We have been rolling hop bombs across our tongues for about two hours now and have little humor for what the innocent Great American Beer Festival volunteer across the serving table is trying to tell us.
As alcohol and unfermented carbohydrate in the beer increases, so does the ability of the beer to carry more IBUs
“We’d like the Dorado Double IPA,” I say.
“I don’t see that,” she replies, pointing to pitchers of a variety of Ballast Point Brewing beers.
“It’s right here in the program,” I tell her, pointing to the entry, then to the back of the booth. “And there on that sign.”
“It used to be called Crystal Pier,” Vic says. This doesn’t seem to help.
Granted, there is no mention of it on the table, nor is its name on any of the hand-printed signs hanging from the taps behind her. We step around the table and into the booth, which is probably against GABF rules. We have come for hops, dammit.
“Look, this is the keg,” Vic says, pointing to “Dorado Double” scribbled on the top of one. “We need to tap this.”
He looks at the volunteer. “I know how to do this,” he says, not adding, “I’m a professional,” although he owns a California bar. We are certain this is against GABF rules and know it might even be illegal in Colorado.
“I’ll get my captain,” the volunteer says, appearing interested in pleasing us—that, or we’re seeing a look of total fear.
By now Vic is behind the kegs. “It’s already tapped,” he says. “We’ve just got to make this switch.”
She does, fills a pitcher, and pours us each an ounce of the beer.
“Great nose,” Vic says. “Almost no malt character, bitter all the way through. One of my favorites.”
“This is the style, zeroed in,” I agree, as we step to the booth next door and order the Backstreet Imperial IPA.
Blame It on the Hops
When did we know we were in trouble? Maybe when I described a bitterly hoppy beer as “biscuity.” Or when Vic asked, “Where are we going next?” and the answer was Dogfish Head.
Our mission on this last Thursday in September: To try every double (or imperial) IPA we can find at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Why? These are extreme beers that take your taste buds on a roller coaster ride as long and furious as, say, the Raptor at Cedar Point in Ohio.
Many are stronger than barley wine, but although we are drinking only an ounce (or less) at a time, these beers are meant for pint glasses rather than snifters. A mother lode of malt allows brewers to jam more than a mother lode of hops into the beer. First and foremost, these are hop delivery vehicles.
Eight years after beer author-brewer-consumer Randy Mosher presented a travelogue of a recent trip to the world’s great hops growing regions to listeners at Oldenberg Beer Camp, an image lingers. He is tilting his head back as if he were taking a big drink, meanwhile reaching his hands into the air and grabbing fistfuls of imagined hops, then bringing them back down to his mouth.
“Americans have been starved for hops so long,” he says, “that right now we’re just shoving them down our throats.”
Just one week later, Blind Pig Brewing brewer Vinnie Cilurzo proved that point by serving GABF attendees the first, as far as anybody knows, commercial double IPA. He brewed Inaugural Ale in June 1994, the first batch out of the Temecula brewery. “Our equipment was pretty antique and crude, so I wanted to start out with something that was big and, frankly, could cover up any off flavors,” he says.
He calculated the bitterness at the time of brewing at 100 IBU (International Bittering Units). It was aged on oak for nine months, was served on the brewery’s first anniversary, and was 15 months old when it reached the GABF.
“After that, we made it a tradition to make DIPAs for our anniversary. At our second anniversary, the beer was 120 BUs. This was almost undrinkable at the time of bottling, but there was a small market for it,” Cilurzo says. “We had a tasting room at our brewery. Customers would bring their Blind Pig growlers back for refills, etc. The last drop of Second Anniversary Ale, out of the brewery’s last keg, filled (Stone Brewing Co. founder) Greg Koch’s growler.”
Operating pretty much in parallel in the Northwest, John Maier of Rogue Ales brewed his first imperial pale ale in 1995, releasing it as I2PA at the 1996 Oregon Brewers Festival. The hops train was picking up speed.
This year, for the first time, “Imperial or Double India Pale Ale” is a separate category in GABF judging and 39 beers are entered.
How Many IBU?
Vic Kralj and Tom Nickel see the passion every day, and they feel it as well. Kralj (otherwise to be known as Vic in this story) runs the Bistro in Hayward, CA, which organizes a variety of hoppy beer events. He is at the GABF for the first time since 1998. “I want to be here when they award the first Double IPA gold medal,” he says. Vic started his own Double IPA festival in 2001. “The first year we had 12, then 20 and 24. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 30 for this one (February 7, 2004),” he says.
