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Like a fine wine …

Taking cues from the world of wine, brewers are blending and aging beers to create fascinating, complex bottles that vary with each new vintage.
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Beer ages in a barrel at The Rare Barrel. Credit: The Rare Barrel

Beer ages in a barrel at The Rare Barrel | Photo courtesy of The Rare Barrel

Ron Gansberg’s early career making pinot noir at Mulhouse Vineyards in Newberg, Oregon, directly led to his next career at Portland’s Cascade Brewing in 1986, and to his creation of Northwest-style sour ales.

“Blending wine is almost linear,” says Gansberg. “There’s one ingredient and one target result. What we seek in blending beer is to have the sum greater than its consummate parts.” A particularly vinous example is Sang Royal—a tart Flemish red ale inoculated with wild bacteria aged over six months on cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir grapes in spent red wine barrels.

While most blended beers are some combination of beers that have slept in barrels (whiskey or wine, most commonly), they can also be fruit-infused, and usually harness various yeast strains and bacteria. All occupy the deepest end of the beer pool. From viscous, rich, bourbon-aged imperial stouts to tart, acidic and funky framboises, they’re rare oneoffs and not replicable; each batch is a singular experience. Even if these projects are brewed annually, fans are enthralled with discerning nuances among subsequent vintages. If you swim in said waters, you’ve likely attended a bottle share or waited in line at a brewery for your chance to taste one of these blends.

Blenders are changing the game by not only creating beers within their own barrel rooms, but by sharing beer with others for collaboration blends that are truly one-of-akind. Cascade’s lead blender, Kevin Martin, explains, “With the Barrel Exchange Program, we simply trade a single barrel of our beer for one from another brewery, and each [brewery] can come up with a fifty-fifty blend using the traded beer.”

The first such melange, featuring Cascade’s Blackberry Wheat and Wicked Weed’s sour red ale—a component of the Asheville, North Carolina, brewery’s Oblivion blackberry wild ale—appeared in 2015. Then came Perfect Strangers, a combination of equal parts Hammerland Double IPA from Los Angeles-area El Segundo Brewing and Cascade’s Shrieking Violet.

Cuvée

Cuvée In Belgium, wild ales can come from a blendery rather than a brewery. Blenderies such as Hanssens, De Cam and Tilquin buy wort or lambic from various breweries to create their own ideal liquid medley. French winemakers gave us the term cuvée, which is a wine blended in a cask made from different wines and from various vineyards. We rarely see this word applied to beer, yet it is a time-honored tradition dating back at least three centuries to when the English blended strong ales and the Belgians, as they continue to do, blended lambic ales. Cambridge Brewing Co. (CBC), an early adapter of barrel aging, established its Barrel Cellar in 1998, and developed the first solera blending program in America in 2004. The solera method, typically employed by sherry makers, involves older casks of sherry—or in our case, beer—that are partially emptied and then topped with younger sherry so the blending continues inside a single vessel over a period of years.

Aside from his innovative blending program, CBC brewmaster Will Meyers harnesses the Boston-area brewery’s terroir at every turn. CBC uses grains grown and malted in-state, grows some of its hops, forages or hand-harvests some of the herbs used for gruits (beers without hops), and relies on ambient yeast as well as purchased strains of yeast and bacteria. And then, of course, there’s the blending. CBC’s Cerise Cassée is made like sherry; the sour base beer is brewed annually and aged in spent French oak wine barrels, where it ferments again with 300 pounds of sour cherries.

In the heart of Central California wine country, Firestone Walker Brewing Co. leads one of the industry’s most ambitious barrelaging programs. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson happened upon some bourbon barrels back in 2005. The brewery released its inaugural barrelaged anniversary blend, Firestone Walker X, in 2006. Firestone Walker XX was released in late October. Within Firestone Walker’s program— between the used bourbon cooperage and the offsite Barrelworks wine cask warehouse for wild ales—there are more than 3,500 barrels. These yield some eight to 10 strong ales including Stickee Monkee (a sweet, leathery Belgian-style quad) and Velvet Merkin (a rich, smooth oatmeal stout). At Barrelworks, souredale bases include Agrestic (an acidic Berliner weisse) and Sour Opal (a tropical, oaky lambicstyle ale). The precise proportions of these component beers aren’t chosen by Brynildson or master blender Jim Crooks, but rather by local winemakers who sample freely from the barrels and decide what to blend.

The idea is to create one harmonious beer from such a diverse range of base styles. The winemakers, practicing experts in the art of blending, provide invaluable input. During the session, they are paired off and challenged to create their own preferred blend. Then all of the blends assembled by each pair are blind-tasted by the entire group, and votes are cast for the winning blend.

