In our third installment of seriously important homebrew components (which I wish someone had told me earlier), I’m going to walk you through the issue of balance.

And I’m not referring to some kind of zen-like mystical balance here, but balance in beer. Okay, so maybe it gets a bit mystical, but not a lot. Promise.

You may have heard beer critics and judges wax lyrical about a well-balanced beer. And they’re not wrong to be passionate about a beer where all the elements play in harmony. But what exactly is balance when applied to beer and more importantly, how the heck do you brew a well-balanced beer?

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Balance is not bitterness ratio

In other articles, I’ve talked a lot about how important bitterness ratio is to brewing better beer. This little statistic is easy to calculate and can tell the homebrewer a whole lot about the final taste of their beer. Just to recap, the (simplified) calculation of bitterness ratio is bitterness (in IBUs) divided by Original Gravity points.

So, if your beer has an OG of 1.050 and 30 IBUs of bitterness, the bitterness ratio will be 0.6 (i.e. 30/50 = 0.60).

Bitterness ratio is a good indicator of the perceived bitterness of a beer. At around 0.4-0.45 bitterness ratio, beers tend to taste somewhat sweet or neutral. So, in terms of bitterness ratio, you could say there is a balance between the malt’s sweetness and the hops’ bitterness.

But that is not the same thing as the balance we’re talking about or what beer aficionados seek out. If that were the case, you’d never be able to brew a balanced pale ale, IPA, or any number of other beers that have bitterness ratios of below 0.4 or above 0.5.

So what the hell is this balance thing?

To understand it, we need to understand what goes into the taste of beer.

Understanding what makes beer taste like beer

It seems maybe too obvious to mention, but you’d be surprised how many homebrewers don’t actually know why their beers taste the way they do. Understanding how each ingredient contributes to flavor is the first step to crafting a balanced beer:

Yeast. Yeast is a major contributor to flavor in your beer. Those fruity esters of an English ale, the clove-like phenols in a great wheat beer, the barnyard complexity of a Saison: all of them come from yeast and how you fermented your beer to completion. Understand how these flavors play with others, and you’re on your way to more balanced beers.

Malt. Malts are complex flavor contributors and can range from bready, toasty, caramel, coffee, rich toffee, chocolate, and a host besides. Again, if you want to create a well-balanced beer, you need to understand the degree to which your malts will contribute these (and other) flavors, as well as the degree to which such flavors will combine with those of yeast and hops.

Hops. Ah, those wonderful little plants! Hops come in so many varieties that it’s hard to keep up. But suffice it to say, hop flavors can vary from dank resins to delicate herbal notes, forest floor, tropical, lemongrass, mint, grapefruit, and pinecone.

Adjuncts and special ingredients. As you may know, I’m quite fond of extreme beers that go beyond the boring old Reinheitsgebot. Add sugars, fruits, herbs and spices already! But make sure you know what these will do to the final brew! Often it’s a question of when you’re going to add the ingredient.

For instance, adding fruit to the boil will extract more stewie flavors whereas adding fruit directly to the fermenter will produce brighter, fresher flavors.

How do you become an expert at ingredient flavors? By experimenting of course! Brew a lot of SMASH (Single Malt, Single Hops) beers and vary just one of the ingredients. Add interesting ingredients to the mix. Cross-compare, take notes, you know the drill.

A body problem

You may have noticed me mentioned a few times by now how it’s important to know how ingredients “play together” or combine. One of the key determining factors of how that happens is locked up in the body of your beer.

Now you may recall from previous articles that body is determined by the degree of residual sugars and malts found in the finished product. Light bodied beers tend to have few residual sugars and/or fewer malts. So, their mouthfeel is thinner and they finish drier. To create a light bodied beer, you’ll need to mash at lower temperatures or include more fermentable sugars.

Conversely, beers with more residual sugar and more malt complexity (these are not necessarily mutually inclusive), tend to have a fuller, more chewy mouthfeel and tend to finish sweeter and less dry. Such beers are brewed by mashing in at higher temperatures and including fewer fermentables or dosing the beer with non-fermentable sugars like lactose.

