to the oak cubes, wine and hops. I wanted to see the red wine and oak present but not dominant in the flavor and some of the hop flavor transformed into something interesting. What came out was not what was expected. The ph is only 3.8 but it is sharply acidic by taste. The wine is prominent in the aroma, which was a positive. The flavor is funky in that classic brett barnyard funk. Rye spiciness is tucked away in there. The tannins are present but slightly harsh. Flavor is slightly off in a way that suggests to me this beer needs just a couple more months to smooth out. By the time the beers are blended and bottle conditioned this beer should be hitting its stride. 

I'm not as happy with this beer. I think it needs a little more hops and a little less oak. The biggest problem I suspect is that when I initially pitched I underpitched on everything. The US-05 was underpitched and the initial round of dregs only included the fairly old Lil Opal dregs. I think it took a while to form a pellicle and as a result the beer oxidized a little more than want. That led to more acetic acid production and staling of hop compounds. I added the JP dregs after a few months which helped along the pellicle and sour/funk. On the next round I will probably just prop up some JP dregs or maybe Crooked Stave dregs and pitch appropriate volumes.

Pale ale on the left, brown ale on the right. Difference in color is obvious


The Evolving Ideas for the First Blends

I like to come into blending days with ideas about what I want to happen but those ideas have to be loose until the beers are tasted. The best blends may not be what was expected. I also tend to drift across ideas during the year or more time between brew and blending so where I started is almost never where I end up. In this case I trimmed down to just having these two beers so my initial ideas of blending four beers together all went in the trash (at least for now). My ideas for the bulk of time was to create a blend from the two beers together and optionally create an alternate blend if a good secondary blend presented itself. I also wanted to hold off some of the Proletariat to blend into the next year's Proletariat similar to how Firestone Walker creates Agrestic by blending one and two year old beer together. Whatever excess Bourgeois remained would maybe go on some different spirit-soaked oak cubes for future blending. 

As blending day approached my ideas changed. After tasting some of the foeders from New Belgium's Oscar and finding that wonderful blackberry flavor so well situated in the beer I decided to try to make a really out there blend with blackberries and maybe include some dry hopping and/or spices. I also recognized with the pending relocation away from Texas in 2018 I probably would not have a chance to rebrew either of these beers until I get settled in Denver so setting aside beer for a rebrew of at least Proletariat didn't make sense. (I need to draw down some of my supply of beer and I have several other beers to brew in the meantime.) I still expected to blend a simple blend of the two beers and whatever leftovers I had would just be set aside with the rest of my supply of aging beers to go into some future unknown blend. 

After tasting the beers I had pretty clear ideas about what to do. I let ambition take over and decided to do as much as I could with these ten gallons of beer. What I ended up deciding upon was this:

1. Blend of Proletariat and Bourgeois

2. Blend of Proletariat and Bourgeois with blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper

3. Bottle some of Bourgeois straight

4. Reserve the remainder of Proletariat for future blends. 

This may not sound like a difficult task but once I started considering the mechanics of the blends I knew I was in for trouble.

Putting Together the Blends

My first task was to figure out the two blends and second to figure out how to actually make this work. I put together different blends with pipettes in tasting glasses to find what I liked best. For the regular blend I decided on approximately 60% brown and 40% pale ale. This blend best captured all the great flavor of the brown ale while cutting in more acidity from the pale ale and adding some of the wine aroma. The flavor of the pale ale mostly faded behind the brown but acted like a support structure for the malt flavor from the brown ale. A really nice mix. 

The second blend, which would get the mixture of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper, went in 75% pale ale and 25% brown. Here I wanted to let the acidity be more prominent and have the brown ale round out the pale ale with a little earthiness that would work well with the blackberries and pepper. The rye flavor and black pepper would integrate well and the melon-strawberry Belma flavors would work as a mellow bonding agent for all the flavors. I settled on the combination of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper by thinking through what would complement blackberries in the beer blend and then what I had in the house that would complement the combination of blackberries and the beer. 

My priority was making the best of the two blends.I had to figure out how much blackberry I had and how much beer I could add to them to get a good blackberry flavor. Then I could figure out how much beer to use in the regular blend. Whatever was left of the brown would get bottled and the pale ale would go into gallon jugs. What I ended up with is:

Packaged Beer From Bourgeois From Proletariat Total Volume
Regular Blend 3.5 gallons 2.5 gallons 6 gallons
Blend with fruit/hops/spice0.5 gallons 1.5 gallons 2 gallons
Straight Bourgeois1 gallon N/A 1 gallon
Reserved ProletariatN/A 1 gallon 1 gallon

One challenge in getting this done was that the better bottles used as fermentation vessels do not have gallon markers so I had no way to precisely mix beers together without moving them to a vessel with markers. Another challenge was trying to move the beer without repeatedly stabbing each beer with a siphon as I created different blends out of concern of unnecessarily aerating the beer. Thankfully I have two eight gallon bottling buckets and could siphon each beer into its own bottling bucket with priming sugar. Then I could keep them entirely separate and just gravity fill from there. First I bottled the gallon of Bourgeois straight out of its bottling bucket and did the same with the reserve gallon of Proletariat into a gallon jug. Then I piped the appropriate portions of the fruit/hop/spice portion into a better bottle and added its adjuncts. Then I piped the remaining Proletariat into the Bourgeois, gave it a careful stir and bottled it all. This was several hours of siphoning and bottling. Everything bottled was bottled to target 3.5 vol CO2 although it will probably end up closer to 3.

