Brewing A Balanced Beer – The Art of Bitterness

Today we’re going to look what goes into brewing a balanced beer. I have to admit I’ve been putting this article off, as it’s really nuanced. I’ll try my best to explain it in an understandable way.

The problem with brewing a balanced beer is there’s no “bible”, a definitive text for brewers on what to do. Every brewer has their own method of putting a beer recipe together; shaped by their brewing education and time in the industry.

Beer Recipe Design Mind Map
The Elements of Putting A Recipe Together

So, we’ll look at some of the principles behind brewing and achieving the sacred “balance” brewers and craft beer drinkers talk about. However, we first need to understand the meaning of term “balance” when talking about beer.

Quick note: When we’re talking about “IBU’s”, we mean International Bitterness Units, the universally used gauge for beer’s bitterness.

IBU’s are a measure in ppm (parts per million) of isohumulone found in a beer. Isohumulone is the acid found in hops, which imparts bitterness to beer.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Beer and Balance?

You might have heard a brewer say “I tried the new IPA by ABC Brewing the other day, they really nailed the balance between bitterness and sweetness”. Or…

“The Kolsch I made the other day was crisp, the IBU’s and the final gravity (FG) were right where I wanted them for perfect balance”. Or…

“I tried the new sour by 123 Brewing at Cheers on draft, it was too sour, and I had trouble finishing it”.

In every day speech “balance” means one of two things. Firstly, when two contributing elements are in equal proportion. Imagine a kitchen scale with a 500g weight on one side with 500g of sugar on the other side.

Brewing A Balanced Beer - Equal Proportions

The second meaning is where the contributing elements, are in the ideal or correct proportions. This second meaning, is the one we most associate with beer.

Beers generally don’t have “equal” levels of alcohol, bitterness, sweetness, maltiness, hop additions, color and carbonation. I guess the closest in style to being “all equal”, would be a darker amber beer.

When a brewer puts a recipe together, they understand these elements often aren’t in perfect symmetry, but will be balanced. So, one element isn’t too loud or soft; making the beer less appealing.

The Exceptions to Balance

We all know there are crazy beers out there. Every now and then, breweries want to have fun making a beer. The whole “pastry stout” style often leads to super sweet beers, which are far from balanced, but fun to brew and drink as a one-off.

OK, I’m going to admit something. I’m not a fan of the fruit beer craze, adding large percentages of fruit post fermentation. They’re generally not balanced; being too sweet or thick and cloying. They generally don’t taste like “beer” for sure.

However, the odd example where the beer is sour, with the fruit addition carefully thought about, can lead to an enjoyable beer.

I’m thinking about the Founders Mas Agave Clasica Lime, which I had the other day. The whole Mas Agave range is great to be honest.

I’ll let Founders describe this beer in their own words…

“We took an imperial gose brewed with agave, lime and sea salt and then aged it in tequila barrels. Consider it a party in a bottle. ¡Más Agave Clásica Lime!”

Founder website

The key stats on this beer are: IBU’s 15 and ABV 10%

It’s a balanced beer; the ABV (alcohol by volume) works with the sourness, saltiness, residual sweetness and lime notes to make the beer super drinkable.

At 10% I quickly finished a glass of it…it’s a dangerous brew!

This Founder’s brew; is a great example of a beer with some big elements achieving balance. 15 IBU’s for 10% beer is low but, it subtly adds to the balance a long with the sourness and saltiness.

So, let’s take a look at some of the elements which should be considered when putting a recipe together.

Brewing A Balanced Beer – Bitter/Sweet

There are over one hundred different styles of beers out there. Three-quarters of the those are ales, one-quarter are lager with a smattering of hybrid styles.

Beer styles developed over time; in different parts of the world, became popular, replicated, given a name and finally the elements of the style locked in. For example:

Brewing A Balanced Beer - Brown Ale

The reason many of the styles became popular is the balance between bitterness and sweetness are correct.

