Don’t you just love American beers these days? They’ve lost none of their aggressive, in-your-face pugnaciousness, but many now wrap that big personality in a velvet glove. It’s an elegance not much valued in the early “Just gimme some hops” days of the craft beer scene. And it’s the big, hoppy flagship beers, the beer the brewer brews just because she (or he) likes it, that most often display this extra finesse.
First among them are variations on the IPA theme. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with your basic India pale ale. This bright, hoppy style created a smash in both its homelands–England and India–and forced a lasting change in the brewing industry everywhere. It’s unquestionably a delightful and historic drink.
But one could make a case that IPA was a crucial step in the long slide to lightness, in the same way that, as an NPR commentator said, “Chet Atkins ruined country music.” Just as applying sophisticated arrangements and production techniques to twangy hillbilly tearjerkers led to today’s bland pickup-truck pop, IPA stoked the thirst for lighter and lighter products, making stronger darker beers into something unfashionably declassé. You know the rest of the story.
But that’s another debate, worthy of a few pints worth of gentlemanly discussion, at least.
Of course we homebrewers are never content with the status quo–from whatever era–and are always eager to get out there and break a few rules. So here’s a handful of ideas for ways to mangle and abuse the idea of India pale ale, yet still come up with something pretty great to drink.
I’m assuming you know how to brew up a complete recipe, so in the interest of space I’ll just give outlines here.
The spice of traditional English hops accentuates the bright, pepperiness of rye. Simply take any IPA recipe, and add an additional 10 percent rye, preferably malted, along with a pound (per five gallons) of rice hulls to aid runoff. If you’re using unmalted rye, you’ll get more out of it if you grind it fine, and cook it up like porridge before adding it to your mash. A crockpot works well for this. Rye will make the mash sticky and sluggish, so it’s especially important to keep the mash bed temperature above 160 degrees during the sparge. The spiciness of English hops–Challenger, maybe?–will enhance the peppery qualities of the rye. OG: 1060; 60 IBUs; color: deep gold.
IRA–India Red Ale
The potent carameliness contributed by a big dollop of Munich malt and dark crystal allows us to add even more hops and still maintain some sort of balance in this beer. Grist should be 60 percent pale ale malt; 30 percent Munich malt; 10 percent dark crystal, or mix of crystals. I’d go with Cascade or Liberty hops, as this one’s as American as they come. The Sierra Nevada “American Ale” yeast ought to do well here. OG: 1065; 75 IBUs; color: deep reddish-amber.
This takes advantage of the grapefruit character of some of the West Coast high-alpha hops, and expands on the theme. Start with a European pilsner malt, and add 10 percent of the dark Munich malt called “aromatic.” For hops, I would go with a mix of Saaz and one of the grapefruity American hops such as Chinook or Liberty. You might get really perverse and use the Saaz for bittering, and use the American hops for aroma. The twist in this recipe is grapefruit peel. Use just the outer layer, shaved off a well-scrubbed grapefruit with a potato peeler. About half a grapefruit peel should be added to the kettle at the end of the boil. Ferment it with your favorite Belgian yeast, but keep the temperature on the low side to keep the Belgian character subdued. OG: 1057, 60 IBUs; color: bright amber.
Jaggery Pale Ale
The (East) Indians treasure a beautifully creamy partially refined sugar made from the fruits of certain palm trees. Golden in color, and congealed into blocks the size and shape of a fez hat, jaggery resembles maple sugar in taste and aroma, except perhaps with some buttery accents. I recently used some in one of our Chicago Beer Society’s 25th anniversary brews, this one in conjunction with Todd Ashman, brewer at the Flossmoor Station brewpub in the south suburbs. It has the effect of lightening up the texture of a beer, while adding soft caramelly/mapley notes.
