Monday, 5 May 2014

Farmhouse Ales III: Blending

Birra Del Borgo DuchessicTime for part three in the Farmhouse Ales series: this time about the technique of biere de coupage, or blending young beer with aged sours.

  This time I’ll just quote what De Baets says about it in full:

“Another technique used frequently in Belgium was the blending of beers. This technique appears to have been used with saisons although, according to Cartuyvels and Stammer, it was not widespread in Hainaut. A beer for storage---a saison, for example---would be brewed. Called "old beer," it would be matured for almost a year or longer (from seven months to two years, it appears). This extremely sour old beer was added to a young beer that had been brewed in March or April by a farmhouse brewery or even in summer by a regular brewery. The young beer was lightly hopped in order not to impart too much bitterness to the mixture and so that it wouldn't compete with the acidity brought by the old beer. On average the proportions were one-quarter young beer to three-quarters old beer but they could vary greatly from one brewery to another. Refermentation would take place after several days in the cask, giving the beer a harmonious taste and blending of aromas. The old beer improved the young one by giving it vinous qualities and refreshing tartness as well as protection against bacterial infections. The young beer contributed freshness and carbonation and eventually allowed for the lowering of the alcohol tax to the desired level if it was a weaker beer.”

I think this technique is beginning to experience a bit of a resurgence, and perhaps unsurprisingly Yvan’s research is often explicitly mentioned as an inspiration by contemporary brewers adopting this technique---the guys from Jester King mention him again in this Sunday Session interview, where they provide some good information about the ways the beers they make in this way(I’ll come back to that in a post about some of the ideas I have for home brews).    Some brewers use blends of their own beers, but many use lambic from traditional breweries like Cantillon (which can be found in the Duchessic pictured in this post, and was used in Saison de la Senne--- I think I read somewhere that Hill Farmstead also blended Cantillon lambic with one of their beers too).

Blending like this certainly won’t result in something with the complexity or sourness of a lambic, but based on the beers I’ve had that were made in this way, it does create a refreshing tartness and aromatic complexity that is very enjoyable.  Lambics are wonderful, but it can be hard to drink more than a few in a single sitting, whereas if I could afford it I would happily drink some of these blended saisons all night. 

I suppose one could think of the technique as a variation on mixed fermentation, or bottle-conditioning with brett---just another way of ensuring fermentation is done by the right cultures---but by blending two beers together you can combine flavours that might be harder to achieve in other ways.  The best beers I’ve had that were made in this way combine the flavours of a young hoppy beer with the vinous tartness of an aged sour.  In the quote above De Baets indicates that in the past hopping levels in the young beer would be relatively low, whereas many modern examples aim for a good bit of hop aroma and flavour, largely from late additions in the boil and dry hopping.  De Baets’ own Saison de la Senne seems to have fallen in this category, as does Jester King’s Das Wunderkind.  But in his essay De Baets also suggests that bitterness and sourness aren’t necessarily as antithetical as we sometimes suppose, and this technique might offer a good opportunity for combining them.  Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes’ √225 Saison is both bitter and sour, and one of the best beers I’ve had recently.  I’ve never tried Cuvee De Ranke, but I suspect it might be another good example.  In fact, the Birra Del Borgo Duchessic I drank while starting this post had some definite bitterness, blending with the minerally, earthy finish of the beer. 

As far as I can tell, most modern versions don’t use the kind of ratios De Baets mentions in his essay.  You can see in the quote above that he talks about blends of 3/4 old beer to 1/4 young beer, whereas most modern brewers seem to use inverse proportions: Birra Del Borgo use 20% aged beer, De Ranke use 30%, and the guys from Jester King say they use somewhere between 20% and 25%. 

The kind of blending involved in true geueze’s is a little hard to plan for on a home brew level, especially for someone like me who is mainly brewing 3 gallon batches.  The solera method offers a possible compromise, and I plan to get a few started when I can afford some larger fermenters, but part of the attraction of this method is that it doesn’t require large amounts of spare sour beer.  I have a golden sour that I’ll be bottling some time soon, and I plan to take off 2 litres to use in this way.  After that it will be a few more months before I have anything ready, but it occurred to me that one way to get the tartness and brett character would be to make something like a brett berliner-weisse, and then use this for blending.  That would add tartness, and the brett would make a contribution as the beer aged in the bottles.  Based on what I can gather from this interview with Chad Yakobson, it sounds like Crooked Stave’s Surette might be made in this way.  Hopefully I’ll be able to experiment a fair bit with this over the summer, and I’ll post my results when I do.  


  1. Great write up, Metic. I will be brewing up a Brett saison soon for the purposes of blending with my solera sour. It just doesn't have the funk that I want even after 2.5+ years. I think this is due to a combination of the wort (100% extract) and Brett (whatever is in Russian River Temptation). I'd rather try blending that in then changing the base sour beer at this point since every other aspect of it is delicious! Looking forward to your results, cheers!

  2. Really enjoyable read; love the series. For the Hill Farmstead blend with Cantillon, I believe that would be their Civil Disobedience #7 (definitely lambic, not positive that it's Cantillon):

    Unfortunately, many bottles of that seem to be having issues with diacetyl right now. Given that Shaun Hill is extremely protective of his yeast(s) and bottles with neutral yeast, I'm not sure there's enough Brett left in the bottle to clean things up, at least not very quickly.

  3. Ah so I was wrong about the Hill Farmstead beer: it looks like it was a blend of two aged beers, not young and old.

    Bottle shock/diacetyl definitely seems to be a potential problem with this technique. I think in that interview the guys from Jester King mention that they sometimes get flare ups after bottling too, but the yeasts clear it up after a month or so.

  4. Great post, this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently as I had a 2 year old Lambic thats kicking around. I plan to either blend it with some fresh Saison or in with some 1 yr old Lambic for a Gueuze.