Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Blending of Blue Sunday Sour

We are but a month away from the Blue Sunday release party, so I figured now would be a good time to give a pre-taste of the workings behind this revered sour ale. I will outline some history behind the beer and its name, its general composition, and the systems/techniques I used for blending. Finally I'll explain (in brief) where the New Holland sour program is going.

For those who don't know, I work at New Holland Brewing Company!
I left Great River Brewery in March of 2012 and moved to Holland where I started as a brewer last April. Working full time on the brewhouse and occasionally on the filler for the first 4 months, I had already realized I'd found a pretty great company. Around August, our wood master left and I was then given reign over the Dragon's Milk cellar and the sour beer program. I had little experience working with wood prior, except the few times I filled a Templeton Rye barrel with GRB Farmer Brown, so this was a daunting promotion. Nevertheless, I hit the books and asked questions to anyone I could. Gradually I learned the ins and outs, but still lurking over my head was a Nightmare (I'll get to this later) of a task - Creating 2013's Blue Sunday Sour.
Brewer Jon helping pull beer from barrels

Fast forward to now and it's already in the tank! I sit here reflecting on what a great experience it was and how much I learned. And I'll say, I can't wait for the next one. But right now, and I know you're reading this post to learn how it was done, so let's start at the beginning...

To my knowledge, Blue Sunday is named to commemorate the sale of alcohol in Holland, and to celebrate the access of good beer at home and in pubs and restaurants, seven days a week. To that, this beer represents another year of success for both us and the industry.

We specifically brew a beer called Blue Sunday, but Blue Sunday Sour is a byproduct of not just that beer, but many others that have intentionally been blended to reach a flavor we feel is of adequate quality for our customers. We age it for you, so it's ready to be consumed as soon as you palm it off the shelves.

185 Sour barrels!
In the first couple months prior I was still on the Brewhouse as we trained a new Brewer. Two to three days a week I worked Dragon's Milk. Finally, once our new brewer, Jon, was fully trained I could finally work full time barrels and begin formulating the blend for Blue Sunday.

One of the biggest difficulties I faced was tasting the sours themselves. Sure I had a beer blog, knew what butyric acid was, and could operate most of the equipment needed to make good commercial beer, but sours? That was a different ball game. Fortunately, my co-workers helped me out by bringing in a vast range of stylistic sours to try and gradually I acquainted myself with what constitutes a sour beer.
Great, the next task was tasting all 130 sour wine barrels and deciphering good from "not ready" (we don't use the term bad - when beer ages and sours it goes through a life cycle of flavors ranging from barnyard to delightfully tart and fruity). This went on for about two weeks, (and) whenever I had time.

Figure 1: Barrel Anatomy
Another issue I faced was accessing the barrels for samples. Typically, one can do this by popping the bung and using a "thief" to taste the beverage. But opening a barrel in this manner and sticking a hollow rod into the liquid risks exposing the beer to oxygen. The oxygen becomes a source of metabolic energy for a group of bacteria called the Acetobacter. While present in many of these sour barrels, they are kept at bay by other bacteria such as Pediococcus and Lacotobacillus and several varieties of a yeast in the genus Brettanomyces.
An alternative is to drill a hole in the head of the barrel, a couple inches above the chime. (see Figure 1: Barrel Anatomy) and plug it with a stainless steel nail (acidity of the beer would deteriorate the nail rapidly if it is anything else).
I could finally get to tasting after I had gotten all 130 barrels drilled and nailed and re-arranged for ease of access.
The next thing I needed to do was develop a plan of attacking these barrels. Fortunately, I had just read a helpful article on Lauren Salazar an her methods and techniques for blending sour beer (Embrace the Funk). I ended up utilizing her symbols for describing the status of each barrel. As Lauren describes:

"I have what I call “Users, Blenders or Waiters”. The “Users” are ready to make beer, the “Blenders” are if you need to make more beer and “Waiters” are just that…they need some time so we wait. So my quality thing is I put a Smiley Face, Sideways Face or Frowny Face. So you might see a “User” with a smiley face and a “User” sideways face…the smiley face one gets used first. "  (Embrace the Funk)
This worked perfectly for me.
I started in September tasting each barrel, some two or three times. My plan here was to weed out the barrels that were not yet ready (not bad, remember?). This was a relatively easy task. I looked for barrels that still tasted like beer, barrels that perhaps still in their Buttery stage of a pediococcus residence, or perhaps just an unbalanced flavor. These barrels are then set aside to continue until perhaps next year, if and when they are ready.
Tasting notes
The next phase was a bit more challenging. This is where tasting other commercial beers and recognizing desirable flavors by style comes in. I knew I wanted something tart, somewhat reminiscent of 2010 and 2012, yet not as sour as The La Folie. I wanted notes of stone fruit, like plums, but a touch of grapes and fig as well. Similarly, I thought it important to let the wood stand out in the finish. So I went about making combinations. I would prowl the field of barrels building a blend that maintained these characteristics. If an addition took me in the wrong direction, I would have to start over.
In the final days I had composed a blend comprised mostly of Blue Sunday, but along with several other varieties of beer.
This near final blend exhibited just about everything noted above, but was missing something. I brought it down to a vote, so, blending three exact pitchers full, I left one untouched for a control, and the two others each had a one barrel addition to reach an acceptable product.
Votes were tallied and our blend was decided. The hard work was over, but my nerves had not yet subsided. I had yet to ACTUALLY blend these beers, which meant there was no going back after they were in the tank.

Work Station
The next week was the week before thanksgiving and I chose Tuesday as the day to blend. It was a cluster-f**k organizing the barrels, as some that were needed were on the same rack while others were paired with ones I would not use. Sorting and organizing them before and after was another Nightmare (remember?). Nevertheless, everything went smoothly. I blended all the barrels that would constitute a base as well as the barrels that offered more complexity. As the final barrel I had planned on blending went into the tank, I took a sample off the Zwickel. My worst dream had become a reality. That last barrel I had added wasn't filtered, therefore some yeast had settled on the bottom and had begun to develop some un-wanted flavors, of which some had gone into the tank. Tasting the beer, Andrew and I had recognized it as Mercaptan, a byproduct of autolysed (dead) yeast. To the customer, it would be hardly recognizable, but we had just done a taste panel on it and learned to diagnose it in beer. I wanted this blend to be perfect, so this was unacceptable.

To solve this problem, I went back to my tasting notes. I knew I had left a few fantastic barrels behind in case something like this happened. I went through my notes and looked for the barrels that were quite tart, but still had a fruity base to reinforce the complexity. I added one barrel, and found the flavor enhanced along with the tartness, almost completely offsetting the faint Mercaptan flavor. Just to be sure, I added one more.

And I couldn't be happier with the result. Blue Sunday now waits in D5 to be bottled December 20th.

The release party is on January 13th. Be there.

In addition, thank you to all our customers for the support. New Holland's sour beer program is only getting bigger. It means more volume and more varieties to reach a wider distribution. We have some fun stuff coming in 2013, I'll say that.


Remember my Nightmare? Well this was half of it.

In conjunction with the Blue Sunday release, I also blended a sour stout that represents my journey learning how to blend beer. But this beer also represents all the bugs, bacteria and mold that we are so afraid of introducing into our business', lives and bodies. A brewers (and QC) nightmare, sure. But a shout out to the positive effects they have on us and the delicacies they produce. Look out Michigan your nightmare is "MI Nightmare"


1 comment:

  1. Never before heard someone use a line from George Clinton in a blog on beer. Keep such beautiful literary and musical references coming.