If you’ve been around barrel-aged beers, you’ve most likely heard about blending. Because it’s a part of the process that’s easy to gloss over, we wanted to take a second and give blending the attention it deserves.
Blending beer is exactly what it sounds like. Practically, it involves a brewer sampling multiple beers and then determining (with specific measurements and careful sensory analysis) the right combination of flavors. In barrel-aged beers, this involves pulling nails from the front of aging barrels and sampling the liquid therein.
To back up a step, we need to be clear that barrel-aging beer carries an element of risk. No matter a brewer’s skill, discipline, or attention to detail, barrels of beer will ultimately have a degree of variability. What does that mean? It means that two barrels made from the same materials, and filled with the same beer for the same amount of time can turn out two beers that don’t taste the same. As Jason, our brewmaster, describes it: “Blending beer can be seen as a form of ‘quality control’ when dealing with barrels.” Inevitably, a brewer will find a barrel with a character that’s too acetic (vinegar-y), tannic (bitter), or even chemical-y (just like it sounds). Those barrels will not join the blend, and may have to be dumped.
Probably one of the most intensive examples of blending at Allagash is an upcoming beer we’ll be releasing at the brewery: Cuvée d’Industrial 2017. Jason created this beer by blending twenty-four different barrels from our wild beer cellar. Barrel wood types used in the blend include: chestnut, port, rum, aquavit, American oak, Sauternes, and red wine. The resulting beer features aromas as diverse as apple, grape, caramel, and clove, thanks to the various yeast, bacteria, and types of barrels in which these beers were aging.
Finding the right barrels for a blend like this literally takes months. For this blend of Cuvée d’Industrial, Jason started out with over 400 potential barrels from across our wild beer cellar. It’s impossible to taste that many beers (effectively) in one day. “I like to keep an open mind for what I’m looking for, at first,” said Jason. “With time, I start to get some semblance of a foundation for the beer. After I figure out that foundation, then I’ll start to look for beers that will complement it.”
Another very cool result of this recent blending was Lieven. While tasting the contents of various barrels, Jason hit on one that stuck with him. It was a sour brown ale that had aged for four years in a new American oak barrel. He knew it would be a nice addition to Cuvée, but its notes were so subtle and complete that he suspected the other twenty-four barrels were liable to drown them out. So he blended it with a sour red ale that had aged for only one year in a New England Distilling rye whiskey barrel, and called it Lieven. The way our tasting panel describes it, aromas of strawberry, apricot, and caramelized sugar mix with flavor notes of dried fruit, toasted marshmallow, and a delicate hint of oakiness.
There are other reasons to blend beer. Very generally, those break down to three categories. Blending barrels of the same beer that have aged for different amounts of time—a process we covered extensively in our blog about brewing Coolship beers. There is blending barrel-aged beer with non-barrel-aged beer like we do for Curieux, our Tripel aged in bourbon barrels. And lastly there’s blending various beers into one final product, like Cuvée and Lieven.
We hope this shallow dive into the deep waters of blending gives you some insight into this vital brewing process. And we’re happy to say that both Cuvée d’Industrial and Lieven will be releasing exclusively from the brewery this weekend on July 1st, 2017.