Balancing Hoppy Beers: Tips from the Pros

Ed Kopta, Hoppy Brewing Company in Sacramento, CA

The concept of balance seems to be something of a moving target for me. As far as our brewing goals are concerned with respect to balance, we try to cover as much ground as possible while erring on the side of a bit more hops than called for. Most of our beers are fairly hoppy — one popular Brewers’ Special is ridiculously so. We try to satisfy the folks who prefer maltier beers with a couple tap handles and Brewers’ Specials as well.

When constructing a recipe for a balanced, hoppy brew, the question might be: What should the brewer be thinking? Is it a question of picking the correct kind of hops — one that has nice aroma and flavor characteristics that fade nicely on the palate toward maltiness? Or is it in the grain bill — having enough malt “oomph” to rise to the heavy hop characteristics?

Both points are important to us. We’ll use a decent charge of a high alpha variety hop for the start of the boil, but we try to emphasize character from late and dry hops more than overall bitterness. To do this we use hefty doses of aroma varieties at the end of the boil — hops like (the obligatory) Cascade, Crystal, Liberty, East Kent Goldings and the likes.

On the other side, malt “oomph” does have to rise up to meet the hops in our most balanced beers. We’ll use good amounts of caramel malts, carapils and even small touches of chocolate. Other good malts for this effect are Munich and Vienna used as a fair percentage of the base. One pretty well-balanced IPA uses all Maris Otter for its base malt.

We generally don’t play around with too many different yeasts; we use the Chico strain for just about everything. However, I suppose that selecting an estery, lower-attenuating strain of yeast (like the Fullers ESB variety) would serve to compete better with an overabundance of hops.

Brewing methodology plays a role. A higher mash temperature certainly serves to increase the final gravity, which will lead to malt sweetness. Our brewhouse only allows for single temperature infusions, so we don’t get too fancy about our mash profiles. Additionally, we have fairly hard water here and we don’t generally add salts. Calcium tends to increase the perception of bitterness, which is good for a typical IPA but may be too much for a really hoppy one. On the other hand, chloride ions help with palate fullness and will probably help the overall balance of the beer.

We add a good charge of high alpha hops (typically Nugget) a little before the kettle comes to a boil (around 206 ºF/97 ºC). I haven’t been convinced that additions 30 minutes before the end of the boil have much value, so we don’t add any more hops until 15, 10 and 5 minutes before the end, or directly at the end of the boil, depending on the beer. These tend to be lower alpha aroma types, though we do sometimes use small amounts of Columbus in this role. We vary the time of the additions between beers more for variety’s sake than for any overall brewing philosophy. Most of our beers are ales and most of them get a dose of aroma hops at the end of the boil. I prefer to boil the last hops charge in lagers for about five minutes — I have learned in my brewing experience that this is effective.

Again, the limitations of our brewhouse impose restrictions on what we can do. We only use hop pellets, but whole leaf hops would also be wonderful for late additions. A hop jack (hopback) would be even better.

Often times our beers use a single variety of late hops in order to display the characteristics of that one variety. I’ve learned that this can be perilous, as year-to-year variations in each variety of hops can cause variations in our beer! Also, many of our Brewers’ Specials will use multiple late and dry additions of a single new hops variety just to see what it has to offer. We’ve had good success with Vanguard, Glacier and Santiam in this regard (though I hear that the latter is being phased out).

Dry hopping is important to increase the hop flavor and aroma without increasing the bitterness. Again, plant limitations dictate our procedures: we simply pour pellets into the top of the fermenter when the beer is getting close to 32 ºF (0 ºC) — note that if the beer is too warm it will gush out the top of the fermenter when a large amount of hops is added! The beer will be in contact with the hops for about four to five days. Often times we’ll be forced to delay dry hopping a beer since we need to use the yeast for our next brew, and we don’t want it mixed with hops!

But homebrewers can do it differently. I’d drop hops plugs into the secondary carboy a week before packaging, or even place whole leaf hops into a tertiary one and rack the beer into it.

Highly carbonated beers have more CO2 bite that prickles the tongue and makes a beer seem more bitter. Lower carbonation would serve to minimize that effect. We serve one beer in this vein with a Guinness-style tap and a 75/25% blend of nitrogen and CO2. The smaller bubbles of nitrogen greatly enhance the smoothness of the beer, which helps out the perception of balance.

I’ve never experimented with hop oil extracts, but I imagine that this could be a fun type of beer to start with.

John Maier , Rogue Ales in Ashland, OR

There are not many people who like hops as much as I do, but when I taste a beer that is so dry that there is no malt to back up the bitterness, even I get turned off. So, ultimately, I guess that’s the concept of a “balanced, hoppy beer” — creating an all-around enjoyable brew.

There are four things that are important to maintaining balance. First, the use of specialty malts in large quantities will add body to your beer. We use lots of Munich and crystal malts in order to achieve this.

The second factor is mash temperature. A higher mash temperature will generally reduce your attenuation through the creation of non-fermentables. Although I mention that, I still think it is more important to consider how your malts are going to work with the hops to achieve the balance you are seeking.

The third thing is yeast. Yeast selection will play a role. I suggest using a strain that will not ferment bone dry. Check the attenuation rating provided by the yeast lab.

And finally, the fourth is fermentation temperature. Ferment cool. We ferment at 60 ºF (16 ºC). This will reduce attenuation. Our yeast is unique as it will ferment as low as 50 ºF (10 ºC), but beware — not all yeasts perform like ours at Rogue.

Part of creating balance has to do with picking the correct kind of hops. Use hops with a low co-humulone level. High-alpha hops like Horizon, Simcoe, Amarillo and noble varieties give a smooth clean bitterness.

How and when you hop your brews is going to be based on your preferences and experience, but here’s an idea of what we do at Rogue: We always hop at the start of the boil. Sometimes we do a first wort hopping, but not normally. We also hop heavily in the hopsack.

That being said, hoppy, balanced beers do not require dry hopping. Part of the balance equation happens in the bottle or keg. By that, I mean that some carbonation is required for mouthfeel. Our CO2 levels at Rogue are on the low side. Too much CO2 interferes with the taste experience. I’d suggest going lighter-than-normal on the priming sugar if you bottle condition your brews.

Issue: May-June 2005