Not too long ago, I held a glass of a strawberry habanero India pale ale brewed by Brouwerij De Molen to my lips. I consider myself a hophead, but wondered if all my previous IPA tasting had prepared me for that first taste. The sweet, juicy fruit waxed on first and the heat swept the leg of my taste buds, but where were the IBUs in all this? Furthermore, if I may mix my movie metaphors: Show me the malt backbone.
Bear with me and you’ll see why my movie references are fitting. As the theory goes, there are only seven basic plot lines. Similarly, I can argue there are seven basic beer flavors: malty, grassy, bitter, roasty, fruity, funky, and, um, nasty/off. But don’t take my word for it; in 1987 at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), there were barely more than seven style categories (one of which was “ales”). Now the competition sports 89 categories (seven or eight of which are reworkings of the IPA storyline).
Does all this mean IPA has jumped the shark? Hardly. For years it has been the largest, most hotly contested category at the GABF, and it shall remain so for years to come. But even the splintering of that category is proof that consumers always want more, want something different, and producers are all too happy to cater to those desires.
Will there be a fruited IPA category in GABF competition? Personally, I hope not. But if it takes those three little letters to get someone interested in trying a different beer and to become open to different, unexpected flavors, well, isn’t that what beer fans gravitated toward in the first place? At the same time, we crave flavors that aren’t just unique; at their core they have to be good.
Larger breweries get to experiment with new flavors in IPAs all the time in the form of testing new hop varietals, such as Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Harvest series, which recently featured wild hops from New Mexico and ones with good potential from Idaho. An experimental recipe designed to get consumers to try the beer once has done its job after one festival-sized sample. I think the mark of a successful recipe is one that gets consumers to crave the beer and quaff it by the glassful, repeatedly. Neither the brewers nor the consumers want to stop having fun.
But at some point, it gets a bit silly.
IPA or WTF?
The fact that I found so many flavored IPAs in the Netherlands proves how much Dutch brewers are inspired by what’s coming out of America. Sure, we used to call any beer with wackadoodle adjuncts from blueberries to bog myrtle “Belgian-inspired,” but to put them in an IPA is distinctly American. My favorite one overseas was Emelisse‘s Earl Grey IPA, where the orange zesty bergamot married astoundingly with the citrusy hops. But Oersoep and England’s BeerMoth collaboratively brewed a beer that I’m guessing was conceived by the great name and then built around it. Canta Lupulus. Yes, cantaloupe + hops for a melony IPA. And perhaps it could’ve worked, but the use of the always-awesome American Simcoe hops meant the aggressive pine character clashed with the soft, juicy melons. Germany’s Hüll Melon hops would’ve complemented them, since their honeydew flavor is built into the name.
Any type of India Pale Ale essentially connotes hoppiness and varying degrees of bitterness. Balanced British IPAs. Unbalanced West Coast IPAs. Low-alcohol session IPAs (something the Brits with their already 5% offerings scoff at especially when they are dubbed India Session Ales, or ISAs). Bombastic imperial IPAs. And bombasticker triple IPAs.
Then we had to go and paint these pale ales other colors: black IPAs (essentially marrying a porter), white IPAs (infusing with a Witbier), and India red ales are downright commonplace. In addition to the aforementioned grey IPA, Stone Brewing Co. just re-released its green IPA (well, Japanese green tea IPA) that melds herbal Aussie hops and tea.
To quote Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele, “I’m an IPA guy, but I also wish we didn’t IPA everything.”
Making hyphenated IPAs certainly is a way to innovate and envelope push when the end product is an enjoyable new flavor profile. But might some of this just be a cynical marketing ploy to move more liquid?
Here’s Steele again: “Ten to 12 years ago, there was a lot of outcry against ‘imperializing’ everything—this was when imperial IPA was gaining in popularity, and so many brewers were imperializing pilsners, porters, ESBs. Innovation needs to strike a balance against tradition. I’m in favor of seeing what happens if a brewer intensifies the hop profile in a traditional style. Calling the beer some sort of an IPA is largely market-driven at this point.”
(Of the roughly 33 IPAs Stone brewers made last year, about a third were crossbreeds.)
Some are rather innocuous, like when brewers simply add rye: RyePA. In the case of the Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. retired Rotator series of nontraditional IPAs, they made an Indian spiced tea one we’ll dub ChaiPA.
How many of these IPA hybrids will we see? Not that the feds would allow it, but I suspect some homebrewers in Colorado and Washington (and later this year in Oregon), where weed’s legal, someone’s making a HighPA. If you made one with the Vatican’s holy water would that be a ThyPA? If you amalgamate an old ale into one could that be I.P.Auld.A?
Of course, several of these newfangled beers incorporate fruit (PiePA?), which as far as I can tell that started, naturally, with Dogfish Head in 1999 with the formulation of Aprihop. It was made with pureed apricots, and founder Sam Calagione called it “a fruit beer for hopheads or an IPA with a fruit problem.” A dozen years after the Dogfish Head brewers started bottling Aprihop, they created Sixty-One, a fusion of their 60 Minute IPA and syrah grape must.