Bitterness Level – Brewing A Balanced Beer

One of the key attributes of any beer is its bitterness level. When we’re talking about a “bitter” beer, were not talking about actual IBU’s but, the perception of bitterness the drinker experiences when tasting the brew.

Again, we’re talking about balance.

The actual IBU’s in the beer aren’t as important as how the bitterness presents itself when consumed. Depending on the style brewed, bitterness can be:

Masked: For example, an imperial stout can have a 100+ IBU’s but the beer doesn’t appear “bitter” as the residual sweetness and alcohol level masks (balances) the bitterness.

Enhanced: An American IPA is a “hop forwards beer” meaning, the use of hops and perceived bitterness is brewed to be high.

Yes, bitterness is perceived to be higher. However, a brewer uses other elements to make the beer balanced (see the Julius by Treehouse Brewing example below).

Used in a particular way: Take the Mas Agave Clasica Lime; the bitterness is low (15 IBU’s) for a strong and potentially sweet beer.

However, the balance comes from the sourness (hiding the residual sweetness). Bitterness plays a smaller but important role in the overall balance of this beer.

Brewing A Balanced Beer – The BU:GU Ratio

Many brewers use the “BU to GU ratio” when putting a recipe together. The bitterness units to gravity units of a brew. If the BU:GU ratio is over 1.00, the more bitter the beer is.

We are talking about the original gravity (OG) of a brew; compared to the IBU’s. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Fat Tire (by New Belgium)

IBU 22 and OG is 1.050

In this example the BU:GU ration is 22/50 which equals 0.44 (balanced)

Arrogant Bastard (by Stone)

IBU 74 and the OG is 1.070 (taken from a clone recipe)

In this example the BU:GU ration is 74/70 which equals 1.05 (bitter). Here’s one review of Arrogant Bastard (oaked version) on Beer Advocate.

Brewing A Balanced Beer - Arrogant Bastard Review

Hey, Arrogant Bastard is a world-famous beer, but its perceived bitterness is too much for some people. As the reviewers says, the pieces don’t come together. I just picked this example to make a point.

Julius (by Treehouse)

However, here’s another example. One of the top-rated IPA’s on Beer Advocate (BA), a well-known beer rating website, is Julius by Treehouse Brewing.

Now according to the clone recipe, I found, the vital statistics for this beer are:

IBU 75 and the OG is 1.061

In this example the BU:GU ration is 75/61 which equals 1.22 (higher ratio than for Arrogant Bastard).

Julius is rated 100 on BA, and considered “World class”. Clearly other elements make this a “balanced” and extremely drinkable beer. Here’s a typical review for Julius on Beer Advocate.

Brewing A Balanced Beer - Julius Review from Treehouse Brewing

Yes, the BU:GU ratio is a good place to start.  However, there are clearly other elements at play when putting a beer recipe together. With Julius, the IBU’s are somewhat masked by the alcohol level and fruit (perceived as sweet) esters.

It’s how the bitterness is used. Is the bitterness balancing something or a flavor you’re looking to accentuate?

Brewing A Balanced Beer – Strength, Sweetness and Bitterness Balance

Bitterness is often used to balance the sweetness of beer. Some flavors give the impression of “sweetness” in a beer, which need to balanced.

Fruity esters (think Julius by Treehouse), bready (or toasted) melanoidins (like a doppelbock), residual sugars (Wee heavy), etc. However, the single greatest source of sweetness in beer is actually alcohol.

Granted, a beer may have some residual long-chain sugars left over after fermentation adding sweetness. Alcohol is sweet on your tongue and needs to be balanced out. If not, a beer would appear/taste cloying, rich or syrupy.

As ABV increases so, does the attention a brewers need to pay to balance out the sweetness. The issue is the higher the ABV, the more IBU’s you need for balance.

Cohumulone Issues

When you need more IBU’s; more hops are required. The higher the hop load, the greater the cohumulone levels. Higher cohumulone levels can lead to harsher bitterness.

Therefore, you need to speak with your hop suppliers; seeking out hops which have high alpha acid content, but lower cohumulone levels. Furthermore, the higher the alpha acid content, the less hops you’ll use, meaning less plant matter.

