How to Achieve Balance in Your Beer Brewing
Balance. This term is used frequently when describing and judging beer. As brewers, we continually strive for that elusive reward; the truly balanced beer brew. But is there an objective way to judge the nuances of this much-elucidated concept? Surely, it’s a subjective matter and comes down to personal preferences?
To complicate the issue further, we each distort our own sense of balance by what we consume. It makes sense that if we have a preference for one flavour then we will seek it out and choose it above others time and time again.. We train our palate and become accustomed or even de-sensitised to that flavour, requiring more and more to achieve our own sense of balance. Like Posy’s husband’s love for and capacity to handle hot chili peppers! If you drink nothing but hop-heavy IPAs, surely your tendency will be towards a more bitter beer, sucking down a palate-wrecking IBU count without a second thought. Does this then mean the subtleties of a softer, malty-sweet California Common are lost on you? How could you then judge the “balance” of either beer?
So how do we start when judging or even designing a “balanced” beer? The technical way to measure this balance is by the BU:GUs; the ratio of Bitterness Units (the B.U.s) to Gravity Units (the G.U.s). The malty sweetness in a beer must be offset by bitterness, to what extent is one of the factors that governs different beer styles. THE BJCP guidelines provide the predetermined BU:GU ratio for each style, – so this is the perfect place to start.
The B.U.s are contributed by the hops. The exact variety of hop used and the timing of their addition to the beer brew will determine the end level of bitterness to the beer (measured in International Bitterness Units or IBUs). Much like grapes to a wine, different hops will contain massively different bitterness-producing alpha acids from one variety to the next and even from one growth year to the next within the same variety (think of good and bad vintages for wine and you’ll get the idea).
The G.U.s – or the sugars, will come from the malts. In similarity to the hops, different malted grain varieties and their levels of roasting will contribute different amounts and types of sugars – resulting in a variety of sugars being released during the MASH. Some of these sugars will be unfermentable and will remain in the finished beer unchanged by the yeast, affecting the overall body of the beer.
In simple terms, the BU:GU is the number of IBUs divided by the amount of sugar present at the beginning of fermentation (known as the Original Gravity). Where 0.5 is considered technically “balanced”, the higher the number, the more perceived bitterness. The BJCP BU:GU ratios range from below 0.2 for fruit lambic ales to well over 1.0 for Imperial IPAs.
When brewing from a kit recipe, you should assume that the BU:GU ratio has been worked out according to the style guidelines, but can you do anything to alter this yourself? You sure can!
How to influence the BU:GU Ratio in your brewing:
As you become more familiar with the brewing process and more adept at temperature control, you can start to experiment. Even within the confines of a pre-made kit you can tweak the process and adjust the balance.
Changing hop addition times is an easy place to start. Adding hops early in the BOIL will contribute to the IBUs, whereas shifting the timing towards the end of the BOIL will decrease the IBUs in your beer.
You can change the number of Gravity Units in your beer by adjusting the amount of grain and/or water when you brew. The more concentrated your wort, the higher the Gravity Units present. It’s worth noting that this will also increase the ABV and decrease the final volume of beer.
Additionally, you could play with the G.U.s by adding other sugar sources to your beer – maybe some fruit or juice or even some honey or molasses. Note that these additions may or may not influence the final A.B.V. – depending on whether you add fermentable sugars or not.
As we always like to say, the beauty of home brewing means that you are in control. Use your experimentation not only to help you understand the importance of each element, but as a journey to help you understand what you like. BJCP can give you guidelines and is a good place to start, but at the end of the brew day, homebrewing is about creating the beer that you like to drink – with your own sense of “Balance”.
Interested in giving brewing a try? Check out our Starter Beer Brewing Kits HERE