This is the second in a series of posts each covering an aspect of brewing mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beers where my opinions have changed significantly since I wrote American Sour Beers 10 years ago. Each post will focus on our process, recipe, and results for one of the beers in the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club (includes 6 bottles, for $146, cancel anytime) - sign-ups for the first box close May 5th! This post covers blending through the lens of Growth Rings 2023 (our blend of 1-, 2-, and 3-year barrel-aged sours). If you are closer to the brewery, May 10th and 11th I'll be doing a talk and vintage sour tasting including pours of Growth Rings 2021 and 2023!

As a homebrewer, my experience with blending was limited to a handful of batches. Over the last six years I've had a hand in blending more than 70 batches of barrel-aged sour beer. So, I thought it would be valuable to give my thoughts on the process, what I've learned to do, and not to do.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

You can't blend great beer if you don't have options. Creating variety starts on brew day and continues through fermentation and aging.

Malt Bills - More so for darker sours, it's good to have options for beers that have different flavors to pull from. Even for pale beers, having different grains (wheat, oats, rye, spelt, light caramel malt etc.), and starting gravities can be valuable for creating range. 

Hopping Rates - As I discussed in my previous post, hopping rate plays a large role in acidity and "funky" aromatics. Bitterness itself can be a valuable flavor in a blend, it's a flavor present in most lambics, and too often missing from American sours. 

Acidity - Having "Brett only" barrels is a good way to ensure you have beer available that won't be too acidic. When a barrel starts getting too sour, we'll often keg it so it is available for blending at a low level for beers that aren't sour enough.

Barrels - A blend of "new" and well-used barrels. Early on all of our barrels were first-use (to us). As a result many of our early releases were too woody, giving "lumber aisle" vibes. Most sour beers are light and delicate and too much oak can overwhelm. At the same time, it's good to retire barrels that aren't producing spectacular beer allowing you to bring in new characterful barrels (we currently have fresh gin, Madeira, PX Sherry etc. aging). If I was starting a new barrel program, I'd soak half of the barrels slated for pale beers with multiple changes of hot water to leach out oak flavor and tannins before filling.

Microbes - It is easiest if you have the same culture in all of the beers/barrels. In that case you don't have to worry about additional attenuation after packaging. For me, it's more valuable to have a variety of microbes for different acid levels and Brett profiles for more dynamic flavor options. As time has gone on we've split the difference, pumping in some of a favorite barrel to a fresh batch, but then going into various barrels with their own cultures. We'll also pitch additional microbes if a barrel isn't headed in a good direction at 6-12 months. 

Ages - It can be helpful to have the same/similar beers of various ages so you can balance flavors. We've gotten better at judging which barrels just need more time, and which are headed in a bad direction and need to be dumped. That said, I don't have as much time to taste/monitor the barrels as I should and I still "miss" some good barrels leaving them in too long until they taste oxidized or off. 

The Mechanics of Blending

Think about the goals before you start. What is the concept? What other ingredients are you adding after blending? What is the target volume? Sometimes it is good to just taste barrels for inspiration, but that can be overwhelming when you have dozens of barrels to select from. I try to set a general schedule before the year starts. It keeps me on track for seasonal ingredients, sourcing barrels for finishing, and utilizing our staff/tank time rather than bunching up releases. I tend to earmark barrels as "potential" candidates for a blend, ideally twice as many barrels as a blend would require. 

From there, I go to our barrel-spreadsheet (more info). I filter for beers with enough age, appropriate bases, removing barrels that are already earmarked for other projects. Lots of releases overlap, say I fill five barrels with sour red and hope to get a two-barrel blend plain and a two-barrel blend with fruit. Hopefully I have an "orphan" barrel that was passed over from last year or another similar base that didn't fit in its blend available for variety. Then I start pulling nails and tasting to gauge my options. I note barrels that need more time and those that are running out of time. Hopefully that narrows down my choices to five barrels at most for a two or three barrel blend. 

