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Debating the “Pandora’s box” of mixing beers

Combining beers is either a mortal sin or a completely natural part of beer appreciation, depending on your perspective. What’s the future of this controversial practice?
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A Black & Tan at Broken Compass | Photo by Jamey Schwartz

A Black and Tan at Broken Compass | Photo by Jamey Schwartz

On a trip earlier this year to Edmonton, Alberta, I had dinner at a brewpub just off the bustling Whyte Avenue thoroughfare in the Old Strathcona neighborhood. The brewery was a relatively new addition to the scene; young, stylishly dressed Edmontonians on date nights waited in line for tables. The tap lineup was varied: sour beers, classic pub styles, way-hoppy pale ales and more.

As we gave our beer orders to our server, my companion hemmed and hawed about whether she’d enjoy the brewery’s kettle sour.

“Just … how sour is it?” she asked the server.

“If you’re nervous about that, I could do a half-sour and half-saison mix for you,” the server readily replied. She took him up on the offer.

I don’t think my mouth fell open, but I was surprised. Mixing beer styles isn’t something servers suggest often here in the States, let alone at a brewery itself. As my friend contentedly sipped her half-saison, half-sour, I wondered whether American aversion to the practice had its roots in mere snobbery or whether other factors are at play.

To get to the way-back root of mixing beers, I turned to British beer historian and author Ron Pattinson, who said that the custom of combining beers began much before the Black and Tans and Snakebites we know.

“As far as you go back, people have always mixed beer,” he says. “It’s normally for reasons of economy, really. They had a beer they really liked but couldn’t afford to drink all the time.”

“The young people with beards who drink craft beer, they don’t mind drinking a beer that looks like orange juice but they’d never dream of mixing their beers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first citation of “Black and Tan” to describe a beer that’s half darker beer, half lighter beer in a slang dictionary from 1889. Beer mixes predates World War I, though the practice is best documented from the 19th century on. Some motivations were economic, as with the mixing of half a bottle of beer with half a draft beer during World War I, when draft beer quality was middling at best but bottled beer was still expensive to drink exclusively … hence, the fifty-fifty split.

But flavor considerations were also a factor. Mixing an old ale with a bitter (called a Mother-In-Law, zing!) wouldn’t have been a price-based decision, since both styles would have been nearly equal in cost. Drinkers just liked the way it tasted.

These days, though, Pattinson said the beer-combination custom is on the wane in Britain, as the styles used to make the classics (mild, bitter, porter, etc.) are becoming less common on draft. The rise of more American styles in the British beer world and the development of a younger craft beer culture have created something of a disdain for the practice.

“The young people with beards who drink craft beer, they don’t mind drinking a beer that looks like orange juice but they’d never dream of mixing their beers,” he says.

Mixing beer isn’t super common in the States these days, though a few taprooms and bars encourage the practice. Among them is Broken Compass Brewing Co. in Breckenridge, Colorado, where “mix tapes,” as the brewery’s dubbed them, are a common order from regulars. Before the brewery had even opened, owner/brewer David “Ax” Axelrod was interested in making a mole stout, so he began roughly mixing his chili pepper pale ale and his coffee chocolate stout in various ratios until he nailed the right level of chili pepper kick. From there, a tradition was born.

Now, taproom staff and customers are in on it, too, requesting their own combinations and tinkering with the tap list. Recent favorites include a half coconut porter, half chocolate coffee stout mix invented by Axelrod’s girlfriend, Kristin, and the “chill-pah”: chile pepper pale with just a dash of IPA.

So though he’s proud of how his beers taste as-is, Axelrod certainly doesn’t mind customers and staff playing around with his creations.

“There are certainly people that get all puritanical on beers but that’s what the Reinheitsgebot is for. If you want that, go to Germany,” he says. “I certainly respect someone’s expression of a style or their vision, but we wouldn’t have the craft movement if people didn’t start playing around with different recipes and designs.”

Pub Dog, a small pizza-and-brewpub chain with locations around Baltimore, Maryland, has gone a step further: All locations, since 2003, have served a menu of “Half Breeds,” or mixes of their house-brewed beers. Options include the Bloodhound (half Irish stout, half raspberry ale), the Smooth Dog (half IPA, half nut brown) and the Beagle (half peach ale, half nut brown). Customers often make their own, too, incorporating the two seasonal beers on draft.

“We’ve had great success with it. I think people enjoy being able to make their own beers. Our environment, as opposed to some other brewpubs, we find it fun and interesting,” says Pub Dog marketing manager Caitlin Fisher. “We’ve embraced mixing the whole beer thing.”

Not everyone has. I came across a seven-year-old blog post (“screed” could also be used here) written by Michael O’Connor, who at the time was the beer manager and buyer at Bailey’s Taproom in Portland, Oregon. (He’s since left that position to work on other projects, but still bartends at Bailey’s once a week.)

In the post, titled “The Sin of Mixing,” O’Connor writes: “Sometimes, when you’ve had a few drinks, you do something you really regret… something that will haunt you until your dying days. This happened to me yesterday when I… I… mixed beers!”

The Frankenstein he created was half a North Coast Old Rasputin on nitro with half Six Rivers Raspberry Lambic.

He goes on: “Every beer snob worth their cirrhosed liver knows that you don’t take a masterpiece beer and dilute it with another. That’s the act of a vandal, a scourge, a… an Englishman.”

After bemoaning the outcome—”The lambic and stout mixture was certainly not repulsive, but nowhere near as good as the beers by themselves”—he offers a warning to others never to follow down such a dark path.

I had to know: Did he still feel this way, seven years later?

“It’s like going into the restaurant and some chef does an incredible leg of lamb and you want ketchup with it or something. I kind of wince at it still,” O’Connor says. “I want people to experience that beer the way that the brewer intended it, and the brewer probably didn’t intend for you to take his IPA and blend it with a chocolate stout.”

Sure, he’ll serve you a mix of beers if you really want it, but he’ll give you a bit of a spiel first. Unless you’ve tried a certain combination before, it might not taste all that great.

“You open up a Pandora’s box. American styles are usually aggressive, and much more complex than traditional English styles,” he says. “They’re not as ubiquitous, because we have so many craft beers. There’s no American craft beer equivalent of Guinness or Harp.”

He raises a question that Ron Pattinson also mentioned: As the variety and flavor range of beer increases, is there any future for mixing beers?

“If you’re in an American beer bar, you can find a brown ale, a Belgian beer, an imperial stout with raspberries on nitro. You’re not bored by the options so much so that you need to start putting things together and hoping it tastes good,” O’Connor says. “The brewers are already five steps ahead of you.”

So, ultimately, yes, O’Connor would still rather you just ordered your beer and drank it the way the brewer intended it to be consumed. Seven years later, and he hasn’t budged on this position. It made me wonder whether there’s a middle ground, or whether mixing beers is that divisive of a practice. Broken Compass’s David Axelrod seems to shrug at the “debate.”

“There’s something to be said for purity of vision, and there’s also something to be said for throwing all the rules out the window.”

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