Once you understand the body of your beer, you can start to predict how the different flavor contributions of your ingredients will play together. Like so:

Light bodied beers will tend to emphasize both yeast and hop flavors. Bitter hops will seem more bitter, tropical flavors will be more powerful, etc. The same is true for yeast flavors like fruity esters or clove-like phenols. Here, fewer hops will produce the same results as in medium to full bodied beers.

Fuller bodied beers will mute hop flavors and disguise yeast contributions. Instead, the malt flavors will predominate and overall flavors will move more towards the sweeter, more grain-based spectrum. To produce a full-bodied, highly hopped beer, for instance, you will need to increase your hop quantity.

Bringing it all together

Once you understand the relationship between bitterness ratio, ingredients, and body, you can brew more balanced beer. This is where the science and art of brewing come together in a zen-like fusion that is pretty fantastic when you get it right.

I like to think of the whole affair like a well-oiled rock band. When it works, it really, really works. But when things go awry . . . Well, let’s just say it ain’t pretty.

Here are a couple of steps to get you there:

1. Bitterness ratio gets you there. So, if bitterness ratio is not the measure of balance, what is it good for? Very importantly, it tells you if you’re in the right ballpark for the style you’re aiming at. No matter the actual quantity of hops or malts, if you’re brewing an IPA with a bitterness ratio of below 0.4, it’s not going to taste like an IPA.

Conversely, if you’re brewing an Irish stout with a bitterness ratio of 0.9, you’re not doing it right.

The ballpark you’re aiming for might be pretty wide (e.g. “Session IPAs” tend to have far lower bitterness ratios than their regular cousins), but it is still a valuable and vital step in brewing balanced beer.

Sticking with the rock band metaphor, bitterness ratio is like the style of the rock band. You wouldn’t be happy if you went to a Foo Fighters gig and they sounded like The Bieber, now would you?

Get the style right and you’ve got the first box ticked.

2. Malts are the backbone. Do yourself a favor and put a (very) small piece of hop pellet on your tongue. When you’ve recovered, you’ll have a new appreciation for the role that malts play in creating beer flavor. Hops are incredibly bitter, and for beer to have balance, you need to create a counterpoint to that bitterness.

Malts provide the counterpoint. They’re the solid drum backbeat, the backing vocals, the bass guitar that never drops a line.

Depending on the style you’re aiming for, the type and complexity of the malts will vary. For instance, if you’re brewing an APA, you may want to balance the tropical bitterness of the hops with some nice caramel and bread-like malts. Again, this does not mean that you have to balance the malts and hops in a mathematical sense. That’s bitterness ratio. Instead, you need to acknowledge how the hops and malt flavors are likely to combine.

3. Hops and yeast are the rock stars (kinda). If malts are the dependable, familiar support acts of beer balance, then hops and yeast are the colorful, flamboyant lead singers and guitarists who occasionally throw televisions through hotel windows.

So keeping that in mind, you want to learn how to use these ingredients wisely. All too often, novice homebrewers, in a fit of hop-induced delirium, will see just how much hops they can put into the kettle before creating a small black hole and sucking all good sense down the gravity well.

But it rarely works because it’s just not balanced.

Fermenting your ale yeast at too hot a temperature is like giving that teenage rock band the keys to the Ferrari and an no-limit credit card. It’s not going to end well.

Control and judicious decision-making is the name of the game when it comes to these characters.

4. Body makes it all sing. Once you’ve got all the members of the (beer) band assembled, you’ll need to make sure that they get into that studio and record the platinum album.

In beer, that’s body. Think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve with your beer flavor. Do you want to create a showcase for hop flavor, or is this about the subtle use of additional ingredients?

Your objectives will inform that decisions you make about what type of body you’ll need for the beer. For instance, if you’re trying to brew a hop explosion IPA with balance, you’ll need to be careful to keep the body light enough to express full hop flavor without having the bitterness overpower everything to the point of being undrinkable.

Here, you may want to experiment with a few stronger-flavored malts, adjunct sugars to dry things out, and yeast with a super-clean profile that can ferment at cool temperatures. Adding more late-kettle and whirlpool hops will also help.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the previous ones in the series! Let me know how things are going with your own homebrews in the comments below: I’ll always reply to questions!

Now go brew.

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