What is balance in beer?

A man balancing on a bicycle.

‘Balanced’, like ‘clean‘, is one of those words all beer geeks learn from their first primer (usually a book by Michael Jackson, Roger Protz or someone similar) — but what, exactly, does it mean? A bit of argy-bargy on the subject on Twitter got us thinking.

We’ve promised ourselves not to quote every nugget of wisdom from For the Love of Hops because it wouldn’t fair to Stan, but we can’t resist this new addition to the Tao of Keeling:

To have balance in the beer does not mean simply to go to the middle, bland flavours.

So, ‘balanced’ needn’t mean restrained, as long as its unrestrained in every direction at once? The yellow platform shoes will look better if complemented with a feather boa? That kind of thing?

The reason balance has a bad reputation in some quarters is, as Mr Keeling suggests, because some brewers of bland beer use it as a defence mechanism, implying that their critics have no taste.

And, as for the assumption that balance is best… well, yes, usually, it probably is. Most of the time, even if we want to drink an intensely-flavoured beer, we want it to present a Wall of Taste — a cohesive blend. Every now and then, though, a really sweet, bitter, sour, one note beer can be quite fun.

Is balance prized, at least in part, because unbalanced beers are the equivalent of an air horn, while balance requires virtuoso skill? That’s especially true of extreme balancing.

11 thoughts on “What is balance in beer?”

  1. A balanced beer to me means something like watching a person walking on a tight rope, or doing some acrobatics, or something like that. Balance is everything in there, but its also fun because you know that the tiniest mistake can send the whole crashing down.

    PS: Now that I look at the picture again. That’s exactly what I mean.

  2. “A cohesive blend” more or less does it for me, but too often it means in effect “unchallenging”. It needn’t. I’m with John Keeling on that one.

    1. I think it’s the way that bitterness, residual sugars, alcohol, hop aroma/flavour and fermentation characteristics meld to an overall result. It’s one of those intangibles that is hard to describe, but you know from tasting when everything drops into place. As Tandleman says – this doesn’t have to equate to “unchallenging” – but maybe that’s where the brewing challenges lie in making interesting beers that are still cohesive.

      Many talk about the IBU:GU ratio – 0.7-0.8 being an oft quoted value. This is a pretty good start for eg bitters (compare to commercial examples), but for some styles, there’s a lot more going on. I’ve found American amber/red ales to be one style where it’s easy to fall off the four-way tightrope of caramel malt sweetness, hop flavour, bitterness and alcohol – too much in one direction and it can just fail to meld well.

  3. I think the issue here is the recurring problem of using a word both as a description and as a mark of approval. It’s even more complicated here because some people are using the word as a mark of disapproval.

    So: when you say ‘balanced’, are you talking about a property exhibited by

    – all really good beers and no others
    – most really good beers and some others
    – lots of different beers, some good, some bad
    – lots of quite poor beers and some really good ones
    – most mediocre beers and no really good ones

    Gazza Prescott & his pals presumably use ‘balanced’ in the last sense – a lack of balance (as they see it) is part of what they’re trying to achieve. Personally I use it in the first sense, so it makes sense to me to call a hop-bomb ‘balanced’ (as long as it’s a really good hop-bomb). I wouldn’t describe a boring pint of Spitfire as ‘balanced’, because (as I see it) there’s nothing there to balance.

    1. What Phil said, pretty much. Of course, beer tasting happens in time and a balance can be established over that time. That’s the “telling a story” or beginning / middle / end thing isn’t it? The “arc” of the experience. Not well represented by a static measure like IBU:GU.

  4. Indeed, a beer can be balanced in its assertiveness. I once read a comment that suggested the idea that assertive American-Style India Pale Ales should have balance is foolish; that it contradicts the notion of the beer style. But this is silly, and a clear misunderstanding of the term. Aromas can be pungent and flavors potent, but even in the extremes, balance can be achieved, and I think that often results in some of the most attractive IPAs. And of course, that can apply to any beer style. As long as there is some semblance of togetherness, there’s no reason balance can’t apply to a strongly flavored beer.

  5. “For me there two factors involved—technical precision and creativity. Both of these ideals create a balance—and balance is important in innovation.”

    From one of my recent posts—a post inspired by you guys, actually

  6. I steer clear of using the word “balanced.” I heard it used too often where “bland” would be more appropriate. “Balanced” is often a euphemism for “bland.” BaLANceD.

  7. I think an “unbalanced” beer is simply one with one flavour so strong that it overwhelms everything else, like a gueuze that tastes of nothing but sourness, or an american IPA that is just Hop Soup.

  8. I’m sure the definition of balance differs from person-to-person, but for me a beer has good balance if its flavor combines well on the tongue with an intriguing hop character. By “intriguing hop character” I don’t mean one of those beers that was simply made to see how many more lbs of hops we can toss into this than our competing brewers.

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