One of the most challenging things about brewing is that there’s no bible. No law. Sure, the Germans gave it a shot with the Reinheitsgebot, but even that was more about the shopping list and less about what you did with the ingredients. Simply put: there’s no set of rules out there telling brewers what to do. We need to come up with it on our own, which means that in this question of what makes for a “good” beer, there’s literally no answer that we can all accept. If you listen to beer drinkers and brewers, however, you may notice that they often throw a word out there that seems to be valuable in their assessments, recipe formulations, and flavor profiles: balance.
“Have you tried that new DIPA? They really balanced the sweetness with the bitterness.”
“That porter I made last week found a nice balance between roast and smoothness—it was like drinking café au lait.”
“I really wanted to like that Berliner, but the sourness was just way too much—pushed it right out of balance.”
So, what is this mystical thing? And how do we get it? And do we always even want it, or do we just act like we do?
Defining and Defending Balance
First things first: what do we mean when we say “balance?” There are two functional definitions (for our purposes). On the one hand, balance indicates a condition in which contributing elements are in equal proportion: one pound of gold on one side of the scale, a one-pound weight on the other. Balance. That’s not always going to be the way we mean it in beer, but it sometimes will. More common is the second functional interpretation of balance: a condition in which contributing elements are in the correct or ideal proportions. Most beers don’t have equal levels of bitterness, sweetness, alcohol, malt flavors, hops flavors, and mid-range color and carbonation (maybe some altbiers?). However, when these elements are deliberately out of equilibrium, they should at least be balanced to prevent that greater or lesser flavor from being, respectively, too loud or too soft and limiting the appeal or quality of the beer.
Or should they? I was discussing this article with Jeremy Myers, head brewer at Croydon Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company (whose Shape of Hops to Come is one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had, incidentally), and he reminded me that sometimes you want a nice slap in the face. “Sometimes you want a mouth-crushing hops bomb.” Fair enough: exaggerated, outlandish, and decidedly unbalanced flavors have their place, too.
So how do we know where the line is? Well, just turn your beer bibles to page…oh, wait, that’s right—we don’t have one of those.
The palate may be the only true judge, but there are approaches that can help us find balance when we want it and make our imbalances work for us when they’re warranted and wanted. Let’s take this flavor-by-flavor, and then see if we can derive any general rules to guide us.
One of the defining style attributes in beer is bittering level. Of course, most of the time when we talk about a “bitter” beer, we’re talking about perception, not actual IBUs, which means we’re talking about balance. The actual IBU count matters far less than how bitter the beer presents. Now, there’s bound to be a relationship between the two (it’d be exceptionally difficult, but not impossible, to make a 5 IBU beer seem very bitter), but it’s not just a question of calculating IBUs; it’s about how we construct the recipe around it to mask, enhance, or use bitterness in specific ways.
As a starting point, there’s a number that should always be in your peripheral vision as you’re creating recipes: the BU:GU ratio, or the “bitterness ratio.” BU:GU translates to “bitterness units to gravity units”; in other words the ratio between calculated IBUs and points of gravity. As a good simple rule, the closer you get to 1.00, the more bitter your beer is likely to taste. If I’m making Iron Dice American Amber, my gravity is 1.060, and I have 30 calculated IBUs, yielding a bitterness ratio of 0.50—about what you’d expect from a “balanced” beer. My Peachtree IPA has a starting gravity of 1.073 and 63 IBUs, so we’re looking at 0.86—again, not surprising, given that IPAs tend to skew “bitter.” On the other hand, my rich, bready Raul’s Runner-Up Bock has an OG of 1.076 but only 30 IBUs, yielding a BU:GU ratio of only 0.39—hence, a malt-driven beer. The BU:GU ratio isn’t the end of the story, but it’s a pretty good place to start.
The rest revolves around how we’re using bitterness. Is it, itself, balancing something? Or is it a flavor you want to accentuate?