So ideally for bittering you want a hop high in alpha acid, but low on cohumulone levels.

These days as commercial brewer, I use a liquid hop product like Flex from Bath Haas, for smooth bitterness in the finished beer. Also, using a liquid extract for bittering means you have less plant matter going into your brew.

Flex Hops Product in China
Hop Extracts Can Offer Many Benefits To A Brewer

Furthermore, large amount of plant matter (or pellets) leads to greater beer losses. It’s estimated you lose just over 5L of beer for every kilogram of hops used (0.15 quarts per ounce).

Plus, the hop loads of certain hop varieties can lead to vegetal flavors, if they are over used.

Take Cluster hops for example, they’re known to have a “cat-pee” or black current leaf aroma, which can be interpreted as sulfur-like (vegetal).

Click here if you want to learn more about hops from our article called “What are Hops, and Why They are Used in Beer?”.

Hop Burn – Brewing A Balanced Beer

Then you’ve hop burn; which people experience as astringency and harsh mouth feel. It’s a result of dry-hopping for too long, using too many hops in the dry hop or the wrong water calculations (more on this subject later).

All issues to consider when putting a beer recipe together. To guard against “hop burn” a brewer can shorten dry-hop times; 4 days dry-hopping are typical in brewing, then dumping your hops.

These days commercial breweries are using dynamic dry-hopping techniques like using a hop cannon.

A brewer can use fewer hops; not going crazy with the grams per liter/pounds per barrel ratio or make sure the water calculations and final pH are factored into the overall parameters of the beer.

Furthermore, adding dry-hops to a beer raises the pH and its perceived bitterness. Please see this great presentation on “The IBU, pH, Dry-hopping, ABV and Perceived Bitterness”. Lower pH in in the final beer is experienced as lower perceived bitterness, by the drinker.

Sulfate to Chloride Ratio

Another biggie when it comes to perceived bitterness and overall balance. Chloride ions tend to enhance the maltiness of the final beer plus, the perception of mouthfeel.

Sulfate ions tend to accentuate hop flavors and perceived bitterness in the final beer. Drinking a beer with a higher sulfate to chloride ratio is often perceived by the drinker as beer with a drier, cleaner finish.

Therefore, when putting a beer recipe together, sulfate levels of 200ppm and above a reserved for hoppy beers such as IPA’s.

Simply put, the “sulfate to chloride ratio” is the concentration of Chloride (Cl) ions (in ppm or mg/l) to those of the Sulfate (SO4) ions. A ratio of 1:1 would be considered balanced with neither malt or hops flavor being enhanced.

Furthermore, typical brewing water has chloride levels between 0-250ppm for chloride ad 50-250ppm for sulfates. Going too high with either leads to harshness in the final beer.

A ratio of 35:35 isn’t the same as a ratio of 350:350.

John Palmer in one of his guides “Water: A Comprehensive Guide for Brewers” talk about ions levels in great detail. The link above is to exerts from his book “How to Brew”.

Chloride to Sulfate – Ratios for Different Beers

In his water spread sheet, he gives the guidelines below for his chloride to sulfate ratio:

  • 0-0.4: Too Malty
  • 0.4-0.6: Very Malty
  • 0.6-0.8: Malty
  • 0.8-1.5: Balanced
  • 1.5-2.0: Slightly Bitter
  • 2-4: Bitter
  • 4-9: Very bitter
  • 9+: Too bitter!

Referencing the table above, for an IPA the ideal ratio is in the 4 to 7 range (Sulfate to chloride). If you were brewing a light lager, you’d be looking in the 0.4 to 0.6 range.

Brewing a Balanced Beer Infographic
Brewing a Balanced Beer Infographic

So, one part Chloride to 0.4 to 0.6 parts Sulfates. For example, 100ppm Chloride to 50ppm Sulfates (0.5), would work well for your light lager.

–> Always remember though; excessive levels of chlorides or Sulfates leads to harshness in the final beer.

