Beers today are conceived quite differently than when beer itself was still being created. Centuries ago, modern styles were not developed based on brewers’ whimsy but out of necessity. Before Arthur Guinness had nitrogen-widgets, he had hard water and it just so happened that the calcium carbonate in Dublin’s water makes for great stout porters. In Burton-on-Trent, fortune smiled on William Bass since the municipal water source was rich in gypsum, lending itself to fantastic pale ales. Shortly thereafter, some bloke schemed to add more hops to preserve and ensure this particular pale ale’s colonial safety once it arrived in India. Don’t forget the braumeister in Bamberg who still dried malts the old-fashioned way, over an open flame, giving rauchbiers their distinctive smoky flavor.
Creation of a craft beer is the result of great passion, scientific endeavor, persistence, and sometimes, a little luck.
Many generations and scientific breakthroughs later, some brewers strive to recreate these traditional styles while others run shrieking from them. Authenticity versus innovation (or authenticity plus innovation) are factors allowing so deep a field of brewing concerns, and all come up with multiple brands. A brand comes to fruition as either a company’s calling card into the popular world of India pale ales, a personal act of artistic freedom just to see if a beer can taste like key lime pie, or sometimes just by disaster striking ever so artfully such as discovering that a keg left in freezing snow makes for amazing ice beer. Essentially, beers like these appear before us as a result of demand, risk, or sometimes by accident.
Small, medium and large producers are free to create any style―no matter how common or unique. When doing so, they rely partly on the autonomy of the brewing staff and partly on the reaction (in the form of purchases) of consumers. Three elements key to success no matter which brewer releases which beer, and no matter where it’s available: quality, timing and marketing (and on that last note, only a wealthy few do any sort of advertising to boost sales).
To find Grady Hull tinkering with hop additions on a fifteen-gallon pilot system isn’t what you’d expect of the assistant brewmaster at New Belgium, which produces well over half a million barrels each year, 70 percent of which is Fat Tire. Holding out no more, Hull said brewing an IPA has been “a fundamental discussion of our company for years… We hesitated on doing one because it’s not a Belgian style.” Since forming in a Ft. Collins, CO basement in 1991, New Belgium has focused on the malty, culinary curiosities the Belgians are known for, ranging from abbey and triple styles to experimenting with dandelions and being one of the early American experimenters with wild Brettanomyces yeast. Having expanding their operation greatly to an entire brewing campus on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River, pounding palates with hoppy IBU bombs (International Bitterness Units) just had never been their thing.
But as branding director Greg Owsley copped, “Admittedly, we were the last brewery to do one in America. But our ‘beer rangers,’ the marketing reps out in the field, were pleading for one. We wanted to (expand our) portfolio.” So Hull was tasked with creating a brand X IPA.
Development lasted around five months. Various iterations of this highly anticipated IPA involved experimenting with different hop varietals, with each batch coming up for review before a panel called the Portfolio Council. It usually consists of owner Kim Jordan, Owsley, sales director Joe Menetre, Hull, some of the marketing rangers, and the brewmaster Peter Bouckaert. But Bouckaert is a transplant from the esteemed Brouwerij Rodenbach in Belgium―so he’s more of a sour than a hoppy guy and excused himself from this brand X.
After repeated efforts, Hull said they “had something we were happy with. The first run was packaged and on the trucks with all of the accounts expecting it but we decided it wasn’t quite what we wanted so we pulled it all back at the last second and went back to the drawing board with the recipe. We decided to go really big with the hops.”
Imagine, all that beer in all those kegs and bottles, and just as it was about to emerge into the light of day, it gets sent back for further development. Surely some of this brand X IPA ended up in some happy employees fridges. But eventually, Hull hit upon the desired combination of Chinook, Simcoe, and Cascade hops aplenty and the result is Ranger IPA (the name is an homage to the reps, explained Owsley).
While New Belgium finally caught IPA fever, the demand for hops has unleashed a new generation of bitter beers even if not everyone can quite agree on what to call this boom. Mitch Steele, Brewmaster at Stone in Escondido, CA, debuted Stone 11th Anniversary in 2007, designing it as “hop-forward but black like a porter.” It was Steele’s first true creation at the brewery after owners Steve Wagner and Greg Koch hired him away from Anheuser-Busch. He says the concept was a tough sell to Koch and the fact that pilot batches “came across like a hoppy (but sweet) stout, not IPA-ish” didn’t help his cause. Fortuitously, after four failed test batches, once the brewing crew made it on the larger system, the anniversary beer came through with flying color: black. Little did he know that three years later, this hybrid-style beer would merit its own, nascent category at GABF: American-style India Black Ale.
In Steel’s vast research on IPAs, he points to the style’s birthplace as Vermont. Reportedly, the first rendition of this style came from Greg Noonan at Vermont Pub and Brewery with his Blackwatch IPA, served on draft at the pub circa 1994. In 2003, Matt Phillips of Phillips Brewing in British Columbia bottled Black Toque India Dark Ale. Concurrently, Rogue’s Brewmaster John Maier created a test batch called Skull Splitter internally or externally dubbed an imperial schwarzbier. The appropriate name has been a matter of debate. Phillips has since caught the Pacific Northwest bandwagon and renamed the beer Skookum Cascadian Brown Ale. Rogue’s goes by Black Brutal Bitter. They are considered the harbingers of a style locals call Cascadian dark ale or CDA for short. Whether or not they lose the name battle, many such CDAs also refer to themselves as black IPAs on their labeling.
The public’s response to Stone’s one-off 11th Anniversary was so positive, it was brought back―recipe unchanged―as Sublimely Self-Righteous, dubbed a Double Black IPA. The name is an inherent misnomer since a beer cannot be both black and pale. Regardless, Koch’s probably glad he issued his brewmaster artistic license and gave this beer the green light because it earned a bronze medal in the inaugural IBA category at GABF.
That brewing out on a limb could lead to fans clamoring for a beer’s wider release is what every brewer aspires to. Sometimes demand follows supply. Such was the case when brewmaster Ron Gansberg from tiny Cascade Brewing in Portland, OR, walked up to the stage during the 2009 GABF to receive his silver medal in the Barrel-aged Sour Beer category for Vlad the Imp Aler. In his excitement, he missed the announcement that his Bourbonic Plague then won gold. At Cascade, Gansberg has an assistant brewer and someone to help with blending. Bourbonic is the bourbon-aged version of their spiced porter Bain du Bruge and Vlad is the product of simply blending some of their inventory. Those beers are just now available in bottles though will likely only be sold from the pub.