Then I pull larger samples of those barrels so I have enough beer for a few blends without having to go back and pull more. When possible, I try to create full-barrel blends, although we occasionally keg-off partial barrels for future blending stock. In the same way if a blend is missing a little something, I'll take a look through our kegs and see if there is an option that satisfies the need. 

I usually break down my options by acidity. If two barrels are a bit too acidic and two are not acidic enough, I'll try blending my favorite from each camp together to see where that gets me. Then swap in the other if there is something that doesn't work. Once I get a solid blend, I might go hunting for a little something extra. For example we were just blending a sour red, and ended up with a little 3+ year-aged Vin de Cereale (strong sour red) as a low-percentage malt-booster bringing perceived sweetness and more oak. 

In terms of the practicalities of blending, I usually use volume. Weight works, but I tend not to worry about extreme precision because the volume in each barrel can differ by 5-10% anyway. For each blend I start with an empty cup to avoid issues with tracking when you take a sip, dose in more and then don't really know the ratio. 

Finally, I write down the winning blend. When possible, I come back and taste the blend on a fresh palate later, ideally with someone who wasn't involved in the initial blend (since that is how the majority of people drinking the beer will approach it). 

Blending takes time and practice, but one thing that has been immensely helpful is blending with other people. Some of my favorite collabs are sensory rather than recipe-based. There isn't often much I get out of brewing a collab beer, instead we invite in other brewers to taste through our barrels and help select a blend, brainstorm adjuncts etc. Sam, Tim, and co. from Other Half helped blend Throwing Hearts. Jennings from Pen Druid came in to blend Life is Ridiculous. Mike Thorpe from Afterthought visited last week to blend an upcoming beer with hardy kiwi and New Zealand hops. We've done similar things on the stout side with Mike Saboe from Toppling Goliath and Eric Padilla from More/Open Outcry. Heck it's just great bringing in homebrew friends with good palates to help taste barrels, bounce ideas off... and just give me an excuse to pull samples!

Recipe: Growth Rings 2023 

Barrel #16 

Beer: Golden Sour (Pils, 2-row, Chit, Wheat Malt, .5 lbs/bbl Aged Hops, 1.056)

Age: 16 Months

Barrel: 5th-fill Pinot Noir American Oak 

Culture East Coast Yeast Flemish Ale

Notes: Rubbery funk, medium acid, bright, good

Barrel #19 

Beer: Rings of Light (2-row, Chit, Malted Wheat, Unmalted Oats, 40 IBUs in Whirlpool, 1.062)

Age: 8 months

Barrel: 4th-fill Chardonnay American Oak. 

Culture: Omega Brett C and Yeast Bay Amalgamation

Notes: Less acidic, funky, bright fruit, rubbery

Barrel #20 

Beer: Marylandbic (Pils, Unmalted Wheat, Chit, .5 lbs/bbl 2014 Celeia pellets, 1.045)

Age: 35 months. 

Barrel: 2nd-fill Chardonnay American Oak. 

Culture: Omega Brett C and Yeast Bay Amalgamation (plus a house culture that was a repitch of a repitch in primary)

Notes: Loamy, a touch stale, bright lactic acid.

Barrel #62 

Beer: Belgian Pale (Pilsner, Wheat Malt, Vienna, 15 IBUs Sterling First Wort, 1.048)

Age: 27 months

Barrel: 2nd-fill Cabernet Franc French Oak

Culture: SARA Saison Bernice

Notes: Sprite, tart, but not highly acidic.

Growth Rings is the rare bottle-conditioned sour that we didn't repitch with wine yeast, a good choice if you're looking to harvest bottle dregs!

Tasting Notes: Growth Rings 2023

(My personal notes from a few months ago)

Smell - Citrusy nose, apricot, hay, bright and fresh. Missing that big rubber that is present in most great lambics. 

Appearance - Pale gold, clear, lots of bubbles, thick head, good retention. Great lacing.

Taste - Delicate acidity. Lemon, apricot, just a touch of rubber. 

Mouthfeel - Snappy carbonation, medium-light body. Lighter bodied than a classic Gueuze. 

Drinkability - In terms of drinkability, it’s my favorite recently. Lively, complex… but it isn't as gueuze-y. 

