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I am about to brew an imperial stout, and I was wondering, about bitterness level in it.

I want to create a smooth sweetish imperial stout (maybe somewhat on the same level with a milk stout), but strong in the same time.

Should I use less bitter hops to reduce IBU to 50? Should I use more specialty grains (like honey malt)? Or should I age it with oak little bit longer to add vanilla taste? Should I use a specific Yeast that are less active (WLP099 vs WLP039 vs WLP001)?

I have a feeling, that it could be a combination of all of it, but it would be interesting to hear it from somebody with experience.

Thanks.

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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The most important number when trying to balance bitterness in a beer is the ratio of international bittering units to starting gravity. This is often expressed as BU:GU (bittering units to gravity units). For reference, this posting has a more detailed explanation and some example BU:GU numbers for popular styles. Some Googling will get you some BU:GU numbers for imperial stout.

An imperial stout would typically have quite a high BU:GU -- close to 1.0. If that's not to your liking, adjust your hop additions to lower that ratio. Be careful not to bring it down too low, you'll end up with a sickly sweet beer. The bitterness is important to balance the sweetness from the residual sugars present in a big beer like RIS.

I wouldn't suggest changing the quantity of specialty grain to achieve a sweeter beer. Find a proven recipe and leave the grain bill as is and adjust the hops to achieve the desired BU:GU numbers.

The yeast won't have much affect on perceived bitterness. A higher attenuating yeast will produce a drier beer, which accentuates bitterness but this affect is small.

Longer aging, oak, vanilla, etc. have no effect on bitterness.

Sulphate accentuates bitterness. If your water is high in sulphate, or you're adjusting your water to increase sulphate, remember that this will increase the perceived bitterness.

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I think yeast attenuation can play a bigger role than suggested in perceived bitterness. However, in this particular example of a bigger stout those sifts may be muted by the other more robust flavors. –  brewchez Jan 31 at 13:59
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Bitterness in a big stout is more than just the IBUs from hops. There is going to be a contribution of perceived bitterness from the roasted malts as well. Sometimes hopping a big roasty beer to a certain IBU value will result in a beer that is too bitter because the IBU calculation doesn't account for that roast malt contribution. This phenomenon is palate/taster dependent too, of course.

Unfortunately, this is one of those things that you need to plan to dial it in with the next batch. I think brew it they way you think it should look on paper. Then take good notes for next time and rewrite the recipe after you've really spent some time tasting the beer.

For more fullness in the malt you can drive that with yeast attenuation or specialty malts. Doing it with specialty malts can sometimes lead to too much complex sugars, or screw up your mash chemistry some. I prefer to experiment with yeast strains and ferment temps do drive final gravity and perceptions of sweetness and residual bitterness.

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I agree with you, that a bitterness in Stouts is not only from Hops. In fact it is mostly from roasted grains. If you tried Totality Stout from FiftyFifty, you know that they were able to find the fine line between sweetness and bitterness. Some stouts I tried have "in-your-face" taste of over-roasted coffee. Other stouts have a strong "in-your-face" alcohol taste. Unfortunately it takes at least 2 month to brew an imperial stout... I will be brewing stouts every 2 weeks and storing it in my garage... Hopefully by the end of the year I will have some answers on how to balance it... –  Red Trigger Jan 31 at 18:27
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