I have seen the future—or tasted it—and it is the tart IPA. (The future may need help with names, because “tart IPA” is terrible—but more on that in a moment.) Over the past decade, IPAs have been in near-constant motion, but they’ve been heading in the same direction. Taking their cue from the key ingredient—American hops—they’ve been getting more and more “juicy” as the years have rolled on. Brewers accomplish this by adding the hops late in the brewing process, when those delicate flavors and aromas can be captured and infused into the beer. So many of the subtypes of IPAs—white IPA, Belgian IPA, session IPA, fruit IPAs and Brett IPA—were variations that grew of this evolution. This new thing, the tart IPA, may be the most interesting subtype yet.
American hops have been bred so they can produce a dazzling range of these fruity flavors—grapefruit, lemon, orange, tangerine, apricot, wine grape, peach, mango, passion fruit and papaya are common. They’re not just suggestive, either; sometimes they’re close enough to the flavors of actual fruit that you wonder if fruit is an ingredient. That association led breweries to jump to the obvious next step of actually adding fruit juice. This dates back at least six years (I know, because the first fruit IPA I tasted was at the first Portland Fruit Beer Festival in 2010), but beers like Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin launched it into national consciousness two or three years back.
There’s just one problem with using fruit. It’s fermentable. All of the sugar is consumed, as is a large portion of the flavor. Aromatics may linger, but ironically, this means the fruit a brewery adds to a beer may be less pronounced than the fruit flavors hops contribute. The paradox is that adding fruit to an IPA isn’t the best way to make it taste like fruit. What breweries want to achieve is that balance of flavor, sweetness, aromatics, and acidity that comes from a ripe tangerine or mango.
And now we come to the tart IPA.
A Dash of Acidity, Hold the Fruit
Last week I wrote about kettle-souring, a technique brewers use to acidify their beers. With kettle-souring, you can make incredibly puckery beers like Berliner weisse, or you can just give them a small kiss of acid to firm up the palate. The technique allows breweries to control how much tartness goes into a beer.
Let’s go back to the juiciness of ripe fruit. What makes it taste like it does is not just the sweetness and distinctive flavor, but acids. Even in fruit we don’t think of as tart, the fresh, “alive” qualities come from a foundation of acidity that firms up the flavors and sweetness. A few breweries have discovered that adding just a touch of acid to a standard IPA has the effect breweries were going for when they started adding fruit—it makes them seem somehow more fruity.
I recently had an example of this newborn style by pFriem Family Brewers. It was a draft-only beer, and the brewery’s first attempt. Owner and brewer Josh Pfriem told me they will continue to tweak it as they go along. But what promise it showed! The brewery didn’t add any fruit, but added a ton of late addition and dry hops to crank the “juiciness” up to 10. (Equinox and Hallertau Blanc hops for those scoring at home, two especially delicate fruity varieties.) Then they added just a hint of kettle-soured wort to give it that acidity, and the result was amazing. If hops alone do a decent impersonation of fruit juice, hops with a bit of kettle-soured acidity do an uncanny job of evoking it. Other breweries dabbling with this include Epic Brewing Co. (Tart ‘N Juicy), New Belgium Brewing Co. (Hop Tart), Anchor (Zymaster No. 7) and Lagunitas (Aunt Sally).
The beers I’m describing are similar to a slightly older type of beer—the dry-hopped sour. Those beers, also kettle-soured, are finished with juicy American hops to add a kind of lemon twist to a sharply acidic beer. But the “tart IPA” is like a fresh strawberry or mango; acidity is present, but isn’t the thing our palate notices. It plays a supporting role.
And here’s where the name needs to improve. When this style matures, I suspect it will not be very tart and certainly not sour. Take wine (or cider), for example. It has loads of acid, but no one would ever call it “sour.” Some clever person is going to have to figure out what to call these things. And perhaps the answer is just “IPA.”
I don’t usually make bold predictions, but here’s one: this will be the next big thing. The evolution of hoppy American ales seems to have been leading directly to the tart IPA. So far, the only one that has gotten that hop to acid balance close to right is pFriem, and it could even use a bit of fine tuning. I expect a number of breweries to experiment with it until someone dials it in perfectly. And then watch out.