Blending Workshop at Firestone-Walker Barrelworks

Pardon the delay. I’ve been going H.A.M. on my book so that I can meet my deadline, and my blog sometimes gets pushed to the back.  That’s the same reason this blog is being updated at a leisurely pace. That will change after I meet my deadline in June.
On Friday, May 10, about 23 others and myself gathered at the Firestone-Walker Barrelworks facility in Buellton for their first-ever “The Art of Blending Beer” – a workshop on crafting “an artful blend of strong ale” using four component beers from the spirits barrel aging program hosted in conjunction with Valley Brewers homebrew supply store in Solvang. The goal was to create a blended beer much the same way the blenders do when they create F-W’s famed Anniversary Ales.
Before we started we were put into teams of three people – well, ostensibly it was three people. The winning team ended up having five or six people (my team came in third of about seven groups). I was partnered with two gentleman named Seth and Eric – both of whom worked in Goleta. Getting partnered with strangers is always a bit of a crapshoot, but I think we all kind of lucked out in that we had similar tastes and were able to conduct ourselves like the diplomatic individuals we all strive to be. Once we had our teams settled, Firestone-Walker’s quality control chief and blending guru Jim Crooks addressed the crowd, along with Jeffers Richardson, the head honcho at Barrelworks.
Crooks gave the small crowd an insight into what now seems like a great historic event. He discussed the time that he and Matt Brynildson, F-W’s esteemed brewmaster, sat down and conjured up the blend for the first-ever F-W Anniversary Ale – X. He explained how the blended beer was engineered as something that would be able to withstand a long aging process by the potential consumer. He also explained that the pressure to create a successful blend, especially considering that neither he nor Brynildson were very practiced in the art, was a little more than they liked. So when it came time to plan the blend for XI, Brynildson invited his wine-making friends from the region to join him, as they had years of experience in blending. What they found, was that the winemakers took a completely different approach.
“They weren’t blending for the future, they were blending for what’s in the glass right now,” Crooks said.
The end result was a beer that could withstand aging well, but was also delicious at the moment. That practice has persisted until Friday, when Crooks and Richardson passed the opportunity to make a blend on to the F-W fans (the winning blend won’t be released as an Anniversary ale, but it will be put on tap at the Barrelworks soon). They tasked our teams of taking five component beers: Helldorado, Bravo, Parabola, Velvet Merkin and Wookey Jack and told us to blend them into one delicious concoction.
I would have been glad to simply sip those five beers all night, but the task at hand demanded more. Seth, Eric and myself each made our own blends using graduated cylinders and loads of plastic tasting cups, then shared them with each other and built a blend from that. The process was long, but not arduous. Seth put it best when he said, “I feel like this is a labor of love.” Wise words, sir.
After two good, but not great versions, we settled on our third group blend. The final blend looked like this: 30% Velvet Merkin, 30% Wookey Jack (we needed a god hop presence), 20% Parabola, 15% Bravo and just 5% Helldorado. The beer was relatively balanced, but sweet and warming in the way that a strong beer should be.
Finally, Richardson and Crooks took our recipes to the back room, where they concocted the blends on a large enough scale that each group member could taste the creations of every group. The seven beers were lined up in front of us, and we set about rating them. The winning group ran away with the competition, while the second-place team narrowly edged Seth, Eric and I into third place.
After blending and tasting, blending and tasting, tasting, blending and more tasting – my palate was significantly fatigued. I wish I could give better details as to why the winners won, but I do know that I found their beer to be very good. I rated it an A-, which was one of the highest scores I gave a blend (the lowest was a B-) and it was based mainly on a gut reaction.
The evening was a ton of fun, if not a little unorganized. However, with such a relatively small group of adults, the loose organization didn’t put a damper on the enjoyment. I don’t think I’m an expert on blending beer after the workshop – far from it. I do, however, have a better understanding of the task that faces the blending team each time a new Anniversary Ale pops out. Poor bastards.

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