Piecing Together the Fruit/Hops/Spice Blend and Sampling at Bottling

To figure out the exact proportions of blackberries, Belma hops and black pepper I started off thinking about the intended result. I wanted the blackberries to be recognizable but slightly less prominent than what would be expected in a fruited sour. The goal was to taste blackberry but not be entirely sure whether the flavor comes from actual blackberries or from some fermentation or aging effect. The hops should play a close second with the black pepper a distant third with just a peppery finish.

Berries are often added to sour beer at a rate between 0.5-1 lb/gal. I wanted to hit right in the middle and opted for 12 oz (0.75 lb.) per gallon so 1.5 lb in two gallons.

Dry hopping sours inevitably requires a large amount of dry hops because the acidity diminishes the presence of the hop oils. (Think about how little oil you taste in a vinaigrette.) 1 oz/gal is a common ratio. I wanted a little less hop prominence with an already mellow hop so I went 0.4 oz/gal for 0.8 oz in total.

Rates for black pepper in beer are all over the map with the only agreement residing somewhere around the need to use a lot more pepper than most other spices. I opted for what I considered to be a low amount at 3.5g/gal for a total of 7g.

All of the adjuncts went into the blend at the same time and sat together for five weeks. The berries need about 4-6 weeks to get good extraction. It's a long time to dry hop but Ale Apothecary dry hops for a full month and seems to get interesting flavors out of it. I'll admit I was concerned that the pepper would get too much extraction over time but fortunately that did not happen.

Blend with dry hops, blackberries and black pepper. Hops and berries are floating. Pepper is...who knows?

I ended up with about 2.5 gallons of beer out of what should have been two gallons. In retrospect I think I had a little extra Proletariat that went into this blend. More sour beer is rarely a problem. Overall I'm really happy with this blend. The initial tasting is promising. The aroma is probably the weakest part of the beer. It's a little acetic although I expect this to smooth out with a month in the bottle. The smell is "heavy" rather than the bright fruity aromas of the usual fruited sour. Forest, mixed berries, generic spice, earthy and a touch of generic hop aroma. The appearance is hazy and a reddish brown about the same color as when it went into the carboy. The blackberries added very little color or added the same color. The flavor is consistent with the aroma. Acidity remains sharp with flavors of mixed berry salad, earthiness, slight melon, a touch of generic hop flavor,  with mixed berry juice and the desired touch of pepper in the finish. The mouthfeel is fairly heavy for a sour beer with slight oiliness, all likely from the hops. Expect that to lighten with carbonation. The interesting thing is that every time I took a taste of the sample I pulled it tasted different. Sometimes the berry was more prominent, sometimes the pepper showed up, sometimes the earthiness, sometimes the acidity.

Pretty much the color of the pale and brown blended together. You can see how opaque the beer is. Milkshake Sour???

Lessons Learned So Far

So far I'm pretty happy with what I have and what I've done. I will certainly adjust how I fermented Proletariat to get a better fermentation process out of it. Additional adjustments may be made around how I am hopping it. The blackberry/hops/pepper blend is interesting and I may decide to keep up that blend as well. It's always so ambitious and so much work to do multiple blends and packaging at once but also rewarding to create so many different beers.

So the blends need some names. The regular blend was named 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. It's the event that put the proletariat and bourgeois in conflict with each other so in a sense it reflects the blending of the two beers. The adjunct blend is named Trotsky because just as Trotsky ended up outside of the party mainstream, this combination of ingredients is also pretty far outside the mainstream of even sour beer.

With expansion of this blending project on hold until I relocate to Denver in 2018 I'll have some time to mull over how these blends develop in the bottle and where things go from here. Right now I think I still want something close to the original idea with four beers in the project. The adambier, which was going to be the high gravity beer in the project will probably remain but get brewed in three gallon or less batches because I'm really enjoying my 4-5% ABV sour beers and don't feel the need to get too far beyond that. Instead of dedicating an entire saison to this project I will probably just rope in various mixed fermentation saisons in its place. I think there is still more for me to learn about the interplay between Proletariat and Bourgeois and perfecting Proletariat without needing to rush into dedicating more beers to this project. But just like these blends, by the time I'm brewing these beers in 2018 I may have some very different ideas.

Review posts on the three bottlings to follow.


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