Balancing Malt & Hops: Tips from the Pros

Two of the biggest ingredients at a brewer’s disposal are malt and hops. Each ingredient has its very own flavor profile, and matching the right malt with the right hops — in the right balance — is the key to formulating perfect recipes that are true to style. This issue, we talk to three professional brewers who give advice on scripting grain and hop bills that will commingle successfully to style.

Brewer: Alan Pugsley, Shipyard Brewing Company in Portland, ME

At Shipyard we have an English single infusion brewhouse so we use premium quality English malts which have been well modified and are suited both to our system and flavor profiling. We will also employ some German malts for different character traits in some of our brews.

 The key to all great beers is to ensure there is a perfect balance between the malt and hops according to style.
I always say that malt and hops should go down the aisle and get married to create the perfect balance.
To this end, I do not formulate recipes based on straight IBUs, ABV and color but more on achieving a good balance between all these facets to create a pleasant drinking beer that will ultimately taste like “another one!” Our Brewers Choice Brown (vintages 2005 and 2006) is a beer that accentuates the malt character very well along with a good hop character.
A combination of pale ale, crystal and chocolate malts are used along with wheat and roasted barley to produce a very smooth malt balance which highlights in a very defined but subtle way the chocolate character in particular. This is then balanced off with English Goldings and Challenger hops for a good English hop character. The beer has 31 IBUs, a color of 34 SRM and 5.2 % ABV.
We use about 20 different varieties of hops in the beers we make at Shipyard, some from the USA, some from the UK and some from Germany. They are all used for specific formulation reasons. However I can say that as a general rule we primarily use hops that one might consider “aroma” hops even for bittering.
We do not tend to use many hops over an alpha acid content of 7 since the traditional high alpha hops tend to lend a “tar-like” taste to beers (in my opinion). Using lower alpha hops tends to be expensive but it’s worth the price to make a “world class beer.”One beer we make that truly accentuates our hops is our Shipyard “Fuggles IPA,” which has 50 IBUs and only uses the English Fuggles hop in its recipe.
The average alpha acid of this hop is 4.0 and hence to achieve 50 IBUs we use a lot. (Don’t let the bean counters get a hold of this!) This beer — for a hoppy IPA — is extremely gentle and very flavorful, without making the inside of your mouth pucker up.

Brewer: Todd Charbonneau, Harpoon Brewery in Boston, MA

After deciding what to brew and how it’s going to be brewed, I normally choose the base malt to be used first (i.e. Maris Otter for a British style, Pilsner Malt for a German Lager, etc.). For specialty malt usage, I recommend doing your homework on the malts you want to use. Contact the maltster about recommended usage and expected flavor profile.
Brew the same beer more than once, and make incremental changes to learn about the
impact the malts you’ve chosen have on your beers.
Our IPA has a slightly sweet, toasty malt character. The residual sweetness is complemented by the toasty notes provided by a malt from Briess Malting called Victory Malt.
This added complexity goes well with the four late Cascade hop additions that we employ. It is this malt character combined with the citrusy, piney essence of the Cascade hops that is the signature of our IPA.
I recently used a Chinook hop for a barleywine. It has strong notes of grapefruit, mango and pine. I used it in three additions at 70, 80 and 90 minutes during a 90-minute boil.
After fermentation, the beer had such an amazing aroma that I considered not dry hopping it. I’m sure I will reconsider when the time comes!

Brewer: Kirby Nelson, Capital Brewery in Madison, WI

In terms of malt selection for a beer, my rule of thumb is to first know what I want the beer to accomplish in terms of flavor. Then, I decide what types of malt are needed to achieve the desired flavor profile.
Most importantly though, is to determine the amounts of the chosen malts percentage wise in order to create a properly balanced (key word!) beer that has the desired taste and is very drinkable (key word #2!).
Our Pilsner is a Bavarian-style Pilsner in which I have switched to using malted barley from Germany. I did this because after years of messing around formula wise with domestic malt, I have come to the conclusion that to gain the proper flavor profile of this particular style, U.S. barley doesn’t make the nut.
The European barleys grown for brewing have a flavor depth and richness that I find lacking in domestically grown barley varieties.
In order to get the hop bitterness that this beer needs to exhibit, the flavor that German barley (Scarlett in this instance) provides is much more appropriate.
This is an 11.8 ºPlato beer and the IBUs are in the mid-30s range. I am using Northern Brewer and Saaz for the hop bill and throw a good amount of Saaz in post boil when we are pumping to the swirl tank. This helps to give this beer that unique Saaz flavor. This beer has a very pleasant depth of malt flavor yet exhibits that dryness from the bittering in the finish that a Pilsner must have.
After 20 years I’m damn near happy with it!
We also make a beer called Winter Skål. This is our winter seasonal that is a 15 ºP beer with 2-row and 6-row brewer’s malt, caramel 60, Munich and honey malts.
A fairly rich beer with IBUs in the low 20s. As far as hops, I use Liberty (my favorite U.S. hop) for bittering and like our Pilsner, add a decent amount to the wort in the kettle in the last few minutes of puming to the swirl tank.
This gives the beer a very nice hop flavor, yet the bittering does not get in the way of the maltiness that I want this beer to exhibit.
Always understand how you want your beer balanced and remember, ultimately it should be drinkable! Extremism does not necessarily make a good beer — even though this seems to be a concept that a lot of folks do not agree with.
Personally, I believe over-hopping is a vice.
Issue: October 2006