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Beer Theory: How to balance hops in a beer recipe

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0
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Most folks that brew tend to get stuck on IBUs when talking about bitterness in a beer. That's fine but ultimately what really counts is the balance of IBUs (international bittering units) to the gravity of the beer. I guarantee that thinking in terms of balance will improve ALL of your recipes after reading this article. So how do you create a homebrew recipe with balanced bitterness?

First start with the style you are shooting for (pale, IPA, barley wine, brown ale, etc). Once you have a style in mind go try to find some good examples of the style. I like to use the book Clone Brews by Tess and Mark Szamatulski. It's got a great collection of beers and most importantly, they aren't all super obscure so chances are you can find them in your area. For a more theoretical approach check out the book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. It gives a great run down of American, English, and German styles. Each section shows the main components of the style and gives some pointers on how to brew them.

Once you have the style squared away it's time to create a bitterness ratio. The bitterness ratio is a simple equation: IBU / gravity points. You can calculate the IBUs using a program like proMash or you can use the online calculator Beer Calculus. Either way you need to find a calculator because the equation is complex and depends on hops along with the gravity of the beer. The gravity points are just the specific gravity - 1 * 1000.1 (so a SG of 1.060 becomes 60 points). I've gotten into the habit of saying the gravity of my beer in points rather than the SG because it sounds cooler (my beer has 100 points! Wow!!). The goal is to create an IBU to gravity points ratio that is comparable to the style you want to brew. For example: In my next brew I want to make a saison. Clone Brews lists the IBUs and SG of Saison Dupont as 25 and 1.064 respectively. 25 divided by 64 equals 0.39. Personally I'd like to lower the gravity a bit because last time I brewed it I drank waaaaaayyyy too much on account of the tastyness. The next morning however was not so tasty. I'm going to back the recipe down to 55 points (1.050 SG). This means I'll need only 21 IBUs. To find out what that means for my recipe I'll get out a homebrew calculator like the ones I mentioned earlier and play with the recipe until it's just right.

Once you have the ratio of IBUs to points you can start to think about the flavor balance. The flavor balance is how the beer actually tastes so you can't use some fancy math to get this right. Specifically, is the hop character in the beer bitter, aromatic, flavorful (citrus, floral, spicy, etc)? Those three kinds of hop "taste" come from when the hops are added to the boil. Bitter hop flavor comes from additions at the beginning of the boil. Most of your IBUs in any recipe will come from this addition. So called flavor hops (citrus, floral, spicy, etc) come from hop additions with 30 to 15 min. left in the boil. Hop aroma comes from late additions with 15 to 0 min. left in the boil. Notice that the flavor and aroma ranges are next to one another. Strictly speaking this isn't true; in reality they overlap to a great degree but it's more practical to think of them this way. If you are shooting for a bitter as sin beer you can add nearly all of your hops at the beginning of the boil saving some as late boil aroma hops. If you prefer a more subtle beer in the style of a pale ale bump up the mid and late boil hops and keep the early bittering hop additions low. Knowing the best time to add your hops is an art but thankfully it's one that's really fun to learn.

Before I close I want to mention malt bitterness. Malt bitterness is something that I didn't pick up on in beers for quite a while while friends of mine can't get past it (specifically girls that like hefeweizen and no other beers). To me malt bitterness just isn't unpleasant so it doesn't stick out. You can learn to recognize the flavor by munching on some roasted barley next time you visit your local homebrew shop. This bitterness is different than hop bitterness but it will add to the overall bitterness of your beer. This is one of the reasons why really dark malts like roasted barley aren't used in large amounts. To counteract the bitterness make sure you don't over-do-it with IBUs or brew strong beers when you want to use a lot of really dark malts.

There you have it, the three main ways to balance hops in your beer. The bitterness to gravity ratio, which is the most important; the subtle art of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma balancing; and the malt vs hop bitterness. Think about these balances next time you create a recipe and I guarantee that you beer will be much better for it.



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