Bal­anc­ing Act

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents -

There are ap­proaches that can help us find bal­ance in our beers when we want it and make our im­bal­ances work for us when they’re war­ranted and wanted. Josh Weik­ert takes you through fla­vor-by-fla­vor and de­rives some gen­eral rules to guide you to a balanced state.

There are ap­proaches that can help us find bal­ance in our beers when we want it and make our im­bal­ances work for us when they’re war­ranted and wanted. Josh Weik­ert takes you through fla­vor-by-fla­vor and de­rives some gen­eral rules to guide you to a balanced state.

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 midrange 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.

Bit­ter/sweet

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

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.

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 low­er­al­co­hol 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 pro­ces­sand 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.

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.

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