Making Balanced Beer

The boring guy with thinning hair in a Lacoste jumper, loafers and chinos at the party who drinks too much then dribbles in your ear all evening about how his divorce has shafted him, he never sees his kids, he can’t afford the golf club membership anymore, all because he might have been banging his secretary. The wrong kind of bitterness.

You sit down on a hot day with a sweating glass of pilsner in a beer garden. You lift the glass to your mouth, you swallow. That gently building wave of mouth-drying, tannic, herbal rasp that wipes away the bready malt character, leaving you ready for the next mouthful. The right kind of bitterness.

The beer industry has undoubtedly gone hop mad in the last ten years. Hop usage has shot up, and with the sheer number of new breweries in this country alone means demand has spiralled. Many breweries are buying hops en primeur under contract up to three years in advance. This newfound fetishism of the humble Humulus Lupulus bine has created somewhat of an arms race. Huge dry hopping ratios. Who can use the most hops? Who can make the bitterest beer? Wet hop harvest beers.

Some of these practices are great for the drinker. The vogue for hop forward, pale, strong beers has seen the clarity of hop flavour that breweries are producing come on leaps and bounds. People experimenting with mash hopping, hop stands and ‘torpedoing’ dry hops are all great things. The green hop beer festival down in Kent is a great community event with brewery open days and a shuttle bus laid on between. Some of these practices however are lazy, gimmicky and are purely a dick waving competition that masks beer faults and lack of technical skill from the brewer.

The key to making a great beer is finding balance. If I’m to generalise and stick to talking about standard top and bottom fermented beers using a pitched culture of ale or lager yeast (wild, sour beers are a whole different kettle of fish,) finding balance, in my opinion is to do with the aroma, residual sugar and bitterness of the beer

Two of these are pretty easy to measure, residual sugar can be measured with a hydrometer in either degrees Plato or in Specific Gravity units. Bitterness is most regularly measured in International Bittering Units on a scale of 0-100. Aroma is pretty difficult to quantify and is reliant on lots of factors such as temperature, carbonation and even the shape of the glass it is poured into.

The tricky thing about bitterness is that 22 IBU in one beer will taste very different in another. As a rule of thumb, the sweeter and stronger a beer is, the more it will hide bitterness. A 7% beer at 75 IBU might only taste as bitter as a 4.5% percent beer with 22 IBU. To help find this balance there is a handy, simple calculation a brewer can use. This is called the BU:GU calculation. Essentially you divide the bitterness in IBU by the original gravity of the beer. Ray Daniels in his book ‘Designing Great Beers’ lists the ideal BU:GU number for the majority of BJCP styles. For example, if I brewed a Helles/Hell/Hells (delete vowels and consonants at your own risk) with an OG of 1.050 and a bitterness of 22 IBU:

22/50= 0.36

According to Daniels, this is the ideal BU:GU ratio for a Helles.

This is all very well and good, except adding a big dry hop to your beer will add bitterness too. Now all the homebrew software you will use will tell you it won’t, but try chewing a hop pellet. They are tongue ruiningly bitter. You can’t tell me adding them post fermentation adds no bitterness. This is where the real art and science of being a brewer comes. Knowing how much dry hop to add to maintain balance and drinkability, experimenting over time with different gyles, trimming the quantity this way and that to get it just right.

Any clown can chuck a load of pale malt in a beer, bitter it to 90IBU and chuck in 100g/l of dryhop once it has fermented. The result will be drinkable, but a bit of a train crash. But it won’t have any balance and it will certainly be hugely bitter. I’d challenge anyone to drink more than a couple of pints of it without needing someone to pass them a tongue scraper. Brewing that crisp, refreshing, delicately bittered pilsner is way, way harder.

That said, it is personal preference, some people like train wreck beers. At least we can agree that that bitter, Lacoste wearing train wreck guy is a pain in the arse.

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