Brewer’s Perspective: What’s in a Name? Defining “Cold IPA”

It’s been five years since Wayfinder brewed its first cold IPA and more than two since it went mainstream. Despite predictions of a passing fad, breweries continue to embrace that lean, “wester than West Coast” frame. Here, Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson muses on what defines it—and what really makes it work.

Matt Brynildson Jul 8, 2023 - 6 min read

Brewer’s Perspective: What’s in a Name? Defining “Cold IPA” Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

I just got off a call with Kevin Davey, which I decided was necessary before writing a single word about cold IPA. It’s a topic that is getting so much traction lately, and it’s already been well documented in this magazine and its podcast.

So, why am I writing more about it now? Because, at Firestone Walker, we recently started talking about our own Hopnosis IPA (our most recently launched core IPA) through the cold IPA prism—prompting us to engage with some of the core questions surrounding this style.

Brewing IPAs with lager yeast has become a bit of an obsession here at Firestone Walker, and we’re also obsessed with well-attenuated brews. In an interesting way, we backed into the realization that a lot of these beers are actually cold IPAs—although some are all-malt brews, including Hopnosis.

Yes, I know that the use of body-lightening adjuncts such as corn or rice is a defining element of cold IPA, in addition to a clean, lager-like fermentation. Hopnosis, meanwhile, is brewed with 100 percent malted grains. And, yes, I agree that a beer should clearly reflect the style it claims to inhabit (if such a claim is made). Yet I also believe that the recipe components or process steps employed are just bricks in the road that one takes to get to the destination. In other words, there are multiple potential means to the same end.


Spoiler: Kevin agrees with me.

In last year’s IPA issue, I wrote in some detail about how Hopnosis was using hop tricks learned through brewing hazy IPAs but also, more importantly, how it’s fermented with our lager yeast. Here I want to give a real nod to the cold IPA concept that Kevin brought to light while he was at Wayfinder in Portland, Oregon. After all, he is the one responsible for establishing this style and its delicious-sounding name.

We went with lager yeast purely to create a cleaner (low fruity ester) and drier (85 percent apparent attenuation) fermentation profile, moving us away from our heavier-flavored English-born house ale strain. From my vantage point—unlike brut IPA, with its many and broad interpretations, including a multitude of yeast types—cold IPA seems to be tracking close to the style as it has been defined. I’ve been tasting a number of excellent versions of this style with a real focus on clean, modern IPAs with low malt impact and high drinkability. To me, the key is linked to fermentation profile, attenuation, and drinkability—not necessarily whether the beer is brewed with adjuncts.

Before he coined “cold IPA,” I visited Kevin shortly after Wayfinder was up and running, and I got to taste a new IPA he had just brewed. It was clean, hoppy, and delicious. Once I confirmed that I loved it, he smiled and told me that he made it with his lager yeast. I was impressed because there were none of the obvious sulfidic notes associated with typical lager fermentations. The yeast impression was minimal, and I would not have guessed it was anything other than a classic American ale yeast fermentation. I’m sure if we had tasted two beers side by side—one fermented by ale yeast, the other by lager yeast—we could have observed subtle differences; however, within the context of his tap selection, this was simply a balanced and drinkable IPA. Masters know their yeast and how to coax the very best from it for each occasion.

In speaking with Kevin more on the topic today, we discussed his vision for using adjuncts to lean out the beer with the tools he had at his disposal—namely, a decoction kettle and an obsession with dry, drinkable beers. American adjunct lager was the inspiration, but highly attenuated IPA was the goal.

There are subtle differences between rice and corn, and between whole grits or polished rice versus pregelatinized versions—but in the end, they bring fermentable sugars. Many of us already use dextrose in our West Coast IPAs and double IPAs for the same reasons: balance achieved through higher attenuation. My argument is that we can coax that out of all-malt mashes as well, through means such as more thorough step mashing, amylase enzyme additions, careful decoction—referencing Schönramer’s Eric Toft here—and more attenuative yeasts.

In short, I believe that how you get there is less important than how the finished beer presents … and I love the unique way that a well-made cold IPA brings something distinct and different into the IPA fold.

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