Blend It: A Heterotic Theory of Beer Synergy and/or Dilution


Ever heard of "hybrid vigor?"  It's a principle - often associated with crossbred dogs - that the crossbred version of something will show qualities superior to each parent.  This phenomenon is known formally as "heterosis."

Over the years, I've been thinking about this as it applies to beer.  Not in terms of specialized breeding of yeast strains, or hybrid hops, or next-generation super-awesome grains.  This is simpler than that.  I'm just talking about pouring what's in one beer glass into another one.  

You might be able to go further and apply this to homebrewing as well, of course, but let's stick with one glass (well, two) here, to start.  

"Weikert's Law"

Whenever you judge beer, you end up with lots of small cups with an ounce or so of beer in them at the end of the flight, after you've decided which of them are the winners.  Since I'm a relatively "fast" judge, my flights often wrap up before lunch was served or best of show judging or whatever, so I just take all of those small samples of beer and combine them into one cup, to have something to sip at while socializing and waiting.

Now, it should come as no surprise that when you combine a bunch of award-winning beers into one "mega-winner" sample that it tastes pretty good.  What's surprising is that when I started doing it with the obviously faulty samples, they were pretty good, too.

Thus began my practice of always combining samples, especially when they weren't great on their own.  I started preaching this to other homebrewers, too, who noticed similar effects.  Out of this grassroots effort came something that they (I would never presume to name it this) refer to as "Weikert's Law."  It goes something like this:

"Any two or more blended beers get better."

That's a little overstated, of course - there's an upper limit.  But it certainly seems to hold for beers with minor faults (and, sometimes, major faults), and that's where its utility comes in for homebrewers.

Why it Works (maybe)

I have two explanations as to why this might work: synergy and dilution.  They're not mutually exclusive, and it's certainly possible I'm dead wrong, but both seem intuitively plausible.

First, synergy: each beer is filling in flavor gaps that the other missed, with a resounding overall flavor effect.  Adding those subtle grace notes of complementary, accenting flavors creates a "fuller" flavor experience that is more than the sum of the individual flavors in each beer, even as the dominant flavors are somewhat reduced.  It's like hearing an orchestra with the volume set to five rather than a ripping electric guitar note at 11: softer, but fuller.  

Second, dilution: off-flavors in one beer added to another are effectively diluted (assuming they don't share a common fault).  This means that the off-flavor is less prominent and, if you're lucky, invisible, as the concentration of it in the combined sample falls below detection thresholds.  One beer has diacetyl at a rate of 0.15 ppm, while another has DMS at 35 ppb.  Both are just above detection thresholds - combine them, and both fall underneath it, and instead of one beer with diacetyl and another with DMS, you have one beer with neither (as far as your palate can tell).

Alchemy?  Science?  Nonsense?  Who knows - but it seems to work.

Blending Homebrew

Where I'm going with this next is going to entail some risk, but I'm going to do it, and maybe you'll give it a shot when the need arises naturally and let me know how it goes.

I'm going to brew a batch and split it out into gallon jugs, and spike each with 1.5x the flavor detection threshold of a variety of faults (Siebel makes a great off-flavor kit that will let me do so accurately).  We'll do a taste-test to be sure each is presenting as expected, then recombine them into one full-sized batch.  If I'm right, the off-flavors should largely disappear.

If you have a batch with a minor fault that you want to try to correct, maybe consider blending it with another batch you've already finished.  Top up that half-keg of pale ale with your slightly-corny cream ale, and see what you get.  Brew a short batch of the same beer and add it back.  Combine two slightly-off beers and see if you get one pretty-good beer.  

After all, what do you have to lose?

I'll update you when my experiment is complete, but in the meantime...

Keep it simple.


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