Changes for Next Time - It has sort of a barrel-aged saison quality more than gueuze. Maybe that fresher whirlpool hop character from Rings of Light… that said I really like the result. 

Today I published several important hop add-ons to cover new and experimental hop varieties that have become available the last few years. This was a fairly sizeable task spanning several weeks to identify and collect information on the latest hop varieties. The main hop update adds 137 varieties, and there are over 100 additional varieties […]
This is the first in a series of posts each covering an aspect of brewing mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beers where my opinions have changed significantly since I wrote American Sour Beers. Each post will focus on our process, recipe, and results for one of the beers in the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club. This one covers Barrels of Rings, aka our 40 IBU hazy pale ale (Rings of Light) fermented in barrels with house microbes, then dry hopped with Citra Cryo.

The longer I brew mixed-fermentation beers, the more I appreciate just how important the hopping rate is. Controlling lactic acid production by inhibiting lactobacillus is hops' most well-appreciated function in sour beers. Hop compounds become more effective at inhibiting Lactobacillus as the pH drops, creating a natural "limit" on their lactic acid production. What it took me a long time to appreciate was how much hop compounds (beyond IBUs) lead to a greater expression of what I think of as classic Brett "funk."

When Scott and I began the mixed-fermentation program in 2018-2019, generally our issue was beers not souring enough. I started pulling levers (lower hopping rates, higher mash temps, less attenuative primary strains etc.) By 2020-2021, we were having excessive acid production... Most non-fruited beers were dropping to a firmly-acidic 3.1-3.3 pH, while fruited beers were often difficult to drink in quantity at 3.0-3.1 pH with some dipping to "obnoxiously acidic" high-2s. 

Fruit contributes simple sugars, which Lactobacillus love, and at the same time dilute the hop compounds in the beer. This can cause a precipitous pH drop. With so much beer already in barrels, my first maneuver was to begin dosing alpha acids into the beer along with fruit when there was already enough acid. We started with reduced iso-alpha-acids (e.g. tetralone/hexalone), but have moved onto Hopsteiner Alpha Extract 20% since it doesn't add perceived bitterness. About .1-.2 g per gallon stops acid production for our bacteria. These products don't significantly change the flavor or add additional aromatic complexity. As a side benefit, they enhance head retention. A small dry hop at this stage would be another option if you wanted stop acidification and add hop aromatics.


At this point we started upping the aged hop rate, or aiming for higher IBU targets when using fresh hops (~15-20 IBUs). At the same time (~2021) Scott and Ken (our head brewer) wanted to try barrel-aging more aromatically hoppy beers... I was resistant. I love hoppy-sour beers, I did a whole talk about them at the 2016 National Homebrewers Conference. Generally my approach had been to make sure the hops go into the beer as close to serving as possible (e.g., dry hop a barrel-aged sour after aging, brew a quick-turn hoppy Brett saison, add a whirlpool addition after kettle souring). I'd tasted too many barrel-soured IPAs and pale ales from great breweries that smelled like "old hoppy beer." That said, Ken and Scott convinced me! At our scale it is a relatively low risk to divert a few barrels of pale ale to see what happens.

We're already "aggressive" with our measures against oxygen pick-up (purging barrels with carbon dioxide before filling, purging the barrel-tool between each fill, purging the bottles before filling etc.), but when we fill barrels with pale ale wort we pull out all the tricks. Most importantly, we selected barrels that could be refilled without rinsing, leaving several gallons of "house culture" at the bottom of each. Our goal was to start the secondary fermentation as quickly as possible to protect the delicate hop compounds. I was amazed how good the resulting beer tasted!

What has really intrigued me is that the hoppier bases have almost universally produced finished beers I'd describe as more Brett-forward (earthy, funky, fruity, horse blanket). What I don't know is why! In American Sour Beers I cited research that Brett can free glycosides in hops, so that could explain the fruity. Maybe hops are just inhibiting Lactobacillus, giving the Brett a healthier environment (in lambics Brett tends to thrive before Pediococcus dramatically lowers the pH). Maybe I'm just being fooled and higher hopping rates (aged or fresh) are adding key compounds that I associate with the "funk" in a Cantillon, Orval (and many of my favorite American mixed-ferms)! These days our typical hopping rate is .5 lbs/bbl of aged hops at the start of the boil, and .5 lbs/bbl or fresh low alpha-acid hops in the whirlpool. 