A common application of bitterness is as a balance to sweetness in beer. Without it, beers would taste too syrupy, rich, and cloying. There are some flavors that add an impression of sweetness that might need to be balanced—fruity esters, bready melanoidins, residual sugars, etc.—but the single greatest source of sweetness in beer is alcohol. Sure, there may be some lingering long-chain sugars in the beer, but those aren’t necessarily contributing much of anything to sweetness (and the simple sugars are mostly chewed down into nothing, unless you filter out or kill your yeast). Alcohol, though, is definitely sweet on the tongue, and so we need to balance that out. Doing this with lower- alcohol beers is relatively simple since there’s not much to balance. Take a 3.5 percent Scottish Ale, drop in almost any hops to the tune of 15–20 IBUs, and you’re done. However, as ABV increases, so does the degree of care with which we need to balance that sweetness.
Although the bitterness ratio you’d target would be the same, you need more IBUs to get you there, which means that you need higher alpha-acid hops and/or more hops overall—and both can present problems. More alpha acids might also mean higher cohumulone levels, and cohumulone has been linked to harsher bittering. More hops means more plant matter in the beer, and at high enough levels this can impart a vegetal, cabbage-like flavor. If you’re looking to balance out that Baltic porter or barleywine, check with your hops vendor to find a hops variety with a relatively low cohumulone level and a high alpha-acid percentage: that way, you can use fewer hops to produce more clean, balancing bitterness.
There’s more than one way to enhance bitterness and counter sweetness, though. You can also, depending on the style, increase levels of roast to counter sweetness, either by adding more chocolate malts or going with a higher Lovibond level on those already in the beer. Reducing the amounts of caramel malts (especially those at the lower end of the Lovibond scale—10–40L, including Aromatic, Melanoidin, and Crystal) can reduce the sweet caramel flavors our brains associate with sweetness. Alternatively, you may be able to increase carbonation levels: higher carbonation means more carbolic acid, a phenol that creates a slight burn on the tongue, also countering sweetness.
Now, what if bitterness is exactly what you want? Much of the preceding advice applies equally as well to moving bitterness ahead of sweetness, rather than simply balancing it. Increase your BU:GU ratio into the 0.7–0.8 range. Choose low-cohumulone/high-alpha hops to get yourself some clean, smooth bittering. Back off on sweetness-impression malts and fermentation characteristics (esters, especially) to clear the path for your bitter bomb. You can also simply adjust timing so that hops are added earlier, yielding higher IBUs and less of the flavor. That’s not all we can do, though.
If you want to amplify the impression of bitterness you can also start toying with yeast strain and water chemistry. For yeast, it’s a bit of trial and error: some strains have reputations for accentuating malt flavors, others for creating drier and less rounded beers, but the results are process- and system-dependent enough that you’ll need to try them yourself before you can trust them (and, also, many of the interactions aren’t well understood yet!). Water adjustment—adding, diluting, or removing specific minerals from your mash water—is a bit more consistent and reliable. Generally speaking, harder water means firmer bitterness. If you’re brewing with somewhat soft water (particularly if you have a low sulfate count), adding gypsum to the mash can create a sharper, flintier impression of bitterness, even with no changes in hops variety or weight or timing. Bitter and sweet form a common point of balance—or, as the case may be, imbalance—in virtually all beers. Other styles, though, yield other balance challenges and opportunities.
Is This Brewing or Cooking?
Some of our other potentially unbalancing (or balancing) flavors form a list that sounds like we’re breaking in a new smoker or barbecue grill: roast, smoke, wood, and spice.
Roast is a fantastic flavor in beer—coffee, dark chocolate, earth—but we can go overboard with it. This usually happens when a brewer adds an abundance of higher-Lovibond chocolate malts (roasted barley, Black Patent) to a recipe, or uses a disproportionate percentage of chocolate malts (of any Lovibond level). The result is a beer that tastes acrid, charred, and sharp, and is astringent besides. As a recipe consideration, start thinking twice if your chocolate malts represent more than 10 percent of your total grist. And even then, you should be using caramel malts to balance the flavor and consider reducing IBUs to avoid an overly harsh flavor profile. Roast, though, can also be used in small quantities to color or dry out a beer; Irish red is my favorite example. Nearly every Irish red I try—commercial or homebrew—has an overly sweet, flabby flavor to it. A touch of chocolate malt (I prefer chocolate rye) dries out the flavor, gives a great contrast to the caramel notes, and darkens the beer to a deep ruby jewel tone that’s just gorgeous to look at. Think small, as well as big, when considering your flavors and how they balance.