Cascade’s Martin estimates he has 1,400 barrels for blending at the brewery’s production facility. He says there are 12 base beers deemed “blending stock” and “each with multiple variations … once spices and fruits are added. Then we are working with literally hundreds of combinations.”

Gansberg adds, “We want to make sure that there’s an amazing league of blenders [to] increase our understanding and put interesting beers out there in collaboration with other great breweries.”

The Rare Barrel, founded in 2012, entered that league with a blend called Forces Unknown. It consists of The Rare Barrel’s Forces Unseen, a blend of oaked, golden sour beers and Cascade’s own strong blonde ale aged with sour cherries and figs.

End results cannot be predetermined. Nor are they random. The Rare Barrel’s co-founder and director of blending Jay Goodwin explains, “There are two types of tastings. One is checking individual barrels for off-flavors and outliers to see if they could be usable in a blend; two is blending good barrels together to see what they could produce in a blend. We talk about positive flavors and aromas, negative flavors and aromas, and how we can use the results to make the best blend possible.”

Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

The next steps

Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk, formerly of Flossmoor Station Brewing Co. near Chicago and Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, helped debut Alesong Brewing & Blending, also in Eugene. Since Alesong is brand new, Van Wyk paraphrases Tom Petty, “The hardest part is the waiting.” As he recalls, “A prominent Belgian brewery owner told me once that nobody in their right mind would open a lambic brewery these days. It’s too costly to sit on three years of beer before you start blending and selling.”

In Greenville, South Carolina, Shawn Johnson understands that notion all too well. He launched Birds Fly South Ale Project last July, choosing to use that term instead of Brewing Company because he views each blend as, well, a project. Birds Fly South will emphasize solera-method saisons.“Patience is definitely the biggest hurdle as a startup,” says Johnson. Much of what he currently brews is “aging stock,” not beer he gets to sell straight away, which translates into the high five-figures’ worth of inventory. “Our first year of brewing was nothing more than adding to wine barrels.”

And there’s no guarantee it’ll turn out as expected.

“Fear is in everything we do,” says Johnson. It requires, as he phrases it, “a lot of hope, prayers and bourbon.” tweet

The latter is for his nerves, not necessarily for aging his projects.

Ultimately, blending is less about the rigidity of process and much more about reacting to the unpredictable elements. Cambridge’s Meyers says, “[It’s not as] simple as brewing something and sticking it in a barrel. In brewing texts, you’re taught large-scale ‘traditional’ production techniques [such as] avoiding temperature fluctuations, light, heat and oxidation. But if you look at some of the world’s most interesting and unique and delicious beverages—Banyuls [wine], madeira [port], sherry—many are produced in a manner that should ensure failure. Instead, it not only enhances, but the technique is what makes it unique. One must be willing to sewer beer on occasion.”

So whereas the Belgians have long-established blenderies, the closest American model may be Cascade’s barrel exchange program. And given that Belgian techniques continue to surge, perhaps we’ll see similar projects from beer-makers who also operate blenderies like Phantom Carriage, Beachwood and Colorado’s Casey Brewing.

There’s a lot to learn about what blending can achieve for brewing. “Many of our breakthrough moments have come purely by chance of experiment,” says Crooks. “[It’s] achieved by asking the question, ‘What if?’ and then having the gall to blend it together.”

4 beautiful blends

Wicked Weed/Jester King Red Atrial: This collaborative blend combines equal parts Wicked Weed Red Angel (a red wine barrel-aged sour with raspberries) and Jester King Atrial Rubicite (a neutral wine barrel-aged sour with raspberries), then ages the combination on even more fresh raspberries.

New Belgium Clutch: A base stout (80 percent of the blend) supplies baking chocolate and roast flavors while the remaining 20 percent portion of sour Oscar, the dark and tart base beer that slumbers in barrels to become La Folie, contributes an acidic edge.

Samuel Adams Tetravis: Brewers blend a small portion of Kosmik Mother Funk Grand Cru, an oak-aged wild ale, into each of Samuel Adams’ Barrel Room series beers, including the bottleconditioned Belgian quad Tetravis.

The Rare Barrel Apropos of Nothing: This year’s release of the oak-aged wild ale with elderberries and lavender is a blend of three different batches of a golden sour base: one fermented with Brett Drei and lactobacillus; one with Brett Drei and pediococcus; and one with a mixed culture that included Brett lambicus and an array of bacteria.

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