Tom Nickel is a brewer, bar owner and veteran beer judge. He made the category his first preference for judging this year. At his pub, O’Brien’s in San Diego, the best-selling beer is an 8 percent IPA and he regularly has at least one double IPA on tap, sometimes more than a half dozen.
“As a pub owner I like to have a big beer from a brewery on tap at the same time as another beer—they like one, odds are good that they will like the other. I want to expand people’s horizons about what they think is beer and what is proper to put in a pint glass,” Nickel says.
And then there’s the fact he just plain likes to drink double IPAs. “They are awesome tasting, strong and hoppy, but you can still drink by the pint,” he says. “It is why I think Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA is so impressive. I can have pint of it and enjoy it without it being too heavy or thick—mind you, the alcohol catches up with you fast, but the flavor and body beg to be put in a pint.”
Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware hops relentlessly, adding hops constantly to its 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPAs, with the latter two labeled “imperial.” Because they are bottled and sold across much of the country, they act as ambassadors for the style. The 90 Minute falls within the GABF guidelines, but at 21 percent ABV, the 120 is far too high (for style) in alcohol. Yet it was probably the first of the 1,400-plus kegs to be drained on the Thursday of GABF.
The 120 also is dry hopped every day for a month. Is it really 120 IBU? “That’s what we calculated,” says brewery founder Sam Calagione, “but we should probably send it out (to a lab) to make it official.”
Brewers and consumers toss around IBU numbers that likely aren’t accurate. “Hey, did you try the one that’s 130 IBU?” we hear Thursday as we walk. In fact, that might not be possible. Brewing chemists can fill a blackboard explaining why, so Mitch Steele—an assistant brew master at Anheuser-Busch who also judged the category—provides an English translation:
“The maximum IBU level in a beer is somewhat dependent on composition of the beer. A higher alcohol, higher gravity beer can have more IBU than a beer at 5 percent alcohol. A 5 percent beer will max out at 120 parts per million iso-alpha acids, which corresponds to about 80 IBU. It is physically impossible to have more IBU than that in a 5 percent beer. As alcohol and unfermented carbohydrate in the beer increases, so does the ability of the beer to carry more IBU. Our hop research expert feels that the claim that some barley wines have over 100 IBU is probably valid.”
What a chemist may measure and a drinker may taste can differ. “Perceived hop quality versus measurable bitterness, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure there is a relationship because so much more is involved, like flavor balance, and the types of hops used,” says Steele. “Many feel that low cohumulone hops produce a better, cleaner bitterness. I do know that during the judging, the imperial IPAs that were not harsh or unbalanced did better with the judges. Clean bitterness was key.”
“This set a standard, a benchmark,” Nickel says. “If you enter this category and expect to win, your beer better be at least this hoppy. This category is only going to get better as hop usage becomes more refined. In the grand scheme of things, craft brewers know very little about hops.”
Back to the Hunt
We begin Thursday, appropriately enough, with Cilurzo. He now calls his double Pliny the Elder because a couple thousand years ago, Pliny and his contemporaries created the botanical name for hops, Lupus salictarius, meaning “wolf among scrubs.” That eventually became Humulus lupulus. Cilurzo is in the process of setting up a new brewery and pub in Santa Rosa, CA, and steals time to brew his Russian River beers at another brewpub, where he also makes beer.
Thus he is serving Pliny bottled back in June, and not as fresh as he would like.
“The hops haven’t dropped out on this at all,” Vic says.
“This beer is beautifully balanced,” I note, before suggesting that may not have been the case in 1995. “I would probably agree,” Cilurzo says. “I’ve raised the malt level (the Inaugural Ale was 6.5 percent ABV; Pliny is 8 percent). I try to use more high alpha hops, with lower cohumulone (a contributor to a coarser bitterness).”
Personally, he likes Pliny better at two or three months old. “But it really sells well when it is younger,” he says. “It is an extreme style, and I personally don’t think the beer should be totally balanced—it should definitely be slanted toward hops.”
He tries to be patient when consumers disagree. “I’m probably too frank with those people, but I tell them not to drink Pliny and drink our regular IPA. I continue to tell these folks that it’s a double IPA, it’s supposed to be big, just as a Scotch ale is supposed to be malt with almost no hop character to it. Bottom line, ‘double’ is about choice,” he says
Speaking of being frank, that’s our next stop: Frank Double IPA from Port Brewing Co. in Carlsbad, CA. Bad news. “Frank has left the building,” the volunteer tells us. The keg of Frank has been misplaced (so misplaced that it never appears). This becomes more disappointing Saturday when Frank wins the gold medal.
