Mash-up Time

1280px-Sri_Lankan_OP_Tea_CaseLast August I wrote about blending beers at home, and said I would revisit the subject. In that post, I gave an example of blending a beer with a slightly sour element. This was to emulate beers of the pre-industrial era when top-fermented beer, the simplest and original way to ferment a mash, often had a sourish edge. Lactic or acetic flavours entered beer from a variety of sources: organisms resident in wooden processing vessels; multi-strain yeasts which had a wild yeast component; inoculation of the wort solely from airborne yeasts; and lack of consistent or reliable cooling mechanisms.

In time, people got the taste for such drinks, which explains the survival, albeit vestigially, of styles such as Berlin wheat beer and saison or lambic from Belgium.

However, in general people didn’t like sour beer. Lager-brewing offered a way out, in that the long cold-conditioning of beer, originally in Alpine caves in Bavaria, kept the beer from souring. Top-fermentation did survive, but with the benefit of refrigeration, and finally pasteurization, to prevent souring.

Sour beer has returned as a fashion of the craft brewing revival. This is salutary as it adds palate and historical interest, but I doubt a sour beer will ever become a big seller – the withering of all sour styles in Europe seems to show this. Berlin wheat beer barely survives in its home city, for example.

But is it “wrong” to blend different beers? Not at all. First, blending has always been done by brewers in-house, either for consistency, or to remedy defects in particular batches, or to present a pleasing balance of palate (sour and sweet, say, or bitter and mild). Customers in England in particular frequently mixed beers in the bar. Three threads was a mixture of stronger and weaker beers. A “half and half”, for any mixture of beers, goes back at least to the 1700s and probably earlier.

But more fundamentally, is this a “desirable” way to drink beer? Certainly. What is beer but malt, hops, water, yeast (sometimes other grains or flavourings)? A brewer often combines pale malt and a darker, sweeter malt to get a certain taste. You can combine a pale and darker beer to similar result. A lager and a black stout, say. The yeast background of each may be different, but this doesn’t matter. Yeasts used to be mixed strains anyway, as I’ve said above. Brewers combine different hops. You are doing the same by blending different beers. It can be two or five, although in practice you will want to keep to two or three for this purpose.

Any beer is a blend to begin with, and by using such a beer as a component of your bespoke blend, you are just furthering the process. Many consumers like to blend commercially available teas and coffees to make their own version. Just the other day, John behind the coffee counter at Longo’s food store in Leaside, Toronto told me numerous customers specify combinations they want from his excellent (and well-priced) selection of estate and blended coffees. Although I don’t feel the need to try this myself – John’s Guatemala coffee is perfect for me as is! – I fully get the concept because of my experience with beer blending.

I needn’t, I’m sure, refer to the history of blending in the whisky area other than to say it is a mainstay of the business and something, again, anyone can do once a basic understanding of the different types is achieved.

I wouldn’t blend a beer that was strongly damp paper-oxidised or infected, but you can even out tastes in blending that aren’t “off” technically but don’t please you on their own. Sometimes you can just get a better, more complex flavour. Yesterday, I combined two half-filled cans, left in the fridge from the day before, of Cameron’s Ambear Red Ale and Cameron’s Cream Ale. The combination was better than each on its own, IMO. One can do this with as much logic with beers from different breweries and different countries. It’s just a further combining, or re-combining, of basic elements that are similar: malt, hops, yeast. All that matters is the final taste.

I am not a fan of the dry, Irish stout style where the roasted barley is overbearing and you get a raw, burnt grain taste with little malt sweetness. Blending this 1:2 with a rich, all-malt porter or stout, a 7-8% stout, say, produces a c. 6% stout that is usually extremely good. The other day, I blended just with seltzer water. I added it to a Duggan No. 9 IPA to drop the bitterness a bit and set the abv to 5% (from 6.2%). The result was a fine and very balanced (for me) American pale ale style.

Blending beer – or wine, all same logic – is really like a form of cooking, just as brewing is more directly. Try it, the world won’t come to an end. A not inconsiderable advantage: you avoid forcing down beer you don’t really like, not to say having to discard it.

Note re image: the image of fine teas from Sri Lanka, typically used in blending tea, is in the public domain and was sourced here.