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Brew It Dark & Hoppy: The Balancing Act

Dark malts and ample hops intersect at a risky but rewarding flavor zone where few brewers dare to tread with regularity. Here we dig into recipe choices for distinctive, hop-forward black beers that avoid the pitfalls.

Josh Weikert Feb 22, 2021 - 13 min read

Brew It Dark & Hoppy: The Balancing Act Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

Sure, there was a rush of black IPAs for a while there, and there are a few hop-forward stouts hanging around. But for the most part, compared to the tonnage of hoppy pale beers on the market, “dark and hoppy” is a relatively rare combination. So, why aren’t there more beers like that?

In a way, this is surprising because brewers and geeks alike tend to enjoy the extremes—so one would assume that intense grist and intense hops would crop up more often. On the other hand, this is a tricky zone: as beers get darker (and roastier), new challenges arise in the effective use of hops.

Let’s walk through the nuts and bolts of those challenges and then talk about how to convert those challenges into opportunities. With a little care and balance, “dark and hoppy” can and should get a regular turn in your brewing rotation.

Getting Roasted

The most obvious challenge here is encapsulated in one word: roast. Not only does it represent an easily identifiable flavor on the palate, it also affects many other domains of our beer, from the mash through the finish.

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We get color via kilned and roasted grains, but adding those grains changes more than the appearance and taste—it also has secondary effects that impact other ingredients. Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch of those effects to inform our choices later. For convenience, assume that dark malts impart roast character, unless otherwise noted (later we’ll discuss dehusked or huskless grains).

First, roasted grains in the mash tend to lower mash pH and impart acidity. That means we need to think about our usual additions to the mash, both salts and acids, to ensure that we have a productive mash and get the flavors we want downstream.

Second, roast imparts its own kind of bitterness—actual and/or the impression of it—which means we need to look at our recipes to ensure we’re not going overboard on bitterness from hops.

Finally, roasted malts impart strong flavors, which means we’re moving up the “intensity” scale in terms of flavor.

John Stemler, brewmaster at Free Will Brewing in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, describes the challenge: “The complexity of a dark beer—unless it is just colored with Sinamar—is usually quite high, so there is definitely a higher number of components to take into account when designing a recipe.”

This is all the more challenging in that roast is an easy flavor to get into a beer, whereas hop flavor can be much more elusive and challenging—especially when it has stiff competition.

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Luckily, these challenges are all manageable, given some recipe and process tweaks.

Recipe Considerations

All four traditional ingredients get a bit of attention when going dark and hoppy.

Water

Water is the first consideration because the choices you make here will impact both your process and your flavor.

As a rule of thumb, start “soft.” This frees us up to make some choices about what we want our water to emphasize. When brewing dark and hoppy, we can do things that might be unlikely in a paler beer; few people are brewing IPA these days and going for a nice, rounded malt profile, for example.

Since we’re talking hops and malt, the chloride and sulfate (SO4) levels in your beer are of particular interest. If you’re brewing a beer with robust hop flavors coupled with rich dark malt character, but less of a bitter edge, aim for 200 ppm of chloride. On the other hand, if you want to highlight crisp bitterness, target 200 ppm of sulfate.

Keep an eye on the ratio of sulfate to chloride, too, especially what I call the “Rule of Fours”: a chloride-sulfate ratio somewhere in the 0.4 to 4 range provides all the options you should need in terms of flavor emphasis. The conventional wisdom is that a “balanced” beer that emphasizes neither malt nor hops should be about 1, while lower than 0.4 would be “too” malty. Some would say or guess that a ratio over 1.6 might be “too bitter”—but that’s just not what I’ve found to be true over the years. In fact, a sulfate-chloride ratio of 3-plus is pretty typical for my English bitters and, notably, my hoppy/bitter American brown ale (which borders on black). Starting with relatively soft water and building to your targeted flavor profile will get you off on the right foot.

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Grist

If you’re worried about the beer being too roasty for your hops to really shine, lean into the huskless malts: chocolate rye, crystal rye, Carafa Special, and so on.

Let’s look at an example that’s won medals at both the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup: the Hoppa Emeritus American black ale from Beachwood BBQ & Brewing in Long Beach, California. Julian Shrago, owner and brewmaster, says that Hoppa Emeritus “has much more in common with our West Coast IPAs than a stout. We use a combination of debittered black malt and Sinamar to achieve the transparent black color. It has a faint roast flavor [and] aroma but is fairly mild in comparison to the color.”

You can also take advantage of some of the “dark” flavors of the higher-Lovibond crystal malts and specialty malts, such as Briess Special and Extra Special Roast, which impart “dark” flavors without excess acrid roast.

