Monday, April 3, 2017

Blending 2016-17 #1

As the weather warms up around Victoria I'm starting to think about a bit of end of season brewing and blending. And with these thoughts fresh in mind, plus blending #2 which was a week ago (FB post here), I realize I never wrote anything up from my major blending back in December (here is the quick FB post I made when doing the blending with photos, some of which are duplicated here). This blending had been postponed somewhat significantly by my not having enough free carboys to do anything. It was a self-propagating problem. I didn't have enough carboys free to blend so I'd brew into the couple empties that I had. Sometimes this would be a quick turnaround beer and in a couple weeks I'd be back to where I started. But sometimes it would be a beer for aging and then I was even worse off - I had more full carboys of beer destined for blending and fewer that were empty to blend into.

But after a couple months of restraint, fulfilling barrel re-fill responsibilities on my barrels and borrowing a carboy from my friend Kyle, I finally had enough free in December to do some blending. There was a bit of a time crunch (flying to South Africa for work 3 days after the blending, though that's another story) so I didn't quite get through what I was planning. But I was able to make and bottle 5 turbid-mashed, open-cooled blends, including two with components that had only ambient microbes. In total I bottled just under 80 L (~21 gal), so large for a home scale but not a ton. Though corking & caging ~140 bottles by hand definitely made it feel like a ton. I feel for the commercial guys who do this all by hand!

Almost ready to start the blending.

The Beers

I had put in a lot of work leading up to this blending session and, as such, I had a lot of beers to work with. I think this is the single biggest factor in success here. In the short term, I had multiple beers of a pretty good age range so come up with blends. And, in the long run, the repeated brewing should also help me to fine tune recipe and process. So I'd say if you can make the space and if blending aged mixed culture or spontaneous beer is something that you're serious about, then make a point of building a reserve such that you have plenty of blending choices (not just one or two carboys of a couple different years).

I did an initial tasting back in August and out of 15 or so beers from that tasting plus one more from a recent barrel pull I ended up selecting 8 plus the barrel pull as sufficiently ready to make some trial blends. These beers were between 15 and 47 months old when the blending time came around. The remaining beers weren't awful but they weren't ready for a variety of reasons (generally uninteresting, still some fermentation to go, too bitter, etc.) and I'll continue aging them until either they are ready, I need to trim down my brewing space/gear, or I give up on them/they go off. Whichever comes first.

Glasses and notes ready for individual beers and trial blends.
The beers I ended up using are below. Except for one component and part of another, they were all turbid mashed with at least 30% unmalted grain, brewed with aged hops and open cooled overnight. All except for one had pitches of bottles dregs and/or lab cultures added. Here are very brief thoughts on their profiles as well as their brew dates.

M#1 (brewed Jan 2013): This beer factored into my 2015 blending session as well. It was lightly acetic (a bit more than I'd like on it's own, but not that high), had nice oxidation, and a good fruit character.

WR (brewed July 2013): This is also a remainder from the previous blending. It was brewed with unmalted rye rather than unmalted wheat. The spice character is bit more mellow than it was before, but still a more forward. It worked well as a component for that reason, as well as on its own.

SB (brewed Feb 2013): This is the last holdover form previous blending. It was brewed as a saison base with unmalted spelt and a step mash and boiled with non-aged hops before open cooling overnight. I then added saison yeast as well as lambic and mixed culture saison bottle dregs. It was fruit forward with a pleasant degree of oxidation and a light edge of acetic. This component worked well with more phenolic beers.

Setting up to make test blends.
Dec 2014: This batch was more hop forward and phenolic in the taste. A bit too hoppy/bitter on its own but will work nicely for certain other beers in this blending session. There was good citrus and funk to the beer as well.

May 2015 spontaneous starters: This is the closest thing to fully spontaneous in here. I did some wild capture starters to trial local microbes and added the good starters to this batch. Nothing else was pitched. It had a nice brightness and tropical fruit.

May 2015 ECY: This beer had some stonefruit and candy-like sweetness and was on the mellow side.

