In January of this year, we recorded and released a podcast that would prove to be one of our most popular of all time—Episode 286: West Coast IPA Now! With North Park, Green Cheek, and Russian River. So, for our 300th episode, we followed it up with a sequel, Direct Fire–style.
Here are some key excerpts from that episode—which featured questions from our brewing listeners—skipping the small talk and digging right into a few aspects of brewing great West Coast–style IPA.
Q: Can you elaborate on getting a drier beer by adjusting the liquor-to-grist ratio?
Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River: Our experience at Russian River … is that a slightly thinner mash will give us a slightly drier beer, and a thicker mash will give us a little more residual sugar. … We’ve worked it on both sides with STS Pils. … And so we took STS from 0.35 gallons per pound of grain to 0.37, to make it a drier beer. And then the flip side to that is when we start getting up into these high dry-hop loads [in IPAs] … we’re just getting too dry a beer because those enzymes in that much hop load [were] drying out the beer too much.
I don’t know about the other guys, but when we use dextrin malt to try to gain body back, it just seems like it exacerbates hop creep, and the enzymes and the hops just keep going. I don’t know why, scientifically, that is. Oddly, if you use too much dextrin malt, there’s this kind of grainy mouthfeel that you get, and I never realized it until years ago. … It took me a long time to figure out what that was, but I do know that, for whatever reason, dextrin malt is just the perfect feeder for the enzymes.
In some cases, we’ve hit the top limit of [fermentation] temperature for an IPA [where] we’re [dry hopping] let’s say, four pounds per barrel. So, we needed to pull some other lever. And that’s where we go the opposite direction with liquid-to-grist ratio. I did also reach out to the great Joe Hertrich [retired from Anheuser-Busch]. … He’s just a textbook on anything malt-related. … But he basically just said, “The basic teaching when I was coming up was a thinner mash slightly favors diastatic action, and thicker mashes slightly favor more proteolytic action.”
Joe also goes on to say—and this is the part that I really like and kind of how I’ve always explained it—that this is all about accessibility of the substrate. Just like grinding finer increases accessibility of the substrate, thinner mashes increase the accessibility of the substrate, meaning free movement of the enzymes to extract for increase of fermentability. …
But [it’s] a really interesting conversation and topic, and I just know what works for us at Russian River—how we thicken it and thin it just to make some really minor moves one way or the other.
Q: In terms of recipe design, I find the more people I try to please, the fewer people I impress, and vice versa. Yet, you guys all make very impressive beers. How do you strike that balance? How do you make crowd-pleasers that continue to impress year after year? What key things do you think make your beer the way you make it?
Kelsey McNair of North Park Beer: For me, it’s just the endless quest for making our beers relevant. Recipe evolution is something that we’re always doing, and any time there’s some new process that can keep our flagship beers relevant with anything that’s new and current, [that’s] the goal. I mentioned in a previous podcast that for me, it’s not about making a consistent beer—it’s about consistently making the beer better. And I think that’s the approach, whether it’s a technique, a process, getting more involved in hop selection, working on the grain bill, or tinkering with it over time into the place that it is today. … Is it going to be the way that it is today in a year or two years? I don’t know. Because we’re going to continue to try new things and try new hop products, and [to] keep moving our standards into a place that hopefully keeps people really excited about [the beers].
These things never settle into the core [beers] right away. We’re not necessarily making those experiments with Hop-Fu. But we will make a lot of different new beers all the time, and that’s a huge part of our program. I mean, we have two beers that we brew consistently, and then everything else is either [a] new one-off [or] something that people really [loved and] we want to bring it back. And that constant ability to experiment—we are self-distributed, so that is a bit of a luxury for us to be able to make new things all the time. And when a new process works really well in one of these one-offs or a collab or something, or I get really inspired tasting someone else’s beer—maybe I go up to Green Cheek, and I drink Evan’s stuff, and I ask him what he did there—we’ll experiment in something new. And if it works really well, then it makes its way back to the base. And if it kind of pumps up the base and keeps it relevant and keeps it exciting—really, that’s the process.
Q: How do you balance the approach to winning medals—which you all do—with consumer love for those beers?
