Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blending and Fruiting Lambics - My Technique

Over that past year or so there seems to have been much more interest in Funky and Sour beers, both on the homebrew and commercial level. This has actually been quite a boon for me, as its gotten much easier to get my hands on all types of sours and the bugs they contain. Personally I feel that quite a few of the attempts out there have not been very successful, including many homebrewed versions Ive tried. I feel that one area that could really improve these beers is blending. Ive always been an advocate of blending beers, especially sours, to achieve desired flavors and aroma. I really think that this is where a lot of the homebrewed examples Ive tried have fallen short.

In the beers that Ive tried from other homebrewers, they are typically bottling a single batch straight; This is often done because until relatively recently there wasn't much interest in brewing sours, at least not by a large number of brewers. Many of the people who had tried, were often worried about cross-contamination or didn't want to tie up carboys for too long without knowing how good the beer could be, so only one batch was brewed.

I think that a lot of the hesitation about brewing wild beers is that supposedly they are so unpredictable that you just never know what your gonna get; I tend to disagree with that. When pitching dregs from bottles or using a WY/WL culture you pretty much know what your gonna get. Granted there is batch to batch variation, as there should be!, but there's a general range of flavors to expect. Batch to batch variation is present even in "clean" beers but it is often overlooked.

In my experiences with homebrewed sours there have been three fairly distinct types of flavor profiles. I should add that these three profiles are from WY/WL cultures or dregs from bottles.
  1. Bright Clean flavor,Citrusy, almost a lemon-like flavor, light body and mouthfeel with slight to no acetic acid
  2. Earthy, funky with hints of stone-fruit, tends to be less sour than #1 but not always
  3. Strongly phenolic, or strongly acetic
The first two types really hit all the flavors that I really enjoy in sour or funky beers. Occasionally a beer that fits one of those types (1 or 2) is exceptional and it can be bottled without blending, this is the exception rather than the rule however. Within each of the flavor types there is some amount of variation. For instance, a beer can be very strongly acidic and only hint at citrus, this type of beer could probably benefit from blending to cut the acidity and possibly add some additional flavor complexity. Of the three listed flavor profiles, #3 alone is one that I try to limit for the most part, although it is necessary to have at least a small amount on hand to blend into other beers. If you've never blended before, it can be surprising how adding some strongly acidic beer(3) to a fruit beer/softer sour can dramatically effect the flavor profile.

This is my general approach to blending sours

1. Tasting Early On.........
    After about 6-8mos or so I taste the beers to see which of the 3 flavor profiles it is starting to lean towards. At this point the beers can be slightly tart, mildly acidic or infrequently extremely sour. In my process this is generally where I decide what I want to do with the beer; whether it will continue as is or if it will get fruit
    The beers that I add fruit to are often of a middling character and do not display the clear bright character that I look for in a straight sour, I also tend to prefer to add fruit to beers that display a bit softer acid character at this stage, as the fruit can add substantial acidity to the beer
    Of the three flavor profiles I only add fruit to the first two, I generally try to avoid the third profile, and in my experience Ive only had this profile happen when using untested bottle dregs (something I'll talk about in another post) Of the other two profiles different fruits work better than others and I generally stick to the list below. These are all the fruit types Ive used to this point, so it is not by any means a definitive list.
    Not much should be done to the beer at this point. This step is mainly for planning ahead, especially if you plan on adding fruit. It important to get any fruit at the peak of ripeness for the best flavor. By getting a feel about your beer a few months ahead of when you make the final decision will allow you get find and save a lot fruit. If you decide not to add the fruit, its always great to make a pie or cobbler!!
2. Tasting and Deciding What to Do....
    After ~1yr or so, I taste the beers to see how they are coming along, and from this flavor profile I can usually figure out how to proceed. Generally around this same time, I also brew up a 1045ish blonde ale with low hopping rates, a low mash temp and a neutral high attenuating yeast.
    Often my beers are more sour than I like, but Ive built up a pretty potent culture with all the re-pitchings Ive done over the years, so I rely on the blonde ale to blend in to soften the acidic character of the beers.