Smoke, as a flavor in beer, is a real winner. It’s like putting sausage in a beer, and who can’t get behind that? In this case, the intensity of the smoke is less a function of how much smoked malt you use and more of how much smoke is in the malt. My Rauchbier is 97 percent smoked malt and isn’t much smokier than previous versions that had only 50 percent smoked malt. Why? Because it was the same smoked malt. You’ll get marginal increases in smoke character as the percentage increases, but it’s far from linear. Even small additions can create noticeable smokiness, while large additions can be surprisingly restrained. The best way to be sure you’re not getting too much out of your smoke flavor is to choose your malt carefully (smell some in the bag; it’s exactly how it will smell and taste in your beer!), and add a small addition of chocolate malt as a counterbalance. Smoke can make a beer seem oily or sweet; the chocolate malt will limit that effect and, if it adds any flavor at all, imparts a touch of roast that seems perfectly complementary to a smoky flavor. And whatever you do, don’t buy that peat-smoked malt.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and before there’s fire, there’s wood. When it comes to wood and beer, there are two elements you need to be careful of: astringency and raw “green” wood flavor. All wood contains tannins, and hardwoods even more so, so using oak in beer means exposing your flavors to a lot of tannin flavors, which we usually associate with astringency. At moderate levels, this adds a pleasant “structuring” mouthfeel to the beer and can counteract sweetness. At higher levels, it’s grotesque, and I know of no way to un-tannin a beer. With lengthy aging, those tannic polyphenols will drop out of suspension, but I’d settle in for a long wait and pray the beer stays otherwise flavor-stable. Speaking of flavor, too much wood will add more than the pleasant leathery, vanillin flavors that we’re looking for: you could end up with something that tastes more like a broken twig than an oak cask. This is easily addressed: taste as you age, and if you plan on aging on oak for a long time be sure to use a cube with a high toast level—you’ll end up with a darker burnt-wood flavor, but that’s much more desirable than eating leaves!
If there’s one area where balance seems to be nigh-incomprehensible, though, it’s when we’re adding spice. There are so many methods, variables, and considerations in play that any attempt to provide guidance or rules would be foolhardy…so naturally I’m going to try.
First, always add spices post-fermentation and to taste. Anyone who tells you (s)he knows how tamarind is going to taste in his/her English brown ale is lying to you. Don’t take his/her advice. Add slowly and pick your spot. Also, don’t assume that the effect will be the same from batch to batch: sure, that “two vanilla pods in a vodka tincture” approach might be generally true for your Russian imperial stout, but if we’re talking about cinnamon, or basil, or a few dozen other spices or herbs, you’re going to get significant batch-to-batch variability in both your beer and the product you’re introducing into it. And second, start low and build up. You can always add more, but covering up an over-abundance of white pepper is a tough challenge.
In Search of Guardrails
I have no doubt that we’re nowhere near that set of Ten Brewing Commandments that will keep us all in line, but that’s fine: brewers are creative and shouldn’t be fitted to some kind of Procrustean Bed of brewing. That’s not to say, though, that we’re reckless libertines who can do whatever we want, whenever we want. So, when it comes to our approach to brewing and balance (or lack thereof), I would make a modest pitch for what might be called “guardrails” brewing.
Within your recipes, you can certainly seek perfect balance (in the “equal proportion” sense). However, when the style or your desires suggest it, use imbalance to your advantage—but be sure to put a guardrail in place in the recipe or in your process. Going to 120 IBUs? Add in a pound of Munich malt and use a fruity yeast to prevent you from skidding off of the bitterness highway. Pushing that French saison yeast to 90°F (32°C) degrees to see just what kinds of exotic esters and phenols you can get out of it? Stick with a simple, bready grist in the background. Go wild, but always include a little nudge back toward the path. In doing so, you’ll usually find that you’ve satisfied that second definition of “balance,” and kept things in their proper proportion. It might just be an act, but acts matter.