In the pursuit of perfect homebrew, failure still makes beer.

Blending Beers with Style

I came across some interesting trivia about a perennial favorite beer of mine, always a good choice when there’s nothing of interest nearby: Guinness Irish Stout. Yes, of course, it makes for a great St. Paddy’s day overindulgence, but it is, quite simply, the best and most widely known example of the style and is quite an interesting beer. The consumption of some Guinness the other night prompted the consumption of a very interesting fact/legend (since I couldn’t find a Guinness-direct reference, there is no official recipe posted by the brewery): brewers extract about 3% of the mash, SOUR that beer, then add it back to the secondary fermenter after boiling it for sterility. This gives that black heady treat a signature “tang,” non-reproducible by those unaware of this uncommon style component. After repeated confirmation of this tang, I wanted to dive a little deeper into the history of Irish stout and other beers that are blended for stylistic reasons.

I started with a background of the Irish stout style; The style of Irish Stout is a famously full-bodied, low-carbonation, sessionable stout. English (UK) pale malts make up the bulk of the grain bill, along with fractions of flaked barley, flaked wheat, or rolled oats to enhance the mouthfeel – mmm, that velvety smoothness. Irish ale yeasts attenuate a little less (read: leaves more sugar in the beer) for increased body, but many brewers pick yeasts that have higher attenuation to dry out the beer – hence “Dry Irish Stout.”

Trivia: The “stout” name. As many already know, the name stout is forever liked with the word porter; back in the 1700s the name “Stout Porter” was used in London, England to describe a particularly strong, brown-to-black beer that avoided spoilage (from the antibacterial properties of extra hops added). What started as porter was strengthened into stout porter, which was exported for to the Guinness brewery in Ireland for its first brew in 1776. At some point, people became tired of a three-syllable beer order and started just shortening it to “stout” (’round 1820). In between these two time periods was also the birth of black patent malt (’round 1817), which lends a bit of that bitter, ashy undertone to stouts and other dark beers.

Now to the interesting part: Guinness, although never truly coming forth denying or confirming this fact, blends a small percentage (3-6%, I’ve read on various Internets) of soured beer into their production batches. There are a few theories on why this is; some say the recipe for their Stout Porter has never changed, and the practice of blending old and new beers never left the Guinness cellar. Beer was stored in wooden vessels that undoubtedly contracted some form of wild Brettanomyces yeast in its staves, leaving stored beer soured. Some say that they continue to blend soured beer into the final product to give it a “signature bite” and add complexity to the flavor.

Here’s my take: Whatever the reason, learning this legend has completely changed the way I drink Guinness – it’s the sheer power of suggestion. Now that I know that there’s a tiny bit of sour beer in each creamy pint of the black stuff, I will forever identify Guinness by that quality. It certainly increases your appreciation for the tradition and consistency at the Guinness brewery – the only place that Guinness is brewed – in a market where the majority screams for simple, light-flavored beers.

The sour mash method is a technique in which you can emulate the sour blending practice – you can read up on it a little more over here if you’re interested – but it’s not the only blending practice that breweries use.

Newcastle brewery also blend two very different beers to create their token Newcastle Brown. A quote from a BYO article on Brown Ales:

According to Michael Jackson, Newcastle’s brewers blend two very different beers to produce their brown ale. One portion is brewed to a very high gravity so that fermentation creates extremely estery (fruity) notes they cannot achieve at normal beer gravities. That beer is then blended with a low-gravity “amber” beer to produce their standard at an original gravity of 1.045.

Here’s a cool little list of other blended beer styles that you may or may not recognize:

  • Cream ale – This is a truly indigenous American style, one which survived the great social experiment of Prohibition. Brewed with lager yeast at slightly warmer temperatures, this style pushes very nice ale flavors while finishing with a crispness unattainable by ale yeast. In modern-day brewing, cream ale can also be made by blending ale and lager fermentations together. Also called Common Ale, some variations include the tad-soured Kentucky Common.
    • Commercial examples: Six Point Sweet Action, Naragansett Cream Ale, Slumbrew My Better Half
  • Gueuze – A gueuze is a beer made from blending “old” Belgian lambics, up to three years old, with a “new” lambic that has just finished its main fermentation. Lambics are tart and complex, and this blending technique is employed the same way that whiskeys are blended – to give the final product a more even flavor profile.
    • Commercial examples: Cantillon Lou Pepe, Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee Rene, Allagash Coolship Resurgam
  • German Radler – a traditional German style, legend has it that Radler was created by German cyclists who wanted a refreshing beverage mid-jaunt. It’s a 50/50 mix of Munich Helles and lemonade, and it’s starting to make summer comebacks in the states!
  • Shandy, Snakebite, Black-and-Tan – I group these together because they strike me as more of a beer cocktail than a specific style, but they are blended beers just the same. Some of these drinks have the repute to incite violent conduct (Snakebites in the UK, where Bill Clinton was famously refused by North Yorkshire pub manager Jamie Allen in 2001) but all can be enjoyed and experimented with.
    • Shandy = Lager + Lemonade; Leinenkugel Summer Shandy
    • Snakebite = Ale + Cider
    • Black-and-Tan = Pale Ale + Stout; Yuengling Black & Tan, Mississippi Mud

Go forth and blend, my fellow drinkers!

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