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. Bal­ance is “it gets you pissed at just the right rate as a fac­tor of the speed at which you are drink­ing”

    hope that helps.

  8. 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.

  9. 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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