Another recent example was Samuel Adams India Pineapple Ale (my name, not the brewers’. They called it simply Pineapple IPA). The recipe, designed by homebrewer Teresa Bury, featured in the brewery’s Longshot series.
“I’m a hophead and I wanted to brew something for my own palate. … Pineapple is my favorite fruit, and I wanted to experiment with (pureed pineapple) in a secondary fermentation,” says Bury. She adds, “I used Amarillo, Citra, Simcoe and Chinook hops. … For aroma, I used Simcoe hops because I knew it would pair well with the aroma from the pineapple.”
Boston Beer’s brewer/manager Jennifer Glanville says, “The pineapple complements the strong hop character really well. Teresa’s Pineapple IPA … showcased grapefruit character from American hops as well as tropical fruit notes from the pineapple.”
At least the new collaboration between Portland’s Hopworks and Boise’s Payette, an Amarillo-forward beer brewed with purple potatoes grown near Boise and called “Potato Gun” Idaho Potato Ale, is in on the joke.
Is that a carrot in your IPA or are you just hoppy to see me?
Yet sometimes, bonus ingredients aren’t about a hop profile shift. Take Twisted Pine‘s return of Roots Revival Carrot IPA.
“I came up with the notion for a carrot IPA after washing down a slice of carrot cake with a bright IPA,” says brewer Justin Tilotta. “This beer has been lumped in with other ‘flavored’ IPAs, so a lot of reviewers expect to taste carrot juice, and many are disappointed when this is not the case at all.” Ten pounds of shredded layered into the grain bed in the mash even though a trial batch showed that added to the boil resulted in a neon-orange hue. “We think of the carrots as more of an interesting and unique sugar source than anything else, and their flavor contribution is super subtle to say the least.”
Not so for another arboreal brewery in Colorado, Lone Tree Brewing Co., which recently brewed a jalapeño cheddar IPA.
In addition to the above-mentioned ChaiPA, Widmer released a beer called Shaddock IPA that perfectly married Citra hops with grapefruit. The two are complementary flavors, so it’s perfectly natural to have called that beer an IPA. Maybe the key in these loopy lupulin beers isn’t to call them IPAs at all.
Widmer’s latest, Rejected Ale, ostensibly celebrates the company’s ejection from the Brewers Association in 2007 for no longer being a “craft brewery.” But what is Rejected?
“We started with IPA, obviously, as the base style. Then thought, what the hell, let’s throw some fruit and spice in it,” says brewer Ben Dobler. “Chili beers are tough to pull off. Throwing jalapeños in there seemed outlandish.”
Rejected’s hop bill features Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, and some Mosaic for dry hopping. It incorporates 88 pounds of mango puree and two types of cinnamon in fermentation before layering onto raw jalapeños before a daily tasting to see when they hit the mark.
“No one knew what it would taste like,” says Dobler.
This reporter, having sampled the beer, can tell you it tastes like a jalapeño beer with ample hops hinting at its 60 IBUs and some juicy sweetness underneath. The cinnamon’s there for those susceptible to the power of suggestion. I would’ve liked to have detected any of those wonderful Mosaics, but then again, at least they didn’t call it an IPA.
Over the holidays, Short’s Brewing Co. from Michigan released Juicy Tree, saving the acronym for the fine print. “Experimental IPA brewed with spruce tips, cranberries, and juniper berries.”
What will future IPAs entail, and what will they taste like? Calagione contends, “IPAs are a trend, not a fad. There’ll be a lupulin threshold shift. I don’t think hoppy beers are going to go away. Will fruited IPAs be a bigger trend than sour beers? I dunno. It’s a dynamic moment.”
For this, he credits both the growing creativity of the brewers and the beer drinkers.
For Dobler’s part, he doesn’t see hyphenated IPAs going away any time soon: “Smaller, newer brewers are going to provide shock value.”
On the flip side, he points to the never-ending influx of new hop varietals and the flavors that become possible, such as Lemondrop hops, which obviously impart some lemony aromatics along with sweeter and herbal notes. “When we see watermelon-tasting hops, we’ll get Watermelon IPA.” Having said that, he then confesses, “IPA is the buzz word. Industrywide, us brewers joke that if we’ve got something that’s slow moving, let’s put ‘IPA’ on the package and that’ll move the beer off the shelf.”
Here I might mention that a brewery with the name Ass Clown—if that’s a joke at least it’s not mine—makes over 10 flavored IPAs including Orange Mint IPA. Because we all know how good drinking OJ after brushing your teeth tastes, so why not add some IPA to gargle?
And Anheuser-Busch makes one. It’s called Elysian Avatar Jasmine IPA. (Too soon?)
To get the final word in I turned to Stan Hieronymus, author of For the Love of Hops.
“I’m always a bit confused when people rail against these creations if they are upset that they exist at all or because they muck with precise language,” he says. “Either way, too bad. Breweries want to make them, and as long as consumers buy them, they aren’t going anywhere. Once you accept that IPA does not mean India Pale Ale, but that it signals some measure of hops are included, why not use language that communicates what flavors to expect?”
And just before he drops the mic, he insists, “I do draw the line at Beet IPAs.”
Brian Yaeger is the author of Oregon Breweries and Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.