May 2015 G(u)euze dregs: There was some good funk and citrus in this batch, though the intensity was a bit muted compared to others.

September 2015: This batch tasted older than many of the others, which was a bit puzzling. It was grapefruit forward with some nice oxidation and funk. 

Barrel Pull 2: This is from a 60 gallon barrel that I co-own that we are treating as a solera-type barrel (not in the true proper solera sense, but more in the sense as homebrewers use the term). This is the second pull from the barrel and was composed of 67% saison brewed Nov 2014 and 33% turbid mashed beer brewed June 2015. This beer had light acidity and a forward wine barrel character that was pleasant and will add nicely to the rest of the beers, which were all carboy only. It also had a bit of oxidation that was creeping up since pulling it from the barrel (Oct 2016). I wasn't excited about that and was a bit hesitant to use it, but the blends worked out so I went ahead with it. It wasn't awful, but it was not as good as before the oxidation started creeping in. So lesson for next time - be prepared to use a barrel pull shortly after it is pulled. Or make sure some extra yeast is in there to protect the beer.

My notebook with trial blends & percentages,
and component volumes used & remaining.
The logistics and choosing the blends

I did a separate tasting from the selected set of blend-worthy beers shortly before blending and again noted their individual characteristics. From this I was able to think about which beers might go well together (more acidic with less, more fruit-forward with more funky/phenolic/hoppy, working a bit of oxidized beer in with fresher beer, etc.), and I made trial blends with those. I did this by weight so that I knew the proportions well without having to use large volumes. I ended up making 8 trial blends, with blends later in the trial blending benefiting from the room to improve on the earlier blends. From this subset I decided upon 5 blends: C, D, E, G and H (from trials A-H).

The final choice of which blends to do and which sizes to blend was based primarily on what was best, but to a secondary degree it was influenced by what carboys I had around and the volumes of the beers I was using as components. I wanted to either use something up completely or leave an appropriate volume to fill another carboy. So at least as much energy was put into what tasted the best as making it work in terms of carboys to blend into, leaving full carboy increments of partially used beers, optimizing order to make workflow go well, etc. I started with maximizing the volume of the best blends with the carboys I had on hand and then fitting in the others based on beer remaining. After a bit of spreadsheet work to optimize that I was ready to go.

I also spent a bit of time thinking about the blend order. I was going to need some carboys that I was emptying to end up holding the remaining portions of some beers later on, so those had to be blended first. I was also starting siphons with the remainder of the previous beer, so it was helpful if I only had to move one end of the racking cane (if ending carboy 1 on blend a, I would then start a new carboy that was also going in to blend a so I could leave the tubing in blend a).

Setting up an easy to follow order while blending was key.
The Blending

That setup was really all the hard work. From this point I put priming sugar into each of the blends so that it was well mixed and I could fill up to the top without worrying about leaving space for that. I didn't re-yeast but I did make a point of taking a bit of yeast over in the racking rather than keeping things as clear as possible. It doesn't take much so don't go overboard on this. My blends all carbonated fine going with this route and the sediment levels in the bottles is reasonable (not excessive/obviously more than taking clear beer and re-yeasting). Nevertheless, I'd like to move toward less intervention so maybe next time I'll skip this yeast carrying step. We'll see...

From there it was a bit of kitchen acrobatics, but it all went smoothly. I had a CO2 tank on hand to purge carboys before and after filling. And bottles before filling as well. I bottled 2 blends that same day and bottled the remaining 3 blends 2 days later. Then I could leave the bottles conditioning (I left them on their side) for 6 weeks while at sea in the Southern Ocean and come back at the end of January to somewhat conditioned beer. I've tested each blend by now and am happy with how they were progressing. But, as of late Jan/early Feb, each blend needed a bit more time to finish out. The carbonation was there but the flavor was a bit muddled at times compared to the trial blends. And some bottles had a touch of THP that I expect will age out.

It's about time to start checking back in on these. And this post makes me want to get to that. So perhaps this week and next I'll start revising the blends and maybe getting some tasting notes up.

Two bottled blends.

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