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German IPA—It Should Be More of a Thing

The idea is simple: an IPA that relies on German ingredients—especially the country’s distinctive aroma hops. Does it exist? Yes. Is it rare? Also, yes. Josh Weikert digs into the German and U.S. beer scenes to find out why—and to get the blueprints.

Josh Weikert Nov 22, 2021 - 14 min read

German IPA—It Should Be More of a Thing Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

It seems like there’s an IPA for every occasion and persuasion these days—English and American, East Coast and West, hazy and rye, double and triple, imperial and session, black and white and red—in every combination you can envision. Yet since my earliest days as a homebrewer, and through 15 years of drinking and writing about beer and brewing, I’ve been waiting for a beer that never arrived: the German IPA.

Its absence is striking. After all, Germany is a seminal region for beer, and not just for lager. This is the home of Kölsch, altbier, Berliner weisse, gose, and weissbier, after all, so there is plenty of top-fermented variety here. It’s also one of world’s major hop gardens, including the increasingly exotic varieties bred at the Hops Research Center Hüll in the Hallertau. Hop-forward German beers are real things that exist, too—drinking an Uerige Altbier, a Keesmann Herren Pils, or a Schneider Hopfenweisse, to name a few examples, quickly dispels any suspicion that German brewers or drinkers are allergic to hops.

Still, when I asked a Berlin brewer known locally for hazy New England–style IPAs whether he had ever tried brewing one with only German hops, his answer was terse: “No. I don’t believe that would work.”

Is that pessimism warranted?

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Not really, as it turns out. Let’s look at what German IPA is, as far as it goes—as well as what it could become. Along the way, we’ll get a lesson on the global popularity of IPA, as seen through the lens of German brewing.

From Imitation to Innovation

First, I ought to point out that IPA is a thing that exists in Germany and that there are internationally oriented breweries that specialize in it. Finding one that embraces German ingredients—especially German aroma hops—is more difficult.

As an American brewer in Munich, Paul Higgins—cofounder and brewer of Higgins Ale Works—embraces both German aroma hops and New World varieties in his pale ales and IPAs. His New England–style pale ale, Secret Idaho—featuring Vic Secret, Idaho 7, and Falconer’s Flight—recently won a silver medal at the 2021 London Beer Competition. However, he’s also brewed fresh-hopped ales with Hallertau Blanc, while his Retro-Rocker Red IPA features German-grown Amarillo, Comet, and Polaris alongside U.S. Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Falconer’s Flight, and Simcoe.

In Higgins’ view, “IPAs can generally take on new twists with local ingredients or techniques that otherwise were not attempted”—for example, a Hallertau-hopped IPA made with Munich malt.

For the most part, however, German brewers have mostly modeled their IPAs on American ones, and that includes embracing New World hops.

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“Keep in mind that the German ‘craft-beer’ scene emerged only around 2010,” says Oliver Wesseloh, founder and brewer of Kehrwieder Kreativbrauerei in Hamburg. Germany has long had smaller, independent brewers, of course. But it was only a decade or so ago that more of them began to be inspired by the vibrant U.S. beer scene. Back then, Wesseloh says, IPA was more straightforward: “Big, bold, and hoppy. Hence the first German IPAs were straight imitations of American IPAs.”

In other words, if you’re a German brewer looking at the rampaging success of IPA in America, you’re unlikely to stray far from that formula.

Another brewery unabashedly embracing that approach is BRLO in Berlin. “BRLO IPA is definitely an imitation,” says Michael Lembke, BRLO’s brewmaster. “[It’s] an only-pilsner-malt, Simcoe-hot-side, dry-and-bitter IPA at 6.5 percent ABV. Dry hopped with Mosaic, Amarillo, and Citra—about as ‘West Coast’ as it gets.”

The BRLO team also brew hazy, New England–style IPAs with soft, juicy qualities that would be familiar to today’s American drinkers. However, they also brew a German IPA that spotlights German hops—but we’ll get to that.

Meanwhile, down south, in the Franconian village of Weiher, Roland and Oswald Kundmüller—brewers of the Weiherer beers at Brauerei Kundmüller—recall their first attempts at IPA back in 2013: “We wanted to brew an IPA with a traditional German ale yeast,” they tell me in an email. “For sure, it was no American- or English-style IPA in the end. But the people liked the fruity aroma and the dry hopping.” Once they switched to the more common Chico strain—whose cleaner profile helps the hops to stand out—“the people liked it even more.”

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The choice between using American or German aroma hop varieties is a real one—they produce different profiles. Mandarina Bavaria, for example, can produce soft tangerine along with herbal notes, while the more intense Citra can lead to aromas of candied orange peel or veer off into sweet tropical fruit. Both are fruity and pleasant, but the Citra is punchier.

“If you work with German aroma hops,” the Kundmüllers say, “you will never find such an intenseness in exotic aromas as using, for example, Citra or Mosaic.”

My own review of German-brewed IPAs suggests that most do tend to stick close to American craft-market trends—geographically German, yes, but compositionally American.

Not all of them, though. While many German brewers started (then stayed) with American hops in American-style IPAs, a few others have gone in a more local direction. They include Eric Toft, the Wyoming-born brewmaster at Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Upper Bavaria.

“We use only German varieties,” Toft says. “Since everyone is using U.S. hops now, it is not so much fun to use them. And German hops give a similar profile, but with a definite continental European terroir character.”

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Toward a Proper German IPA

Beer styles evolve as a function of both local ingredients and local demand, and German-brewed IPA is no different. It’s been informed by access to German ingredients as well as by the perceived demand of German drinkers.

