Thursday, June 12, 2014

Gueuze Blending 101: And I am the student.

The barrels at Brasserie Cantillon.
The art of blending, specifically Gueuze, is a skill acquired through years of practice, learning what flavor profiles work together and how a certain blend will age over time. You need keen senses to break down the flavor/aromas of each component to build a blend that is satisfying to your pallate, as well as others if selling commercially of course. Traditional Lambic producers have been blending Gueuze for hundreds of years with the goal of a consistent flavorful product, among other reasons, for example Cantillon Classic Gueuze. On a homebrew scale we face an uphill battle when blending Gueuze as it takes years to age the required Lambics, space to store multiple vintage from which to choose from, and then months to years as the beer conditions in the bottle to learn what worked and what did not. There is a reason blenders like Armand De Belder and Jean Van Roy are held in such high regard, it is an art form that not everyone is capable of perfecting. Its requires a great palate and years of experience, among other traits, even with all of that it still may not be enough to be on those fellas level.

"I am a brewer naturally, but I am first a blender"
-Jean Van Roy - Brasserie Cantillon

The point can be argued that in order to craft a world class Lambic/sour beer you must blend, or add fruit, to get a complex well rounded product. We as brewers have very little control over the end result once we pitch our chosen microbes, or when left to the open air of your resident microflora. Stressing over ingredients, mashing regimes, yeast strains etc, is common, and all for good reason because once we add our chosen mixed culture of yeast and bacteria it is no longer under our control. Sure, we can manage fermentation temperatures, age in oak/stainless/or glass in hopes driving the beer in a certain direction, but ultimately every fermentation is different even if you're using the same cultures. 
Lambic in a Bladder, in a box, below a fox.

Over my years of brewing I had always wanted to put a plan in place and build towards a Gueuze but I had hoped I could brew a great mixed fermentation (sour) beer without the need to blend. In part because of my naivety that I thought I could brew a great one without blending and because, well, I was not the best at planning long term aging beers and sticking to that plan but times have changed.

Despite my poor planning in the past, and with some exciting yet to be announced blending projects on the horizon, I wanted to get a jumpstart on building some Gueuze blending skills with a shortcut of not having to wait for multiple years of my own Lambic to mature. On hand I had a Turbid Mashed Lambic that I brewed on big brew day 2013 and my first Lambic that was about two and a half years old sitting in a 3 gallon carboy, but I felt that wasn't enough for a complex blend, I needed more mature Lambic. Then I stumbled across these beauties, could this be what I was looking for?! I really like the idea of using other Lambic to blend with my own, as a lot of traditional blenders do, for similar to Gueuzerie Tilquin who I beleive is solely a blender and not a brewer. 

A friend (Kirk) and I reached out to Kurt (Kirk and Kurt, confusing I know.) from Belgium in a Box with a few questions. We were curious if these were pasteurized or not (This wasn't a deal breaker for me but I prefer living bugs!), and can we get a Cantillon bladder? He didn't seem to want to commit to the first question, but being that I visited some of these Lambic producers I am 99.9% sure they aren't pasteurizing anything. Lambic should always be alive and changing and those facilities are largely not equipped with modern tools, especially to pasteurize Lambic just for these bladders. As for the Cantillion, Kurt said that Jean no longer wanted him to ship the bladders because the product is so volatile that he fears the bag would burst in transport, right, so yea that ones not pasteurized.

From Left: 2.5 yr old Homebrew, 1 yr Turbid mashed, Girardin, Beersel
The Lambic in a Box came in, Kirk (not Kurt from Belgium, don't get confused now) took his portion and used them to set off a new fermentation with success, living bugs! After he took his share I was left with 1 gallon of Beersel and ~1.75 gallons of Girardin Lambics in bladders, which would be plenty to blend with the two homebrewed Lambics I had on hand. I pulled a sample from each to taste and wrote down a few small tasting notes, then I got to working on a blend to suit my tastes. At first I was using a graduated cylinder to measure out blends, but found that using a gram scale was more accurate and required less Lambic to play with blend ratios. I then used my 50lb capacity grain scale to measure the final full volume blended Gueuze. 

Individual tasting notes:
  • Girardin- Amber, sweet, Carmel, unrefined, moderate tartness. No Gravity Taken
  • Beersel- pale straw, sweaty, musty, mildew, drier than Girardin, tart, more refined. No Gravity Taken
  • 2.5 yr Homebrew- Berliner like, lemony, citrus, bright acidity, light funk. FG: 1.004
  • 1yr turbid Homebrew- aroma is very sweet, slight acetone, mild tartness. Lingering big residual sweetness. After taste is not pleasant, this needs more age. FG: 1.011
Racking from the cut open
Girardin bladder.
I came up with 3 different blends based on the characteristics of the Lambics above. The first blend was too heavy on the 1year old homebrewed Lambic, which was very unrefined, so that was set aside quickly. I had a hard time deciding between the two blends I had left, neither of which jumped out at me as THE one but were both tasty despite not being all that different. This where I could have used a second opinion, and in the future I think I will invite a friend over to help as I was getting some palette fatigue by this point. I settled on the one of the two that left the least amount of the commercial Lambic behind, and used the smallest amount of the 1 year Turbid Homebrewed as it was my least favorite, it was just a bit too sweet and in too high of quantities ruined the blend. While at the same time it did add some complexity that was missing when I played with leaving it out entirely, should also add some extra sugars to be broken down in the bottle. 

