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Brewer’s Perspective: Brewing a Light-Hearted Low-Cal IPA

Andy Farrell, brewing innovation manager at Bell’s Brewery, talks about the tinkering and process behind developing Light Hearted Ale, the company’s highest-profile new release in years.

Andy Farrell Jan 26, 2021 - 11 min read

Brewer’s Perspective: Brewing a Light-Hearted Low-Cal IPA Primary Image

Editor’s note: A homebrew-scale recipe for Bell's Light Hearted Ale is available to subscribers.

On the earliest attempts…

What we did was, we just scaled down a normal batch of Two Hearted. It was like 4.5 percent ABV, 130 calories, something like that, just your typical session IPA. What I found with that beer—and we all tend to agree—it was a little bit hollow. You know: There was just something missing.

We use these goofy terms sometimes in our brewery, and John [Mallett, vice president of operations] and I were talking about it. We were in the room with a bunch of sales and marketing people, and we were telling them that the middle was hollow, and they’re like, “What are you talking about?” We’re like, “Just trust us. The middle is hollow on this beer.”

On finding balance…

When I think about Two Hearted, and what Two Hearted is—it’s got malt balance. That’s one of the big things about Two Hearted as an IPA: There’s malt balance, and the hops, with Centennial—the way that we’re hopping with it—there’s a citrus component. There is sort of a piney component to it, and maybe some red fruit—a kind of generic fruit character—that comes with it, too. And what we found when we scaled this thing down … the malt wasn’t there. The malt—unlike the initial trial batches—was not where it needed to be.

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It was really hard to get the beer as dry as we needed to, for it to have drinkability. It’s also the way that we’re controlling our calories as well. It was really hard to do that and still maintain the malt character that we believe is synonymous with Two Hearted—this is Light Hearted; it needs to be in the same family. So, that got to be pretty tricky, and we played around with getting the right malt profile behind this beer, along with getting the hopping just right. It took some playing around with for sure.

On whether to add special ingredients…

So, that’s a big conversation around our brewery all the time: brewing ethos, which means making sure we’re true to Bell’s and what we’ve always done when we’ve built these beers. … I think when you look across the landscape of these brands, you’re going to see a couple of things. Some of those products for back-sweetening and body [such as monk fruit extract or chicory] are certainly there. Depending on what that product may be, it may work well with our ethos, or it may not.

What really works best with our ethos is water, malt, hops, and yeast, and that’s what we try to do.

One of the other things you’re going to see is other people playing around with enzyme. Enzyme’s going to give you the ability to get the beer very dry. It’s going to take the carbohydrate down significantly. And that is also not something that works well with our ethos. It’s not something that we do. So, the challenge with this one really was making a beer that worked with Bell’s traditions and ethos and still meeting customer expectations in terms of calories and flavor. And we did that through water, malt, hops, yeast—you know, that’s all that’s really in this beer.

On trial and error…

Certainly, mashing profile is part of the consideration. You throw in hop creep, that fun little curve ball, and you’ve got a little bit of a riddle to solve when building this thing. To get this beer where it needed to be—from the aspect of maintaining our brewing ethos, customer expectations in terms of calories, and body, flavor, all of that—it just took a significant amount of work. That’s part of why breweries like ours invest in pilot breweries. We probably took at least eight to 10 cracks at this thing before we even ran a production trial. So, it just takes time. You know, I’d love to say that there’s this map to follow for doing this, but from my perspective, the best way—and probably the most fun way, too—is to brew the beer, and make adjustments, and learn from what you do, and try to perfect it as much as possible.

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On building the malt bill for a light IPA…

One of the unique things we do at our brewery, our base malt is a blend of lower-colored two-row—like American two-row malt—and pale-ale malt. It’s malted by an American malting company but done more in that tradition of English pale-ale malt: a little higher color, more toasty flavor, that kind of thing.

Two Hearted’s a really simple recipe: It’s two-row, pale-ale malt, and C-40 [i.e., 40L crystal malt]. Going with that exact malt profile [for Light Hearted] left a hollow middle, and the crystal malt, where it sat at that percentage, was maybe a little more than you’d want in a beer this light. So, we actually took a unique approach. We threw a little Munich malt in this thing. Not a bunch. But enough to support everything else. It gives it a little more color, and it definitely gives it some malty character. C-40 is still in there. They’re both actually part of it.

On the addition of Galaxy hops to Light Hearted…

I love Galaxy, for one, and had actively been trying to look for a way to [include it in] one of our beers. And as we focused on the first low-cal iteration of this, I thought, “You know, let’s take a crack at it using it that way.” And what I found is that it really elevated the hop character overall. There’s still a good amount of Centennial in this beer.

You have to be really, really careful with [how much] hops you use in a beer like this. You think about your typical IPA these days, over 6 percent alcohol, and people are dry hopping these things, at minimum, probably two-and-a-half pounds all the way up to five pounds per barrel. What happens with a beer like this, in particular, is that some of the nontraditional hop-bittering compounds leave too much earthiness or too much bitterness. “Hop burn” is probably a pretty common term people use for it. So, what I found with this one was the need to use a subtle hand.

We’re still up near a pound per barrel on this thing—which would have been not subtle at all 15 years ago. But as we build these things now, we’re hopping much more heavily than we used to.

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This beer is not an exact light version of Two Hearted. But being that [all-Centennial-hopped] Two Hearted was the inspiration, there was no doubt that, if anyone was going to be leading the dance, it was going to be Centennial.

So how do you proportion those out in a way that gives you what you’re looking for? And, I’ll be completely honest with you—I sort of made an educated guess. It happens. When you write a lot of recipes, you get used to doing things a certain way. You know how it works in your brewery, and you almost get a sixth sense about it.

I figured that if I went too close to even 50/50 [Galaxy and Centennial] on the dry hop, then it’s going to turn into a Galaxy beer. Within the matrix of that beer, I don’t even know that Galaxy is a great hop to lead that matrix. It’s still a beer led by Centennial with Galaxy in strong support and enhancing that character. So, it’s certainly not a Galaxy beer, but it’s not going to taste just like a Centennial beer to a customer either. And that was sort of what we were going for.

We love Centennial; it was just a little too heavy, almost weighty. It kind of weighed the beer down a little bit. Just the use of Galaxy in that way brightens it up, and it lightens it up a little bit. It certainly was, from our perspective, an effective way to utilize the hop.

On the map and the destination…

One of the fears when we started messing around with this beer was, at 3.7 percent, there’s just not that much there. The last thing you want to do is give the customer the experience of what it would be like to put a hop-cone in your mouth.

As much as hops drive the beer, you have to remember that the best beers are built with some kind of matrix…You want to build a beer with a destination in mind [with] the recipe being the map—not with the destination unknown and, “Hey look, I built a map, and this is where I ended up!”

In the case of this beer, in particular, that was certainly heavy on our minds. We’ve got to make sure that this isn’t nothing but the bitter, green hop. Not what we were trying to do.

Listen Up!

For much more about Light Hearted as well as the brewing process and ethos at Bell’s, check out our Podcast Episode 139: Andy Farrell on the Delicate Design of Low-Cal IPAs. This text is based on that discussion and has been edited for clarity and length. beerandbrewing.com/podcasts

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