When it comes to beer competitions, nothing is guaranteed. Yet it almost seemed fated that Hop-Fu!, a West Coast IPA from San Diego’s North Park Beer, would win gold in the American IPA category at this year’s World Beer Cup.
The beer began as a homebrew recipe of North Park founder and head brewer Kelsey McNair, and it would go on to become the most-awarded IPA in the history of the National Homebrew Competition (NHC)—and one of the most-awarded homebrews in history, period: It took gold at NHC in 2010, 2012, and 2014, plus a silver medal in 2013.
However, McNair doesn’t take the World Beer Cup win for granted. He says that he and his wife—Amanda McNair, also the brewery’s creative director—were celebrating with the team for weeks after the announcement. “This one’s huge,” he says. “This is something I’ve been chasing, so to see that specific beer win on the world stage was pretty cool.”
While McNair calls the win “shocking,” no one else seems all that surprised to see Hop-Fu!—or a North Park IPA generally—crowned as one of the best beers in the country (Update: It also won a bronze medal at the recent Great American Beer Festival.)
“I’ve been beer judging since 2014 or 2015, and at that point, Kelsey McNair already had a name,” says Chris Leguizamon, an Advanced Cicerone and beer judge in San Diego. North Park didn’t open until 2016, but “you’d go to these homebrew competitions, and people would say, ‘Did you hear Kelsey just won another award for Hop-Fu!? To see them finally being recognized [by WBC]—it’s like, holy smokes, they freaking did it.”
McNair and Hop-Fu! itself have come a long way since his homebrewing days. Amarillo, Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic, Chinook, and Columbus are still the beer’s engine, but gone is the “salt-and-pepper dose” of crystal malt he once used. McNair has continued to evolve his approach with the latest hopping techniques and products, and he’s refined the way he builds on his brewery’s reverse-osmosis (RO) water. However, despite changes, Hop-Fu! remains North Park’s literal raison d’être.
“It’s that whole thing as a homebrewer, as to why this brewery even exists,” he says. “I took that to investors, saying ‘I have the most awarded IPA in homebrew history.’ This beer needs to go to market.”
For more than a decade, McNair has built a reputation as a brewer on the cutting edge of the latest in brewing with hops—always one of the first to test intriguing new hop varietals, products, and techniques.
North Park’s specific approach to using products such as Incognito and Cryo Hops was part of the reason Luke Wortendyke, head brewer at Phoenix’s Wren House Brewing, was eager to collaborate with McNair this spring. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Their West Coast IPAs just really blew me away. I haven’t experienced beers like those,” Wortendyke says. “There’s so much modern brewing data and research as well as just the crazy products we have now. So, when you combine all these variables, we’re in an environment where anything’s possible with West Coast IPA.”
McNair says he has borrowed dry-hopping techniques used for North Park’s hazy IPAs and applied them to West Coast IPAs, seeking to coax the maximum prismatic hop aromas out of those beers. “It’s not West Coast if it doesn’t have a little dankness to it,” he says, “but we’re layering the hops in now, trying to push up those really intense fruity, tropical, citrusy notes.”
To that end, he’s currently using Incognito—the flowable hop-flavor extract from John I. Haas—unconventionally, in the dry-hopping stage, even though it was designed for use in the whirlpool. He’s also tinkered with this by adding Incognito to the fermentor before knockout, allowing it to ride through fermentation and undergo biotransformation. McNair particularly likes its application in hazy IPAs because it delivers huge fruit flavors without distracting green-grassy notes.
“It has an intensity early on where it’s almost off-putting, like an extracty quality,” he says. “Whoa, it’s so saturated. But by the time it finishes fermentation, it comes into a really nice place for us.”
He’s so partial to this technique that it’s become what he calls “a house technique” for North Park. Wortendyke also was impressed by it.
“How he uses Incognito locks in a ton of new hop flavors that I wasn’t getting in the past from our hazy IPAs,” Wortendyke says. “It’s almost so intense that it’s not really a specific aroma. The best I can explain is it just smells like fresh hops on harvest day.”
North Park brewers also often apply Yakima Chief’s Cryo Hops in an active-fermentation dry hop because their polyphenol levels are very low. (He might also use Lupomax or T-45 pellets if a certain hop variety isn’t available in Cryo.) McNair sees it as a way to reduce the polyphenol character that comes from prolonged contact with dry hops.
He learns about and tests these techniques not only in his own brewhouse, but also through collaborations with other breweries such as Smog City, Burgeon Beer, Alvarado Street, and Fidens. He says that fellow brewers are always his first source of information; they’re applying hop products in ways that surprise even the companies that make them.
Another approach that characterizes North Park’s boundary-breaking brewing is that techniques are always—at least theoretically—applicable across styles and recipes. Years of tinkering with the dry-hopping rates on hazy IPAs, for example, improved the brewery’s aromatic approach to its West Coast IPAs. Lessons learned from drinking and brewing Italian pilsners, too, helped McNair refine his approach to brewing Birdie to Bogey, what he calls a ‘California pilsner’; it’s essentially an American premium lager base with both corn and rice in the grist, heavily hopped with Citra, Mosaic, and Strata.
Beers aren’t recipes so much as a collection of techniques. “We take a look at German pils or an Italian-style pils as a thought process for the structure of the beer,” McNair says. “What’s the maltiness we’re going for? What’s the bitterness relative to hop flavor and aroma? And then we plant that squarely in the West Coast, with a big, bright citrusy-zesty, berry, and tropical aroma.”
He’s always learning, his brain thinking a mile ahead about ingredients or processes that could be absorbed from one style and used to improve another. McNair’s approach to brewing has a collage-like quality, every brew an amalgam of best practices. When he sees a trend pop up—say, cold IPA—he’s not dismissive, but he wants to use the best of its characteristics to inform North Park’s bread-and-butter beers.
“When I look at those, I ask: Is there something to that brewing process that can have more staying power in an existing style? What are you doing with that that we could do over here?”
North Park’s brewing team will have even more opportunities to indulge these curiosities in the coming year, as the brewery plans to open at least one more taproom location—in San Diego’s Bankers Hill neighborhood—this fall. That will almost max out the space in the current brewery, which is on pace to produce about 2,650 barrels of beer this year. Even as McNair plans for the next phase of his journey, from award-winning homebrewer to award-winning pro, he’s taking a moment to savor the realization of long-held dreams—for both Hop-Fu! and for his brewery.
“I’m happier with the way things are going now than I ever have been.”
Tune in to the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® Podcast Episode 217 for more on brewing hoppy beers with North Park’s Kelsey McNair.
Plus, magazine subscribers can access the recipe for North Park’s double dry-hopped West Coast IPA, Sorta Mostly Dead.