When I think of the classic beer styles that have filled our glasses for hundreds of years, I think of the greats like saisons, stouts, lagers, and pilsners, just to name a few. But each of these famous styles were once revolutionary in their own time. They all disrupted the status quo, forever changed the landscape of beer, and have continued to evolve and shift as time goes on. But who would have guessed a thick, sweet, and fruity beer would emerge from the beautiful and bitter India Pale Ale? Nevertheless, here we are in 2019, brewing the milkshake IPA.
To say a milkshake IPA is similar to a classic IPA would be like saying a cotillion is similar to Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street—sure, they’re both formal gatherings, but that’s about where the similarities end. There is a massive gap between the realities of these two liquids.
Even though the definition can be ambiguous, most people agree on the basics of a milkshake IPA. It’s a New England-style IPA (NEIPA) with:
- Irresponsible amounts of unfermentable sugars (i.e. Lactose)
- Fruits and purees
- A slew of ingredients that you could find at a Coldstone Creamery ice cream shop
As you read this you might think that I have a beef with this style. Quite the contrary—this beautiful beast of a beer is freedom in a glass. It’s an open invitation for any brewer to just have fun, and a chance to explore beer in a way that doesn’t require adherence to heritage. The near-total lack of expectations and standards is liberating.
Ever since Tired Hands (Ardmore, Pennsylvania) and Omnipollo (Stockholm, Sweden) put the milkshake IPA on the map, the brewing industry has seen a renaissance of creativity in these crazy pastry/dessert-inspired libations. Our job as brewers is ultimately to explore what beer should be and could be. Styles like the milkshake IPA not only give us the green light to be creative, they require it.
Last June at Monday Night Brewing, we held an Adult Summer Camp. It’s exactly what it sounds like: slip ‘n slides, outdoor games, BBQ, and milkshake IPAs.
In the months leading up to this event, our innovation team is tasked to create beers that taste like our favorite treats. This is why the style is so great—it forces us as brewers to infuse merit, creativity, and methodology into each glass, in the hopes that we can invoke flavors and memories of a different time, while still respecting the beer. The amount of stimulation and growth that takes place when you try to figure out how to make beer taste like a peanut butter and banana milkshake, or mint chocolate chip ice cream, is just flat out fun.
To kickstart the exploration process, we brew a 30-barrel batch of a milkshake base, split it into a few different fermenters, and develop different ingredient approaches for each beer. The base is the only control in this variable-driven brew. When exploring this style I am reminded of a quote from Adam Savage (formerly of Mythbusters TV show): “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” Some variables that I would recommend exploring when making this style of beer are:
- Pre- or post-fermentation additions of hops, adjuncts, purees, etc.
- Contact times and temperatures
- Compounding flavors through step additions
The challenge is reconciling both the dessert thought and the beer thought. Lactose can be a big part of this, and you need a lot of it. We’re doing lactose on the lower end, but it’s still a lot—maybe about 8 to 10 percent. Some people are going as high as 20 to 30 percent. We also use vanilla, as it’s a good base for the flavors you want in this kind of beer, and allows you to build out from there.
Since it’s an IPA, make sure that the hops come through, but don’t push the IBUs too high because that will take away from the experience. For me, it’s no more than 50 IBUs on the kettle-addition side, and we add most of them in the whirlpool because that’s where we get more character and unlock the aromas.
A massive amount of dry hopping gives the best hops experience, I’ve found, while still letting the other flavors shine. You want to know it’s an IPA, but you also want to trick your brain while drinking it, and the key to that trick is in the creaminess of the mouthfeel and the vanilla character as well as the other added ingredients.
We found that we get the best results by adding the fruit and the other flavors to the base beer post-fermentation on the cold side. And you don’t have to be limited. Work with the ingredients in different ways. See what happens when you use whole ingredients, or when you chop them, or prepare them in different ways. There are so many different varieties of the same ingredients that what you use and how you use it can dramatically change the finished beer.
But, you need to add the ingredients post-fermentation. If you do it before, then you lose a lot of the key flavors and aromas that you want in the finished product.
With such an open-source environment to explore and experiment, where do we draw the line? We don’t, with two exceptions: First and foremost, we never want to put the consumer in harm’s way (by releasing potential can bombs, using food-unsafe ingredients, etc). Second, we don’t use ingredients that attack our personal ethos as brewers. For us, this means using extracts, glitter, and other assorted nonsense. Your answers may vary.
Beer, in its purest form, is an experience. As beer professionals and fans, we judge beer at every turn. So why can’t we also find time to enjoy and celebrate these sugary sweet delicacies in all of their alcoholic wonder? From the humble act of fermentation, this “experience” has been the catalyst for an infinite amount of change in our world.
Whether you are a professional brewer or an amateur homebrewer, the milkshake IPA is a license to have fun. Done right, it hopefully puts a smile on someone’s face when they take a sip, and isn’t that the point? Explore the outer realms of what beer can be, use new methodologies and ingredients, record your findings, and let’s see what we can come up with.