Barrels of Rings is one of the bottles included with the first shipment of the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club. It started as Rings of Lightbrewed summer 2022, racked into barrels after primary fermentation, but before dry hopping. After 10 months of aging, we transfer directly from the two wine barrels into our blending tank (purged with 5.5 pounds of our selected Citra Cryo already in there). We agitated/roused and allowed to settle for a couple days, dropping the hops. Then we primed with sugar and rehydrated wine yeast (as we do for most of our barrel-aged sours) and partially carbonated the beer. As with the barrel fill, we're relying on CO2 purging of the bottles and the rapid refermentation to scavenge oxygen and preserve hop aromatics. 

Recipe: Barrels of Rings

OG: 1.063

65% Briess Brewer's 2-row

14% Great Western Malted White Wheat

13% Grain Millers Flaked Oats

8% Best Chit Malt

IBUs: 40

.5 lbs/bbl Meridian @ Whirlpool (212F)

1 lb/bbl New York Cascade @ Whirlpool (180F)

Bravo Salvo Hop Extract @ Whirlpool (180F)

Fermentation with Omega Cosmic Punch (the barrel sheet below is incorrect)

FG (Primary) 1.022

Brewed 8/5/22. Barrels filled 8/11/22 

Barrel #6: Fifth-fill Chambourcin red wine barrel that previously held our original barrel-aged pale ale, Measure Twice. That barrel was started with dregs from our collab with Free Will (Erma Extra), but along the way it was filled with bases that had dregs in primary from various American saisons (Casey and Holy Mountain).

Barrel #125: Second-fill Chardonnay white wine barrel that previously held a cider fermented with the Bootleg Biology Biology Mad Fermentationist Saison (plus we added the dregs from a stellar bottle of Barrique Wet Hop Reserve after filling).

6/21/23 116 gallons of beer from the two barrels transferred onto 5.5 pounds of 2022 Citra Cryo. 1.5 oz/gallon.

Carbonated to 2.05 vol, reyeasted with Premier Cuvee (rehydrated on a stir-plate with StartUp Nutrient), primed with enough glucose to add 1.1 vol of CO2 (~3.1 vol total in bottle). 

Final pH: 3.65

Final Gravity 1.009

7.1% ABV. 

Tasting Notes: Barrels of Rings

(My personal notes from a few months ago)

Smell - Nice blend of citrus (orange) and earthy-Bretty-funk. Still really fresh, no oxidative or old-hop aromatics. Really varied nose with a little pine sap, hay, and melon. Another hoppy base that got funkier than most of our bases. 

Appearance - Big dense white head, good retention. Light haze, very pale yellow.  Attractive. 

Taste - Light lemony tartness, but not sour-sour. Very saison-y. Some bitterness, but it doesn’t clash with the light bitterness. 

Mouthfeel - A touch of astringency. Great sptrizy carbonation. Medium-light body. 

Drinkability - Really nice. The bitterness does give it a different impression than a classic low-bitterness sour base. More saison-like. 

Changes for Next Time - Really good, not much to change on this one. Gin barrels would be fun. 

When visiting Epochal Barrel Fermented Ales in Scotland last year I was blown-away by how by how good (owner/brewer) Gareth Young's wild ales were aged on whole hops in the barrels for the entire secondary fermentation. I really enjoyed the first beer we did with it, Violet You're Turning Violet (Mosaic in the barrel, finished with a blend of wild and cultivated blueberries). It seems like a good option especially if you want variety in the hop intensity of a base, e.g., start with a more moderate hopped base and add hops to some barrels for blending options. 