Evan Price of Green Cheek: For our West Coast beers, it happens to be just a thing that I personally am in love with. And I’m not trying to do anything other than what I personally want to do with that specific beer style. And so that, I think, is one of the reasons why maybe I’ve held on so tightly to it, as well as that it’s something that I am dearly in love with—it’s something that I drink if I’m sitting down to have a beer. So, it has been incredibly rewarding to have this thing that is exactly the way that I want to make it hit a few times for medals and stuff like that. I think that that is pretty fun, instead of this other approach. … So many different times where you’re making a helles or you’re making some of these other beer styles, and then you go to somebody else’s and you’re like, “Oh, that’s the thing I’m missing.” And instead, when I’m drinking my West Coast IPA, I think it’s one of the best beers in the world. And I don’t mean that as an ego-crazy man, but I mean it more just that the coolest part about this job is making it exactly the way that you want to make it.
Q: Kelsey, you mentioned [in the previous podcast] that you were using Chico with ALDC as your house yeast. [ALDC is alpha acetolactate decarboxylase, an exogenous enzyme that prevents diacetyl formation.] How has using this yeast, and knowing that you don’t have to worry about diacetyl from hop creep, altered how and when you dry hop and sell your West Coast IPAs?
McNair: We’ve taken a more pragmatic approach to our dry hopping. And whether we’re making a West Coast or a hazy, they pretty much follow the same steps. Before we [began] using Chico with ALDC built into it, we were just adding ALDC and using other Chico yeast. We didn’t really modulate the dry-hop procedure, but we always anticipated some hop creep. Even if you don’t have diacetyl to be concerned about with ALDC in the yeast, you still can have some attenuation challenges.
I remember I was talking to Julian [Shrago] at Beachwood, and he mentioned that using some simple sugar in the kettle and preparing the yeast for a very simple sugar component of your fermentables would result in less hop creep. … Beers that had dextrose added versus those that didn’t seem to have less of a perpetual attenuation issue. So, I thought that was interesting, and I did look it up, and I found some white paper that had some of that information. So, pretty much anything that we do that gets dry hopped does get a small charge of dextrose in the kettle.
And then also, we dry hop pretty much every beer with a very small amount of hops when we’re about 1° Plato from terminal gravity, and that’s when we’re at a stage where we can go ahead and pull yeast out. So we’ll harvest, and then we’ll hit it with—typically it’s Cryo hops—but it’ll be a pretty small charge, like 11 pounds in 15 [barrels]. And I feel like we’re getting the enzyme in there through those hops at a place where the fermentation is winding down, just as a strategy when we’re getting to the end of fermentation.
When we add our large hop charge, when we’re fully attenuated—or at least where we expect to be at that point—we’re not really seeing a whole lot more movement. If we’re going in at 1°P before terminal with that first charge, and we’re trying for West Coast’s 2.5°P finish (1.010), we usually get pretty darn close to it, and we don’t see continued attenuation at that point. As a strategy, it’s been working very well, and it’s kept our tank times very tight.
Q: What do you guys do to maximize hop aroma in your beers? Are there any particular high-performing hop varietals that you prefer or processes that you use to max that? Or protect aroma shelf life?
Price: I think the easiest answer here is dissolved-oxygen levels in finished beer. I think the secret component to this entire thing is minimizing DO as much as you can. So you work as hard as you can work to overthink every aspect of your process in order to get that number as low as possible. Throw out whatever industry-wide number is considered to be the standard—that’s garbage. Just continue to get that number as low as humanly possible, and you will see the aromatics in your beer last.
One funny thing to note on this, as we’ve gone down this tunnel. There were aromatics that we didn’t want to keep that were lasting, the better we got with this. So we had to get better at our fermentation profile as well. Because sulfur dioxide, as an example, is one of the first things to get thrown out of the beer whenever you have a little bit more oxygen in that beer. So, I think that is hands down the number one thing that I would throw out there.
And then from there, it’s going to be variety-specific. We’ve all seen the survivables diagram from YCH. … I think it’s important to look at information out there.
Like for me, you see that Centennial is the largest on this chart, right? And I think that hop is garbage. I think that what is staying in your beer isn’t something that I want in my beer. Wonderful that Centennial has more survivables—it has more survivables of shit. It’s one of those hops I pick out in somebody’s beer, and I’m like, “You put Centennial in this, didn’t you?” And they’re always very proud, like, “Yeah, I did!” And I’m like, “Okay.” And I just keep my mouth shut because it’s my dumb opinion. It doesn’t matter that they like it and I don’t like it. I’m not going to give unsolicited advice in that area. But yeah, that’s my rant.
We edited this conversation for clarity and length.