I found the easiest way to empty the bladders was to put them in a 1 gallon bucket from Loews with the spout on top and then cut the bag open, removing the end with the spout. This left the bladder open to the elements sitting in the bucket and I was able to just use the autosiphon to empty it into my bottling bucket without losing more than an ounce or so. Trying to drain the bladder via the spout is going to oxidize the Lambic far too much, this ended up being a very gentle smooth transfer into a co2 purged bucket.

The final blend ratios:
  • 1.25 gallons of Girardin %29.5
  • 1.00 gallons of Beersel %23.5
  • 1.25 gallons 2.5 yr old Homebrew %29.5
  • 0.75 gallons 1yr Turbid Mashed Homebrew %17.5
  • 4.25 gallons Blended Gueuze 
Sipping on a glass of the final blend. 
I racked all of the above volumes into my bottling bucket, adding priming sugar to achieve 3.0 volumes of co2. Making sure to start the siphon with the tube at the receiving end above the liquid level to minimize aeration, when you start the siphon there are always bubbles in the lines so best to clear them first. There are some residual sugars to work on from the young Lambic, I regretfully did not take a gravity of the final blend, or the commercial Lambic, things to work on for next time. Due to those missteps I am not sure how high the carbonation will go but I used heavy bottles to be safe, I am hoping that it will end up higher than the 3.0 vols I carbonated to, if anything it may be on the low end in the short term. I also added rehydrated EC-1118 Champagne yeast to be sure there was sufficient healthy cells to carbonate the beer, wine and champagne yeast are more capable of handling the low PH environment of sour beer than standard ale yeasts. The champagne yeast should also help to break down some of those remaining complex sugars to help with the carbonation over months to years.

Low PH be damned, Champagne Yeast.
So looking back now there are a few things I learned throughout this process, the biggest mistake I felt I made was not taking a gravity reading of the final blend so I could more accurately predict the final carbonation. Aside from that any other issues I was able to address on the fly, ex: using the gram scale to measure the blend ratios. I will however invite a friend over next time I blend, both because it would be fun to share the experience with someone but also as a second opinion on different blend ratios. I guess I won't know for sure what I did right or wrong until these bottles age and carbonate over the next few months, years even. I don't plan to pass judgement until these bottles have at least 3-4 months to condition. I am open to critiques and criticisms, this of course will be a learning experience for me, as well as others, so if there is something you recommend I change in process I am open to exploring it. I feel there is far to little information on this process out there and I hope to change that with this and subsequent posts.

Until then its time to brew more Lambic, a turbid mashed brewday is coming up soon, I'm not even sure if I am excited about doing that again. For the love of Funk I suppose.
The final product in heavy bottles with 29mm caps! See you in a few months/years, be cool my babies.


  1. Great read! Quick question regarding the CO2 purged bucket. How fast do you need to work before the CO2 dissipates, or because it's heavier than O2, are you ok for a while?

    1. The CO2 shouldn't dissipate, it should just sit on top like a blanket.

    2. Thanks! Yea the co2 blanket should sit on top of the liquid level as we fill from the bottom, it should hang around there long enough for you to fill all of your bottles.

  2. Lambic in a bag!!!! That is awesome and your idea for learning to blend is great.

    I have come to similar conclusions about great sour beer. Every batch I have ever made could be enhanced by blending. It is however very tricky to figure out how it will age.

    I have some insight that I have found out so far in my limited blending (I mostly blend for Flanders Red and Oud Bruin) is that it's key to restrain the funky phenols as they will increase they most with time. I don't often notice much change in acidity. And I also try to blend toward a thicker mouthfeel using young and/or clean beer.

    Excited to hear your conclusions.

    1. Jeff, those are some great nuggets of information on blending. Especially the point about blending to minimize the funky phenols and for a fuller mouthfeel. If you don't mind I may edit the post and qoute you on that. Or at least do so on a post down the road. It's exactly the type of info people would want to hear when exploring blending.

  3. Lambic in a bag?! I never knew! Super idea man.

    I currently have 30 gallons of sour beers aging waiting to hopefully blend at some point in time. My biggest concern which you addressed quite well was getting an idea how to play with blending them all together.

    If you are looking for volunteers to join the next blending session...I am raising my hand!


  4. So how did these turn out after a couple months/years? Would you use the commercial Lambic for blending again? I'm considering getting a box to mess around with for my next blending day with some golden sours I have in the pipeline.

    1. Turning out really well, I am putting a bottle in a blind Gueuze tasting this weekend that I may do a short post about. I would absolutely do it again, and likely will soon.