There are times when it seems like everything is an IPA these days, for better or worse. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t outstanding fusions of stronger hops character and styles which don’t often feature them! It’s for that reason that I look skeptically at things like the Red or Brown IPA (since hoppy reds and browns have always existed), but see things like White or Belgian IPA as being genuine opportunities for innovation and expansion. If ever there was a beer style family that seemed to miss the boat on hops, it was the Belgians. Today we’re going to talk through an approach to them that showcases the flavor of their hops while preserving the distinctly “Belgian” character of Belgian beers, embodied in the Belgian IPA.
You have to love the often-brutal honesty of the BJCP Guidelines. In discussing the Belgian IPA in Category 21B, the authors offer this frank assessment: “The choice of yeast strain and hop varieties is critical since many choices will horribly clash.”
They’re not kidding. A haphazard and careless approach to this style is an invitation to disaster, like putting cheese on fish. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that there are myriad ways to screw it up. Some of that is going to come down to palate and preference, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take care not to create an “orange juice and toothpaste” situation.
This is complicated all the more by the fact that when we say “Belgian IPA” it isn’t entirely clear what that means, overall. It covers everything from Abbey styles that happen to be highly hopped to American-styled base recipes that add in the esters and phenols typical of Belgian yeast strains. As for hops, the style can include almost any variety.
We’re not throwing out the rulebook on this one, but we can’t count on it to give us anything like firm guidance, either. There are only two hand-holds here: we’re making a hop-forward beer, and we’re using a Belgian yeast strain. The rest falls into the bin of “if it works, it’s fine.”
In broad strokes, I prefer to think of this as a variation on a strong English IPA. It’s more reliant on malt and yeast character than a traditional American IPA, and less hoppy overall, but with a higher ABV than a typical English IPA. We’ll use Belgian malts, a blend of classic American and Continental hops, and a restrained Belgian yeast to (hopefully) create a harmonious flavor profile.
We start with 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of Pilsner malt and 2 pounds (907 g) of Vienna malt, which should provide a noticeable biscuit maltiness in the background. To that we add half a pound (227 g) each of Victory and Biscuit malt. To many that might seem like a redundancy, but open a jar of each and take a whiff: although in the same 25-35L range and pitching similar flavors (nutty, toasty), you’ll definitely notice a difference – and besides, the American-European blend seems in keeping with the style! This grist should land you in the 1.070 range, and is quite fermentable without the necessity of adding simple sugars.
For hops, I like the combination of Amarillo and Perle. Amarillo provides some excellent peach and orange flavors and is easily identifiable as “American” while echoing many of the esters produced by our yeast. Perle is itself a hybrid of a spicy American hop (Northern Brewer), and not only does it pair well with fruity American hops but it’s also nicely spicy without a strong, Myrcene-driven “green” character. Bitter to 30 IBUs with the Amarillo in a 60-minute addition, then add an ounce (28 g) of each at 15 minutes, then another half-ounce (14 g) of each at flameout. That should yield about 55 IBUs (assuming 8 percent on the Amarillo and 5 percent on the Perle), but if your calculations come in short just bump up your bittering addition.
Finally, ferment with Wyeast 3522, Belgian Ardennes yeast. It produces wonderfully complementary nectarine and pear esters with just a touch of clove and pepper. It’s also a robust yeast in terms of alcohol tolerance and highly flocculant, meaning you’ll also get a relatively clean and bright beer, offsetting some of the haze that can result from high hopping.
There’s nothing special in the mash or boil on this one, but you’ll want to pay close attention to your cold-side practice. First, this is an example of a beer that I don’t hit with pure oxygen; I don’t want to deliberately stress the yeast, but I also don’t want to make life so easy for them that they don’t produce the esters I want! Second, ferment this right on your tipping point between cool and warm (for an ale): I like 67°F (19°C). At that temperature, you’ll still get a pretty clean fermentation, but remember that you don’t want it to be too clean. If using a more assertive Belgian yeast, I’d go cooler, but this one is pretty mild. Hold at 67°F (19°C) for the first 3-4 days, then let it free-rise as high as 75°F (24°C) (but it’s OK if it doesn’t go that warm). You want a full attenuation here, and if you notice sweetness in the finished product you’ll want to consider adjustment, either in the mash temperature, total IBUs, fermentation temperature, or carbonation level.
Finally, cold-crash and carbonate to about 2.5 volumes of CO2: medium carbonation, flirting with medium-high, but definitely not in the range of a Tripel.
It’s not inconceivable that you could also dry hop this beer, but I tend to think that it detracts more than it adds, especially given the often-strong resinous flavors that dry hopping can impart. It’s important that we can detect the fermentation characteristics, and you should have plenty of hops flavor and aroma from your kettle hopping. If not, I’d adjust in the kettle. At the end of the day you should have a warm, hoppy, pale, bright beer with a distinct Belgian aura!