Few topics are as divisive amongst brewers as that of balance – something I find quite ironic. Oddly, balance is something conceptually simple – I mean, if I said to you, “tell me what balance is” you’d probably look at me gone out – yet is in reality the opposite – hellishly complex.
Balance implies a pivot point… something on one side countering something on the other to create a sense of equalising forces. But in my experience in foods and drinks it’s more like neutrality – too often, in the pursuit of balance, something is lost not gained. Perhaps neutered is better than neutralised.
And it’s worse in beer. Worse because balance is one of the subjects brewers of mass beer can use to level at craft beer. A drinkable, everyday pale beer vs a deeply bitter IPA , loaded to the gunwales with whole cone C Hops. No contest on then as, sure, it may have ‘character’ but it isn’t balanced, it’s not moreish. Well, whichever way you see the world it’s all erroneous. Balance just isn’t a two dimensional creature. And there are more than two variables at play, which doesn’t help understanding nor appreciation of beer.
The bitterness scale of International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is the normal ‘measure of beer’. It’s become a limiting shorthand, aided and abetted by the Nuclear Hop Race and IBU proliferation. Brewers across many continents pushing the boundaries – introducing multiple stages of hopping in the boil, as well, of course as post-fermentation hopping, chiefly through dry hops. More prosaically, on my days running Grolsch, those who didn’t agree with the strategy would throw in the cheap shot of bitterness: Grolsch is just too distinctive, too bitter to be an ‘everyday brand’. But no one mentioned the residual sweetness in the beer that in fact meant it was both a characterful and well balanced lager. In fact, I hadn’t realised until recently that there is a measure of this particular balance – BU:GU or bitterness units to gravity units; nor had I realised the relatively common old British practise of measuring ‘Pounds of hops per quarter malt’. A contender for a better shorthand descriptor than just IBUs? Maybe.
Were the world so simple. Bitterness and sweetness are not the only facets that make up beer. There is saltiness and sourness of course. If you think beer cannot be salty then try and get hold of some Burtonised brewing liquor and taste that – positively coats the mouth it does. And next time you have a pint of Pedigree just see if you can’t detect it, especially now it’s been pointed out. Sourness is huge in food at the moment – particularly confectionery, where brands like Haribo Tangfastics, Wham Sourz and the most worryingly pleasingly named, Toxic Waste, represent the growth categories in the UK market. And in beers it’s not just lambics that offer sourness, some of the new wave brewers are aging on wood and in some case even exposing the beer to controlled oxidisation to give these tastes. So why not a sour: sweet axis for beer?
Then there’s umami – the mystical 5th taste which is behind many of the most astonishing beer and food pairings, like cheese, oysters, meat pies and the Pint’s Best Friend, scratchings. Yep, even umami is present in beer – chiefly as a result of the fermentation process.
So if balance is not two dimensional, it’s three, right? Well, not even that, because then there’s the alchemical effect of visual appearance and cognitive perception. Visually: the head, the colour, the condensation, the presentation; cognitively – the reputation, the word of mouth. How many unarguably average beers have a reputation way beyond the sum of their parts due to these?
No, the conclusion I draw is that balance is a red herring. You may want a balanced beer on occasion; heaven knows a pint of Landlord scores bullseye for me on this measure, yet more often I don’t. As I write this I am positively craving a hoppy IPA. I don’t want balance, I want a full on, in-your-face malty, floral extravaganza. In the Summer, around the barbecue, I can predict that I’ll be drinking something so cold it will numb the taste buds. No, balance is like the mystical double helix of DNA. I get it in principle but I’ll be damned if I can make head nor tail of it in everyday life. Balance is a cul-de-sac I won’t be walking down.
©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013