We step to the next booth, Port’s sister brewery, Pizza Port Solana Beach, where head brewer Tomme Arthur has earned national acclaim with a wide range of Belgian-style ales. A couple of years ago, a drinker arrived at the Pizza Port table and said, “Give me the hoppiest thing you got.” Arthur replied, “Don’t see any hops here.”
Today there are hops—Hop 15 will be the silver medal winner. “On the dark end of the (color) range, but beautiful,” Vic says, holding it up. “Smell those hops,” he adds, closing his eyes and smiling.
We bounce from Illinois to Virginia, back to California, over to Pennsylvania and on to New Mexico. Brewers who have seldom tasted the style as it has been nurtured in California for eight years are taking a poke at it.
“It was about a year or more ago that I started researching this elusive style,” Bill Madden of Capitol City Brewing, Arlington, VA, said before the competition. He decided to call his beer Imperial after a West Coast brewer reasoned that a true double would have to start at 32 Plato and have 140 IBU. “We only tapped a keg a week so our regulars would not drink it up so fast. We never advertised the Imperial IPA in the brewpubs, but still people in the know heard about it and would call ahead to be sure it was on tap. Stealth beer, we call it,” he said.
By the time the night is over, we will have sampled 29 would-be double IPAs. Some—one from Goose Island comes to mind—are wonderful beers but don’t have the fresh hop character West Coast brewers demand. “It’s like crushing a hop and throwing it in on top,” Vic says, holding a sample of Racer X Double IPA. “Just smell this.”
Is This Really a New Style?
The hop bills for these beers remind us how extreme the style is meant to be. Dave Hiest of Hoptown Brewing in California won the gold for his IPA, but really wanted it for his DUIPA Imperial Ale, which is double dry hopped and overall has 100 pounds of hops in a 13-barrel batch.
To brew Frank, Kirk McHale uses 26 pounds of hops in the whirlpool alone. The beer was named for a customer. “Our Wipeout IPA (a silver medal winner in 2001) was never hoppy enough for him, so we made a beer that is as obnoxious as he is,” McHale said.
In Solano Beach, assistant Jeff Bagby came up with the idea for Hop 15, inspired by the restaurant’s 15th anniversary. He and Arthur added 15 ounces of 15 different hops at 15-minute intervals during the boil (yes, that makes for nearly a four-hour boil). The order was chosen by pulling numbers from a hat. It was dry hopped with 18 pounds of three different hops at three different stages.
“This is a terribly American beer,” Arthur told author Michael Jackson after the awards ceremony.
“Terribly?” Jackson asked, drinking the Hop 15. “I find this beer terribly drinkable. Is it because I’m a hophead?”
In most of the world, most of this country, really, drinkers have never heard of double or imperial IPA. Will it end up being considered as a style of its own? “Right now, it is a matter of semantics,” said Jackson, whose work 25 years ago defined most of what we call styles today.
Eight years later, Mosher—a style historian himself—isn’t convinced that Americans aren’t going through a phase. “I still think this will pass, although it does seem as if a micro-niche has been created for these stupidly—and I mean that in the best possible way—hoppy beers,” he says. “I think it’s evidence that US brewers are pushing the edges wherever they can find them. As new techniques—barrel-aging, wild yeast, etc.—are worked out, these will offer more avenues for extreme beers…. This super-specialty area is one more place small brewers can go where the big brewers just can’t follow.”
For now, expect brewers to keep turning up the volume. Perhaps Vic and I can put back on our tour shirts January 28-29, when six brewers duke it out in the “Lupulin Slam” at R.F.D. Washington in Washington, DC. Cilurzo, Arthur and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing in Colorado will line up for the West Coast; and Madden, Calagione and Larry Bell from Kalamazoo Brewing, for the East Coast. Each brewer will bring two beers and plenty of insults. At the end of the evening, a mystery 13th beer will be served.
Let’s see. Twelve beers, each claiming to be 100 IBU, blended into one. Is that 1,200 IBUs? An imperial imperial?
Now, that’s terribly American.
Author’s note: As much fun as the Double IPA tour was, less than the equivalent of three bottles of beer was consumed during the course of it and no driving was involved.