    If the beers are a bit too acidic, but otherwise the flavor profile is good I move on to step 3, if they lack acidity I move to step 4
3. Initial Blending - Beers that are too sour.......
    For any of the beers that are too acidic I take some of the finished blonde ale and blend into the carboy, depending on the acidity I will add anywhere from 4-6qts of blonde ale into the beer. After adding the fresh beer to the carboy I like to let the resulting blend sit and ferment at least another month or so, then I taste again and add more blonde ale if its needed. Generally I don't need to do more than 2 blendings to achieve a desired acidity level. My approach here however is to achieve the desired acidity level in the beer before a final blending for overall flavor. This blending approach works just as well for the fruit beers as for straight lambics/Reds or other sours. I go this route to minimize the number of variables as I blend. I know that it is repeated, at least for Gueuze, that its blended to taste and then bottled using 1,2, and 3yr old beer.
4. Fruiting and Blending Beers that really aren't Sour Enough......
    Its not often that I have a beer that gets to a year without a significant amount of acidity, but a large part of that is related to starting with a strong souring culture and ensuring adequate food for the bugs. Too often people will ferment out first with a clean ale yeast and then add a souring culture, and IMHO this just isn't a very good way to start a sour beer, especially with a fresh smack pack of bugs.

    Occasionally though a beer either slips by and I need to find a good use. What Ive done in the past with these beers is to either add some of the fruits in the list above for beers that lack acidity. The fruit in the list provides a substantial addition of sugar for the bacteria, and will add quite a bit of acidity of its own. Rhubarb in particular seems to add considerably sourness to a beer that builds with time. Every time Ive used it there is visible bacterial growth, and the beer goes through a thick/sick period before dropping bright, and there is next to no flavor from the rhubarb. Strawberries are similar, but add a pinkish hue and an extremely subtle berry flavor.

    There are two other options to increase the acidity of a beer that isn't sour enough. You can add lactic acid to taste, which is pretty easy, but in my experiences with it, the flavor usually is a bit one-dimensional and lacking overall. The other is to blend in extremely sour beer. Having a small bit of a very acidic beer around is a good idea, and is a very good thing to have around even when brewing "clean" fruit beers. Now to make something like this takes a bit of planning and forethought, but when brewing sours there's always plenty of time!
    To start a beer like this, when tasting a batch around the 6mos mark, I split off about 1-2gal of a ~6mos beer. To this beer I add extra maltodextrin and a bit of malt extract to feed the bugs and get them to work a bit harder, to speed things along if your in a hurry you can also warm the beers to around 75-80F adding just the maltodextrin and you will have an extremely sour beer in about 2 months (this is actually pretty easy to do during the summer months just about anywhere - and is good timing as I like to brew/bottle sours during the cooler months of fall)
    My experiences with beers fermented warmer like this is that they tend to be very acidic and generally lack funky flavors, occasionally they have a strange graininess in the finish, but many of the sours I brew have this when they are young, and with a bit of aging this fades.

    You can then take this extremely acidic beer and blend to taste into the beer that lacks acidity, it also works with otherwise non-sour beers although if you do this and bottle I recommend stabilizing with campden prior to blending. I also suggest allowing the beer to sit at least another month prior to bottling to allow flavors to meld and to make sure the beer wont attenuate any more, this also allows you to repeat the process should the beer still be too bland or if its actually now too acidic.
5. Final Blending and Bottling......
    The final step for blending is to take small portions of each beer you plan to blend. Thoroughly taste each beer and write down what it is you like in each. Now looking at what you liked in each individual beer decide what aspects you really want to feature in your finished blended beer. This is the critical step, as often I find that people do not really know what they want and then blend in a sort of willy-nilly way and end up with a beer that isn't something they really wanted. I would pick one, or two at most, aspects that you really like from all the beers that you would like to emphasize. Then using the other flavors pick another to round of the flavor and the remainder should play a minor role.
    I suggest taking small portions of each beer and blending (slowly) in a glass. I generally start with the blandest of all the beers and add in each of the others until you achieve each of the goals you had when starting out. As I said earlier I generally try for the most part, to keep the acidity in the same ballpark for all of the batches I use to blend; this helps me to keep the number of variables affecting the final flavor to a more manageable number. Its surprising how adding acid to a softer beer can bring out all kinds of flavors, not all of which are what you wanted. However, if your blending a sour base with a malty clean beer the mix of the flavors is pretty straightforward and predictable from each of the beers going into the mix.

    Remember to take very small sips (just enough to taste) this is so your each of your drinks do not have much affect the volume enough to throw off the ratios you're writing down. You might need to do several mixes the first few times you blend until it comes a bit more natural. Also remember that once the beer is carbonated the acid profile will be a bit more forward, as CO2 adds its own bite to the beer, so when in doubt I would suggest blending to just a touch less sour than you would otherwise like.

11 comments:

sciencebrewer said...

Great post and good read.

I'll definitely will be looking at this approach when my Flanders red ale ages.

Cheers!

J

Jeffrey Crane said...

Bravo.
This is the post I've been waiting for.
1.Do you end up force carbing most of your sour beers? And why?

2.After you blend then you mix the same ratios and let it sit for another month, is that enough time for the gravity to stabilize?

3. When blending beers of different gravities such as adding an acid beer do you blend then add campden tablets (1 per gal), wait a week, then force carb or bottle condition with new yeast?