To add more chloride to the water, brewers typically use Calcium Chloride (CaCl2) and for sulfates Gypsum (Calcium Sulfate or CaSO4). The third salt often used is magnesium sulfate (MgSO4), in smaller quantities.

Moreover, I wrote series of articles on the use of salts is brewing. Please click the link to read the first article in the series. There are many free online water calculators to help you calculate the salts needed.

The one I use is on Brewers Friend. It’s easy to use and lets you know if your water additions make the beer malty or increases perceived bitterness.

Brewing A Balanced Beer – The Art of Bitterness Conclusions

As I said at the start of the post, this subject is very nuanced. With many elements to be considered when putting a recipe together. People have written books on the subject.

Here we’ve explored some of the key issues to consider when understanding how bitterness is perceived, as you put a recipe together. So, let’s take a look at the main takeaways:

Chloride to Sulfate Ratio

Adding more sulfates increases the perceived bitterness of the final beer. For an IPA, the ideal range is between 4 to 7.

With sulfate levels of 200ppm and above a reserved for hoppy beers such as IPA’s. The higher the sulfate level, typically leads to a perceived drier crisper finish.

BU:GU Ratio

The higher the ratio, the more bitterness units have been added; leading to a bitterer beer being perceived. Ratios of 1.00 and above are perceived as bitter.

However, the higher the alcohol content, the more bitterness units are needed to stop a beer becoming cloying. It’s a ratio to consider, but a small part of putting a recipe together.

What Are Hops - Hop Pellets
Hop pellets used in brewing – preferred by many brewers to whole leaf hops

Cohumulone Concerns

In big beers where higher IBU’s are needed, use hops with high alpha acid and low cohumulone for your bittering addition. Cohumulone can be perceived as giving harsh bitterness to the final beer.

Look at hop extract alternatives too. Liquid bittering extracts can offer many advantages to a brewer, including smooth bitterness and less hop matter being used.

Dry Hopping

If contact times during dry-hopping are too long, it can lead to off flavors, such as grassy and vegetal. Typical contact times are 4 days before dumping the hops.

Excessive dry hop loads, can lead to hop burn and astringency in the final beer. A quick guide is 10 grams per liter (g/L) for a regular IPA and 15 g/L for a DIPA (double IPA).

Furthermore, dry-hopping increases the pH of the beer and its perceived bitterness. Please see the presentation we linked to before for more information on this.

Final Thoughts – Brewing A Balanced Beer

There you have it; the best brewers continue to learn throughout their career. New findings and data are being released all the time. Honestly, it’s hard to keep up.

Above are some of the basic principles to understand, when considering the perceived bitterness of a beer you plan to brew.

It’s not just overall IBU’s you need to think about. As we’ve shown, IBU’s can be masked, accentuated or used as small part to provide overall balance to a beer (like for the Mas Agave Lime by Founders).

It’s a lot to take in, hence why I’ve linked to further reading throughout this article. Consider this post a foundation to learn more.

I hope you found this article useful; if you’ve any question or feedback, please feel free to add them below in the comments.

Contact Me

I’m a brewing consultant so, if you need help with recipe formulation or any type of brewing project feel free to reach out. You can email me at:

Or scan the QR code of your preferred network below, and message me directly there.

For now, thanks for reading, have a great day and happy brewing.



Here are some other articles related to the above post which can help when putting a beer recipe together:

Our guide on how to put a recipe together with pictures: How to Design a Beer Recipe With Images

Here are my personal tips on what to look out for during a brewing day: A Probrewers Brewing Day Tips

Practices for yeast blending a co-fermentation: Yeast blending and Co-Fermentation

Discover and understand the stages of beer fermentation: Stages of Beer Fermentation – Fermentation Timeline

Learn the brewing process step-by-step: Brewing Process Step-By-Step with Pictures

Neil Playfoot

Neil is a brewer with 25 years international brewing experience. Based out of China (first came in 2010) he works as a brewing consultant helping brewers with their projects and brewing processes. To find out what services Neil can provide your brewery please click here. If you'd like to contact Neil you can email at
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments