Beer Blending 101: The Art of the Layered Ale

March 10, 2020

By Miles Liebtag, March 10, 2020

“Gimme that double IPA, with a couple shots of that coffee porter on top.” It’s a strange way to order a beer. But Natosha Smith, a bartender at 101 Beer Kitchen in Dublin, Ohio, is happy to oblige. 

“It’s pretty common,” she says. According to Smith, there’s a group of regulars at 101 who often ask for custom mixed beers. “Sometimes we’ll pour up to six, seven different beers in one glass. Lately they’ve been starting with a hefeweizen base, sometimes with a stout and a little bit of cider. They’ll say, ‘Give me a splash of this, a bigger splash of that.’ It’s usually adding something sharp or acidic to something sweeter and heavier.”

Artie Toth, sipping his bespoke blend, likes to add to his IPA. “I drink IPAs primarily, so I like to experiment with hoppy beers and see what other kinds of flavors go well with something I already like.” Today he asks for a blend of Double Couple Three Hops DIPA from Catawba Island, a citrusy double IPA, and MadTree’s Local Blend, a 6% ABV coffee porter. It’s an intriguing mix, with the sweet mild chocolate flavor of the porter toning down the DIPA’s bitterness while still allowing the bright citrus notes to shine through. 

Barside beer blending like what’s happening at 101 Beer Kitchen can be traced back to 18th century England, when porter was all the rage and “stout porter” was just coming into being. In London, it was common to order a glass composed of several different “threads” of beer, and skilled publicans would blend a pint from different casks to suit their patron’s taste—or to dilute and move some sour product, according to The Oxford Companion to Beer. At the time, all ale was cask-conditioned, with live yeast and fermentation still happening in the serving vessel, so flavors could vary widely from cask to cask. These threads were sometimes combined to create superior flavors. 

As a Michigander, my favorite layered pint is a Black Hearted—a Bell’s Two Hearted topped with Guinness.”

The most popular blend made in pubs today is the Half and Half: a layer of a dark beer (typically stout; even more typically: Guinness) atop a lighter one (traditionally pale ale, but often lager). This simple beer cocktail has become a staple in pubs around the world, especially in America, where Irish-themed bars and restaurants proliferate. “We try to avoid saying ‘Black and Tan,’” says Austin Giles, a Michigan-based brewery ambassador for Guinness. “‘Half and Half’ is the preferred name. The other one is a little bit touchy.” For people of Irish descent, “Black and Tan” can call to mind either the brutal British paramilitary force active during the Irish War of Independence, or the overall conflict itself, sometimes referred to as the “Black and Tan War.”

But Guinness itself plays well with just about everybody. “Two big reasons why Guinness blends so well,” Giles says. “It’s a starkly dark-colored beer, and it floats. It’s a dry beer, and that dryness—or lower density—allows it to float on top of other, light-colored beers, so it looks amazing. That contrast is just plain fun, and really eye-catching. The naturally roasty flavors in a Dry Irish Stout like Guinness are also a great complement to lots of other beer flavors.”

The Half and Half and Snakebite (a layer of Guinness over a draft cider) are fairly ubiquitous—but what about other blends? Giles says hoppier beers make great combos too. “As a Michigander, my favorite layered pint is a Black Hearted—a Bell’s Two Hearted topped with Guinness. Two Hearted is a well-balanced IPA, and fairly bitter. Blending it with Guinness both tones down that bitterness and smooths it out with the creaminess of the stout."

While draught Guinness is probably the most popular “thread” in beer blends due to its availability, even flavor and low density, moving beyond the black stuff can result in curious new beer flavors. Nitro beers are often part of blends, due to both Guinness’ precedent and nitro beer's propensity for even layering, but not essential. Here are some suggested starting blends to move you beyond the Half and Half.

Cider and Stout

Typically a stout layered atop a hard apple or pear cider, the Snakebite (or “Applebite”) offers a little more extreme contrast than your standard Half and Half. The acidity of the cider cuts through the thick body of the stout, and the fruit flavor provides a nice counterpoint to the chocolate and roast. You may be familiar with this drink being made with Guinness and a sweet, mass-produced hard cider, but today’s cider landscape is much more interesting. Try blending a bright, fruity Rosé Cider from Shacksbury for added acidity and a nice berry note (this dry cider is aged on Syrah and Zinfandel grape skins). 

Something Fruity

Adding a fruit beer to a blend almost always makes something more than the sum of its parts, as fruit flavors provide natural resonances and counterpoints to flavors we already enjoy in both food and beer. Try mixing in a favorite chocolate stout (say Great Divide’s Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti) with a layer of Founders Rubaeus Raspberry Ale. The bold flavors of a massive stout like Yeti will make the tartness of the Rubaeus recede into the background somewhat, but the combination of richness and fruit-borne acidity is divine.

Go Nuts

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Craft brewers of today seem hellbent on creating the most insane flavor combinations possible, so why not you? Who says you can’t blend a Lindemans Framboise Lambic with a sweet-ass milkshake DIPA? (That might be good, actually). Go ahead and add a traditional Leipziger Gose to your Goose Island Bourbon County Stout for a sea salt and chocolate combo—I’m not here to judge. Want to blend a funky pet-nat cider into Bruery’s Black Tuesday bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout? Like the inspirational poster says, we’re limited only by our imaginations—and occasionally our wallets.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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