Ryan said...

1 - No, most I actually bottle, and I do this for a couple reasons, one of which is so I can taste the beer as it evolves in the bottle (grainy flavors dissipate, sourness often softens), another is that I generally dont drink them everyday. I will have about 2-3bottles of sours a week so I can keep a reasonable stock around

2 - So that depends on where your sour was and how low the blonde was, I try to end up with a very very bone dry blonde for blending, adding in a small amount of blonde to a well aged base will not generally affect your gravity much

3 - Im not sure of what your asking

Are you asking about blending sours with a malty clean beer?

If thats the case, stabilization is a whole other beast from this, which i have done a few times with success and bottled, you have the gist of the idea though I would suggest fining, cold crashing and racking before the campden tabs

Jeffrey Crane said...

Now I better understand your blending. From my first read, I didn't understand that the beer you used to blend has been fermented very dry. That makes sense and I believe is what New Belgium does on a few of their sour beers.

And yes you guessed my third question. I find that when I taste my Flander's Red and Oud Bruin that they are a bit thin and lack much malt character (which I know happens with sour beers). I would just like to be able to blend back some of the same wort that has not been soured. Or do you think that this issue should be solved on the front end and use a different recipe (like more Oats or a turbid mash)?

Ryan said...

No, I would solve the issue on the back end, there really isnt a way to make a beer thicker feeling when using the souring bugs, as they will eat just about anything

Stabilizing like i mentioned works pretty well, I have a beer thats been in the bottle now to ~2yrs that was about 4gal of malty beer and 1.5gal of very sour beer that was stabilized, and the carbonation has been stable the whole time. When blending for that type I would suggest trying to get an extremely sour beer, something that would be unpalatable otherwise

Jonathan Duncan said...

Thank you for posting as I find this article on blending to answer some of the questions that I have been asking.

Can you give in a little more specifics on creating an extra sour beer?

1) when you pull 1 gallon of beer at 6mos how much maltodextin and extract do you add?
2) would it help to water the 1 gallon down to help the lacto and pedio run their course by reducing alcohol?

Ryan said...

Jonathan,

1 - Just enough to add a few pts to the beer, in general I do not like this route unless its just to add a touch of acid to a beer i.e. wit, if its a true sour I prefer slow and cool temps. High temps tend to result in a very very sharp acidity that has a rough edge

2 - In my experience, the typical abv of flanders or lambics shouldnt do much to slow the bacteria, if anything its typically the lactic acid itself that slows further souring. Now if your brewing up a 15% sour you might have problems souring, but there wouldnt be much you could do but get the bacteria started early

Dan ABA said...

Great information here. I believe it confirms a suspicion of mine that when you have a very tart, citrusy sour beer adding certain fruits can make the beer overly tart.

For a sour beer that has a pleasant amf citrusy and tartness to it, would certain fruits still be viable to add? I am thinking fresh figs perhaps? Or should I instead blend with a blond ale to reduce the tartness (and unfortunately the great citrus flavor) of the beer before adding any type of fruit?

Thanks,
Dan ABA

Ryan said...

Dan,

My technique has changed slightly since I wrote this (update hopefully soon) However, most people likely wont need to blend with blonde ale, its only for beers that are overly acidic, which for your beer sounds like its not

Im not sure how much flavor would come through with figs, but I would say just give it a go, though I would probably suggest using figs with an earthier, softer beer (IMHO a better flavor profile match)

If the beer is really good on its own I suggest bottling at least a couple gallons straight and adding figs the rest. This lets you have two beers, and you can overload the rest with fruit!

Derek Ruffner said...

As you had mentioned adding rhubarb to add tartness, at what point and how would you add this? i have a slightly sour beer that has been in secondary for 9 months and wanted to add fruit(rhubarb cause i happen to have a bunch) do i need to steam and puree or chop into bits? any opinions would be great. Also its a low abv 3.2% scottish light ale using sach for primary and then White labs roselare for secondary. Has great smell and taste just lacking any acidity. thanks

Ryan said...

Derek,

I would add rhubarb after you feel reasonably certain that the beer isnt going to sour more. In your case with a low ABV/low OG beer like that youve likely hit terminal gravity. (what is it btw?) When Ive added rhubarb I like to chop it into bits (easier to add to carboy), then you can either add it fresh or first freeze it to break it up some. Racking off the rhubarb isnt the easiest thing to do as it breaks down readily and can be very stringy.

My suggestion would be to start with a small quantity, let it go for a week or more and taste, then add more as needed. I suggest waiting a week or so because when Ive used it Ive seen bacteria activity kick up (eating sugars and converting malic acid to lactic acid)

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