Here, 10 percent of the recipe is jaggery, which can be found at markets specializing in Indian foods. Just break it apart and add to the kettle. The rest of the recipe should be a good British-type pale ale malt. Add a few percent of crystal if you want a little color and caramelly flavor. If you want to get really adventurous, I would suggest adding a teaspoon or two of crushed fenugreek to the secondary. This spice, popular in Indian cuisine, has a delicate mapley character, and is used in pancake syrup for that very purpose. Here it will accentuate the mapley qualities of the jaggery and add a fruity depth to the beer. OG: 1067, 65 IBUs; color: deep gold.
India Cream Ale
The cream ale style is kind of an amalgam of the English-derived American ale style as brewed by German brewmasters in American lager breweries. It’s my view that many of them simply applied their experience with German ales such as Kšlsch bier and–voila–Cream Ale. Here, we’re making a much stronger version. Historically, Clusters would have been used, at least for bittering. I can’t in good conscience recommend them, so use a spicy German hop such as Tettnanger or Spalt, with a big load of them added at the end of the boil. Ten percent malted wheat will help provide a creamy texture and lively head, and 10 percent corn sugar will lighten the body and keep the beer crisp and refreshing, as well as being true to history. A small amount–say, five percent–of pale crystal malt will add a little caramelly twist. The rest of the grist should be American 2-row pilsner malt. OG: 1062; 50 IBUs; color: bright gold.
Vatted Stale IPA
In the old days, strong beers were always aged in wooden vats, often for extended periods of time. Under these conditions, certain wild yeast and bacteria wiggle their way into the brew and make themselves at home in the crevices in the wood. This “contamination” can make a valuable contribution to the beer, in the form of exotic musky, earthy, animal and fruity aromas, and sometimes more than a hint of acidity. “Stale” was the term used for this aged character, without the negative connotations we have today for the word. It’s a virtual certainty that most of the original IPAs had some of this exotic character. We can achieve this by brewing our favorite IPA recipe, preferably a fairly strong one, 1070+. If you’re trying to stay authentic, I’d recommend a really good British malt such as Marris Otter, and the traditional hop choice for such beers, East Kent Goldings. And remember, hops fade as the beer ages, so you might want to bump up the quantities by maybe 50 percent.
After fermenting through the primary with a conventional British ale yeast, add a package of either mixed lambic-style culture, or some pure Brettanomyces to the secondary. These are rather slow acting, and will take a few months to make a difference. Note that the mixed culture will give you some sourness, while the bret alone will not.
If you want to go the extra-authentic route and add some wood barrel character, a good way to go is with small oak “beans” sold to wineries to revive tired barrels. These are sold in several woods and degrees of toast by a company called Stavin (http://www.stavin.com). I would stay away from the American oak, as it’s very sharp and pungent, and will overwhelm a beer pretty quickly. Just add a small handful of these during the extended secondary.
With or without oak, the beer will show more “wild” character as the months pass. It’s up to you to decide when it’s ready to carbonate and drink. OG: 1085; 90 IBUs; color: deep gold.
India Black Ale
I know this gets kind of far afield, but, hey, that’s just the way homebrewing is.
It is definitely not a porter. Most of the color comes from a very large proportion of Munich malt, with just a little black malt, mostly for color, so the overall effect is deeply caramelly, rather than roasty-toasty. The effect is similar to a Kulmbacher-type (German) schwartz beer, rich and malty, only in this case with a lot more hops. Grist should be 95 percent Munich malt, with five percent European black malt, which is usually de-bittered. Northern Brewer hops will help accentuate the kind of soft cocoa-like flavors in this beer. Ferment it with a German ale yeast at relatively cool temperatures, and give it a couple months of cold lagering to smooth out the flavors. OG: 1065; 50 IBUs; color: deep ruby brown.
You’ll discover that tinkering with the tried and true IPAs can yield a beer that’s original, yet faithful to its roots.
And don’t get me wrong. I love Chet Atkins.
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009). In addition, Mosher consults on package design and branding.