Nor is the grist all about flavor—it’s also an important creator of mouthfeel. At California’s Lost Abbey Brewing, Tomme Arthur brews dark beers with significant wheat additions. At Beachwood, Shrago brews his American stout with mouthfeel specifically in mind: “I like the mouthfeel to be on the fatter side, so the flavors are fully saturated and sustained on the palate,” Shrago says. “We achieve this partly by using elevated levels of roast barley and high beta-glucan malts, like wheat, rye, and oats.”

Making a dark and hoppy beer can be as simple as adding some chocolate malt, but it certainly doesn’t have to stop there.

Hops

Interestingly, hopping is the easy part here: Leave some bittering room so your huskier malts don’t overload your impression of the bitterness and choose hops with an eye toward flavor pairings that accentuate or complement roast.

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Some brewers keep the IBUs low. Ryan Diehl, brewer and cofounder of Imprint Beer in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, says that even in their stronger stouts, they tend to keep the bitterness around 30 IBUs. “Porters and lower-ABV stouts, we go a little lower,” he says.

However, you can get away with more bitterness—especially if you are leaning into dehusked malts while going for body and sweetness. It’s a matter of personal taste.

As for which hop varieties to use for flavor, just ask yourself, “What would I pair with chocolate?”

At Free Will, Stemler says they think in terms of pairing hops with malts: “Make sure the flavor from the hops won’t interfere with the inherent roast-character spectrum of the beer,” he says. “I’m not sure if pineapple and black patent will really work, for example. Maybe pineapple and chocolate though …”

At Lost Abbey, meanwhile, Arthur says that they love using Cascade for finishing additions in these beers.

Personally, I think large doses of floral and spicy Noble hops add a pleasantly rustic character to a roasty beer. Pair your hops the same way you’d pair your food, and you’ll be in good shape. Don’t just go with what you “usually” use. You’ll also want to use a high-alpha bittering hop to keep the total mass of plant matter down: Not only will it minimize loss from wort-soaked hops, but it will reduce the risk of vegetal aromas from above-average amounts of late hops designed to cut through the malt flavors and aromas.

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Yeast

First, recognize that different yeast strains have different effects on both hop flavor and perceptions of bitterness, so some of this is trial and error. However, there are some reliable choices you can make related to overall complexity and (to some extent) production of diacetyl.

Don’t automatically assume that you should lean heavily on really clean yeasts. “I think high hopping rates and Belgian yeast work well together, especially when things are fermented really dry,” says Shrago at Beachwood.

Also, a touch of diacetyl in a dark beer can help soften up harsher roast edges, so don’t write off those British ale yeasts—especially if your hopping is trending toward the fruity side of the flavor wheel.

Recipe design is a lot of the story here—but it’s not the whole story.

Process Considerations

There are three process areas that spring to mind in the actual brewing of dark and hoppy beers: mashing, hop additions, and carbonation.

First, when pairing heavier and darker malts with more assertive hop flavors, many pros favor worts of higher fermentability and lighter body. This means mash temperatures on the lower end of the saccharification range, such as 149°F (65°C), and for more time (90 minutes or so). Also watch your acidification since more roasted malts in the grist will do some (or all) of the pH correction work without help from typical phosphoric/lactic-acid additions.

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Then there’s the question of when to hop. If ever there was a time for aggressive whirlpool hopping, this is it: Since the hop oils will be fighting a tougher-than-usual battle to shine through the malt foreground, we want to preserve as much as we can—so even a very short boil costs us in terms of hop flavor. A long (20- to 30-minute), low-temperature (150°F/66°C) whirlpool will extract lots of those oils and minimize how much are boiled/steamed off.

Dry hopping is also typical here. Shrago says that they use a “fairly high rate of three pounds per barrel” (for homebrew purposes, that’s roughly 1½ ounces per gallon, or 11 g per liter). I would caution against going overboard on dry hopping, though: Heavy pine-resin character can wash out other, more subtle hop flavors—and they frankly have enough competition already in a dark and roasty beer.

Finally, aim a bit low on carbonation. High carbonation means more carbonic acid (accentuating and increasing perceived bitterness) as well as more scrubbing action on the tongue/palate. Both could help to over-amplify roast flavor and bitterness, which is probably undesirable.

With a bit of adjustment, you can create a complex beer that showcases the best of darker malts with a bright palate of hops.

Finally: Take a Risk

Conventional wisdom in brewing is often long on convention and short on wisdom. This is certainly one of those times.

The conventional wisdom of “Let your hops shine by keeping the malt background lighter” is selling short a panoply of dark-and-hoppy flavor profiles. Black IPA’s day in the sun may have been brief, but maybe that’s just because hops are more comfortable... in the dark.

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