To Blend, or not to Blend? An Experiment in Mixing Beers
Not too long ago, we held our noses and sampled a selection of the strongest lagers we could find. We also had it on good authority that angry young man Kinglsey Amis was partial to a half-and-half mixture of Special Brew and classic Carslberg. We gave it a shot. It was bad.
To be honest, we would have been surprised if the result of mixing a bad beer with an even worse beer was miraculously palatable.
Nevertheless, this unsuccessful experiment got us thinking about mixing beers. This kind of thing has a long pedigree in beer history. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was common for publicans to mix fresh 'mild' ales with more complex, aged 'stock' ales to make a more balanced beverage. This isn't just the stuff of history, however. A few people have kept beer blending alive. One of us even worked in a pub where an older regular liked to mix his Green King IPA (cask, of course) with bottled Bass.
And besides, mixing beers makes sense when you think about it: brewers often mix all kinds of crazy things together at every stage before it ends up in can, cask, keg or bottle. Why should the alchemy end there?
We brainstormed a few combinations and grabbed a bunch of beers from our local bottle shop (and one or two from Tesco). We tried to balance classic combos with some more left field mixtures that tickled our fancy. More than anything, we were looking for a blend which was greater than the sum of its parts, or was at least different and interesting enough to justify the blend in the first place.
The verdict? Some mixes bad. Most OK. A couple actually properly good.
We would definitely recommend experimenting in this department. We'll even give you some pointers. Read below for a blow-by-blow breakdown of our blending bonanza. And pictures.
Thornbridge Jaipur + Orval
For this one, we took our cue from Boak and Bailey. The idea here is to take a modern but classic take on the traditional English IPA - represented by Thronbridge's legendary Jaipur, in this case - and to add in a little funk and sourness via the Orval. This harks back to the old school 'stock ales' mentioned above. These would have had some sourness and complexity thanks to a wild yeast known as Brettanomyces (a.k.a. Brett). Not so easy to find in traditional English ales these days, but the Belgians love this stuff.
Our Jaiporval was slightly hazy with a big old bubbly head, a touch of belgian funk on the nose, with a good deal of grassiness. And a slightly metallic whiff. The taste was bitter and refreshing with a surprisingly light body. The farmyard-y flavours came through and meshed fairly well with the hoppiness brought by the Jaipur.
It was OK, but we were expecting more. However, we have a feeling that there was something a little off about our Jaipur. We'd give something similar a go in the future, although this specific mix was nothing to write home about.
Mad Hatter Fattest Stout + Samuel Smith's Raspberry Fruit Beer
Next up we had a blend of Mad Hatter's formidable 11% abv Fattest Stout with one of Sam Smith's legendary fruit beers. We'd been hoping to blend an imp stout with a cherry beer for a Black Forest Gateau effect, but couldn't find anything in Cherry. We went for Raspberry instead.
The result definitely had a cake-like quality (think Manchester Tart rather than Black Forest Gateau). But it divided opinion. Some of us enjoyed the combination of rich, chocolatey flavours with the fruity raspberry sweetness. Others felt it was too medicinal, sweet, and cloying. We agreed it could have done with a little less sweetness and a bit more fizz and acidity. Next time we'll pair a big stout with a fruit lambic rather than a sweet fruit beer.
Mad Hatter Sichuan Saison + BrewDog Elvis Juice
Our thinking with this was based on a gin and tonic. A G&T gets a whole range of mellow, delicate flavours from the botanicals in the gin (with black or szechuan pepper sometimes included), while the tonic brings sweetness and a balancing bitterness. A garnish of citrus fruit adds an essential zesty kick and a little sourness. Between them, Mad Hatter's Sichuan Saison and BrewDog's Elvis juice have all of these components in spades.
Did it work? Hell yes! The nose was piqued with peppery notes with grapefruit overtones. On tasting, the sichuan pepper was noticeable straight up, following through to a lasting, pithy, grapefruit hang. The medium saison body and gloopy Belgian yeast meshed well with the refreshing lightness of the Elvis Juice, while the combination of banana esthers and grapefruit notes just kept on giving. Very good.
First Chop Pale Ale + Shepherd Neame Double Stout
This was a take on the classic (if questionably named) Black and Tan, also known as a 'half and half'. We couldn't get the stout to float on the pale ale. At first we thought it was a question of technique, but more likely it has something to do with both beers having a similar density.
The blend looked like Coca-Cola and tasted a little like a black IPA, with hint of coffee and a slightly metallic aftertaste. The stout's toasty bitterness meshed well with the floral notes from the First Chop. A little more refreshing than the stout on its own, but not exactly better than the sum of its parts.
Pilsner Urquell + Shepherd Neame Double Stout
A variant of the dark and light mixture, this time with lager taking the place of pale ale.
The most important thing: the stout floated on the lager!
The floating effect was the most exciting thing about this blend, however. Not very interesting, and not as tasty as the First Chop + Stout combo described above. A neat trick. That's about it.
Brasserie Du Bocq Blanche de Namur + Samuel Smith's Strawberry Fruit Beer
We had outlandish hopes that this would be as delicious as a strawberry milkshake and twice as refreshing. Sounds too good to be true, right?
We couldn't believe it. This was amazing.
It poured super sudsy and hazy, with a slight pink tint. The aroma was fresh and fruity, with citrus and strawberry notes galore. The taste was tangy and sweet but not overwhelming, with the fresh crispness of the wit mellowing the syrupy sweetness of the fruit beer. Delicious and easily better than either beer on its own.
It was so good we made another one and really took our time over it.