Notably, beer in Germany is not the “adventure” that it can be in North America. Beer is more of a staple than it is an experience. Maybe it’s okay for German IPA to be more tame than American IPA—especially if it’s also more drinkable.

“Drinkability seems to be key for German beer drinkers,” says Wesseloh in Hamburg. He says that IPAs there are currently trending toward a more “relaxed” side—6.5 percent ABV and below, IBUs ranging from about 40 to 60, golden in color, with a lighter body than before. In Berlin, Lembke agrees, suggesting that German drinkers never really took to beers higher than 60 IBUs.

That’s not to say you don’t see experimentation or a focus on hops, however. “As the hop varieties increase in Germany and Europe as well,” Wesseloh says, “you can see some more local hops being showcased in German IPAs—I am a huge fan of Callista, for example.”

Callista is a Hüll-developed hop with intense stone-fruit and berry flavors, yet it also has what I describe as typical Noble-hops smoothness—perfect for a German IPA.

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At BRLO in Berlin, they took a similar approach: “The plan was to create a beer people would love as an entrance to the craft-beer and IPA world, showcasing only German ingredients,” Lembke says. “That’s how we came up with the German IPA, a hybrid between an English and an American IPA. The malt bill resembles more of an English IPA, to balance out the bitterness. The hops we use for the German IPA are Polaris, Hüll Melon, and Comet. It yields a really nice strawberry, red-berry hop profile, which complements the full body.”

Why aren’t there more German brewers embracing such hops to make distinctive IPAs? Maybe there is a lack of appreciation for what’s in their own backyard. Schönramer’s Toft describes the reluctance: “Very few German brewers are willing to give their own varieties a chance,” he says. “I think there are more U.S. brewers using new German varieties than there are German brewers doing so.”

Das Design

If you want to brew your own German IPA, here are some guideposts.

Malt
There’s no need to veer away from common IPA grists, and Germany produces some of the world’s best malt. Why use American two-row, when it’s not a major recipe departure to use German-grown pilsner, Munich, or Vienna malts in an IPA?

Water
The water chemistry here is similar to American IPA: much more sulfate than chloride, for a crisp bitterness.

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Yeast
The goal is a clean profile and high attenuation for a drier finish, and there are many ways to get there. Many German brewers use US-05 or other Chico strain for their IPAs, but a Kölsch or German ale strain would also work. Notably, at Kehrwieder, Wesseloh sometimes uses a diastaticus strain to really grind down the gravity to dryness without adding enzymes.

Hops
Since we’re talking IPA, hops is the fun part. The German brewers I contacted provided a laundry list of hops—usually in combinations of American, European, and sometimes Australian or New Zealand varieties. However, here is where we make our stand: They must be German-grown.

These can be new-school German aroma hops such as Mandarina Bavaria, Callista, Hüll Melon, or Hallertauer Blanc. However, if you can source them, they can also be German-grown versions of classic American hops, such as Cascade, Centennial, or Chinook. Can you layer in some more subtle Noble hops, too? Of course—but don’t go too subtle. We’re brewing IPA here, after all.

Meanwhile, if you can get away with it, it’s hard to argue with the approach of Higgins in Munich: “In the harvest season, we always drive to the Hallertau region for fresh, wet hops that go straight into the annual release of our Wet Hop beers.”

Craze, or Crazy?

The aspect of beer and brewing that first sank its hooks into me wasn’t the ingredients, or the culture, or even the flavors—though I love all of those. It was seeing the way that beer had evolved from place to place based on each locale’s unique conditions, thus creating a huge range of beer types and styles. Those vectors of influence aren’t frozen in time. Some of the world’s greatest types of beer came out of Germany, and there’s no reason German IPA shouldn’t be one of them.

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In seeking out their thoughts on German IPA, I couldn’t help asking German brewers whether they felt any trepidation or concern that the global obsession with IPA could be a longer-term cause for concern. The responses represent a combination of enthusiasm for innovation and wariness at the potential for disruption.

“IPAs showcase the goodness of the main ingredients of beer as an agricultural product,” says Lembke in Berlin. “It needs to be carefully selected and then handled in the brewery, and to master that, it takes skilled brewers. And, honestly, amongst all the crazy new beer styles evolving out there, who doesn’t enjoy a no-bullshit IPA?”

My thoughts exactly—but then, there’s a little voice in the back of my head that whispers, “Okay … but what if it’s bullshit that sells?”

“It’s a good thing, so long as it doesn’t destroy some great traditional beers,” says Higgins in Munich. “Thus far, I don’t see that as a danger here [in Germany]. People still like their local beers.”

In Hamburg, Wesseloh strikes a balance: “I have mixed feelings, as this IPA craze also inspires people to call everything ‘IPA’ because that’s what consumers are looking for. I have to admit, I don’t get the IPA point in black IPAs, milkshake IPAs, or sour IPAs—but hey, let the consumers judge.”

Fair enough. Let the market decide. And it’s clear that IPA has become a force for smaller, independent brewers—and not only in North America, but worldwide.

From rural Franconia—home to some of the world’s most exquisite traditional lagers—the Kundmüllers share an optimistic view on IPA: “It is definitely a good thing,” they say in their email. “One part of our philosophy is, ‘Give everyone the chance to find the beer he or she likes—brew variety, show variety.’”

So long as that variety persists, you’ll hear no complaints from me. In fact, for me, variety is the point of all of this.

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