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My book, American Sour Beers, is turning ten next month! I wrote it from the perspective (and experience) of a homebrewer. I wanted to experiment and learn. I really didn't know much about brewing commercially, creating consistent blends, adapting recipes as a barrel program matured, developing flavors that would sell etc. Looking back I have to ask, did my book help launch 1,000 barrel programs, without providing the knowledge brewers actually needed to succeed?

Over the last decade American craft brewing had an explosion of breweries ramping up barrel-aged sour production, followed by a pretty rapid decline (including multiple mid-sized breweries closing their programs and sour-focused breweries closing). Part of that is the inherently less-predictable nature of mixed-fermentation (when you order a cherry sour beer, what are you expecting? Kriek, cherry juice, cherry vinegar etc.). Compare that to a bourbon-barrel vanilla-bean stout where you have a pretty good idea of what the intent was. I suspect at least part of it was the oversaturation of the market combined with the high prices.

Despite brewing my first sour beer in 2006, becoming a brewery consultant in 2011, writing a book in 2014, and opening a brewery in 2018... I haven't been consistently happy with the barrel-aged mixed-fermentations I made until the last couple years. I certainly never released a beer that I thought was bad, but there were certainly had batches that were too sour, muddled, under/over carbonated, or just didn't "pop." During that time we've also released some amazing beers that I still love!

At Sapwood Cellars we've relied on our local club members, and the people who walk in the door to buy ~10,000 bottles of barrel-aged sour beer a year. That may sound like a lot, but it's less than 5% of our production (and we're a pretty small brewery). There really hasn't been much interest in barrel-aged sour bottles in our limited distribution range. They tend to be beers that sell best when you can explain them directly to the drinker, rather than just have them sitting on a shelf! If only there was a way I could talk directly to beer drinkers interested in sour beer...

Rather than bury the lead more than I already have, Sapwood Cellars barrel-aged mixed-fermentation sours are now available for shipping within much of America through a Membership Club administered by Tavour! Shipping is available to: WA, CA, OR, NM, NV, CO, MN, NY, DC, CT, NE, MA, FL, PA, NH, NJ, ID, TX, KS, IN, WI, MO, IA, IL, MI, ND, VA, RI, NC, SC, and MD.

The first installment of the club is $146 (including shipping) for one 500 mL bottle each of six beers: 

Growth Rings 2023: Three-year-blend of barrel-aged Sours, essentially our cuvee of bases, barrels, and microbes showing off our house character. This one isn't refermented with wine yeast, so the dregs would be a good option if you are looking for microbes! It was the second highest-rated "Gueuze" on Untappd in 2023!

Barrels of Rings: Our pale ale base, mixed-fermented in wine barrels and then dry hopped right before bottling. Citrusy-funky with restrained acidity.

Jammiest Bit: Our homage to Hommage, a barrel-aged sour on loads of sour pie cherries and red raspberries. Fruity, funky, tart etc.

Botanicia: A blend of pale sours aged in gin barrels that we then infused with dried limes and quinine. A weird play on a gin-and-tonic... but with a lot more acidity and funk!

Elliptical Orbit 2023: A continuation of the "Dark Funky Saison" series still with my original collaborator and homebrew buddy Alex. For this one he roasted Geisha coffee beans and we infused the barrel-aged dark sour with Geisha cascara (dried coffee cherries). 

Fruit of Many Uses: We sequentially racked the same barrel-aged tart/funky base onto second-use Chardonnay wine grapes, cherries, raspberries, and white nectarines. All of the fruit was whole/local.

Over the next couple weeks I'll be posting my detailed tasting notes on each of the beers, along with recipes, lessons learned, and suggestions for brewing something similar at home! I'll repeat for each club release, assuming enough people sign-up for the club to make it viable. 

Over the last five years it isn't "one simple trick" we learned that improved our beer. It's the accumulation of 100 little things from ingredient selection, to blending, to process refinement, to equipment that we've figured out. It's sitting down with each beer, drinking, thinking, taking detailed notes, and iterating. So much of it is not doing it by myself, having Scott, Ken, and Spencer to push to do things I wouldn't have (Botanica was Ken's baby, and Barrels of Rings was Scott's). Both are delicious, and they are certainly beers I would not have brewed if it was all up to me!