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The Accelerating Dialectic of IPA

More juice, but with more bite—East Coast and West Coast are synthesizing, again, right before our eyes. How did we get here? And what’s next? Drew Beechum walks us through IPA’s battles and evolutions.

Drew Beechum Dec 26, 2020 - 15 min read

The Accelerating Dialectic of IPA Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Given the wonky nature of beer enthusiasts, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve laid a procrustean taxonomy over our pursuit and understanding of beer. To be able to name a thing is to understand it. Yet the very nature of drawing chalk outlines around a beer fixes it in place instead of recognizing the messy process through which our pint has evolved. Style definitions butt up against each other; terminologies and meanings shift. Our delicious subjects loop and whirl around and away from those little numbers we’ve attached to them, caring little for our attempts to capture them in bottles.

Looking at the leader of the craft pack—the IPA—clearly shows this process in play, especially accelerating over the past decade. Even the venerable Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)—those adjudicators on high for homebrewed beer styles—has thrown in the towel on the idea of a single meaning for that money-printing acronym. If you look at the latest guide, including the “provisional” styles, there are 11 different variants outlined, including a grab-all category to cover things they haven’t thought of yet (i.e., no milkshake IPA category).

How did we get here, and how is the style looping back on itself?

I won’t go far into the historical back story of IPA—that morass of half-truths, lies, and drunkenness. Years of dedicated writers trawling brewery logs and newspapers for actual research haven’t cleared the picture all that much. If anything, the research of folks such as Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell, and Peter Symons has made it very clear that such styles were aggravatingly variable based on complex formulae of taxation laws, ingredient availability, and the force of lunar tides.

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Skipping over the bulk of IPA’s existence, I would note that many who try to pinpoint the first American IPA usually overlook Ballantine IPA, which was still being brewed even as the first microbreweries appeared. The first “new” American IPA appears to have been the invention of Bert Grant’s sadly defunct Yakima Brewing & Malting.

Grant’s IPA—followed shortly by a revised Anchor Liberty and others—featured mounds of the new hotness in hops: Cascade. I think this is where we see the first glimpse of the ever-changing nature of American IPA. Remember, until recently—and certainly true of the early 1980s when Bert Grant was making his Cascade-heavy IPA—American hops production was heavily focused on generating the most alpha acid and highest yield per acre. Aroma and flavor were afterthoughts.

Now, it seems as if you can’t go a day without finding a new hop variety in your local IPA. We can thank Bert Grant for that.

A Clear-Eyed Look at the Early IPAs

My own experiences with IPA began in the Boston area in the early 1990s. Harpoon IPA was one of the beers I credit with getting me into craft in the first place. It was 1993, and their IPA was a revelation: bright, bitter, assertive—and to my college-aged mind, the higher alcohol didn’t hurt either. Harpoon IPA stood out in a field of maltier amber-colored ales at the time.

When I moved west in 1996, I made regular pilgrimages to Portland to enjoy a better beer scene than what I found in Los Angeles. There I discovered my favorite thing to do—shop at the wonder that is Powell’s Books, buy a ton of books, and wander over to BridgePort Brewing. I’d sit on the dock with my best friend, drink a few pints, and read the newfound treasures. BridgePort IPA was like a bridge between the English influence on the East Coast (courtesy of influential brewers such as Alan Pugsley) and the drier, brighter style that would develop on the West Coast.

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East Coast IPAs we knew then were nothing like today’s New England hazies. They had a larger malt backbone and big fruity esters—more like souped-up British ESBs. BridgePort IPA had a restrained hop bitterness, but it was a drier beer. Not bone-dry and hard—not yet—but with less chew.

The beer that really set my nose a-twirl—and provided a new understanding of what IPA could be—was Steelhead Bombay Bomber, developed by Teri Fahrendorf in the early 1990s in Eugene, Oregon. It was a big, bold, brisk beer that screamed of Chinook—and most importantly, no crystal malt. That beer was such a smash that members of my club made it their mission to crack its code, talking with pub brewers to glean its secrets. It was almost 60 IBUs, dry, refreshing, and it screamed of hops. You want to know where West Coast IPA really came from? Teri has a pretty good argument as one of the tent poles.

Another I want to mention was considered the meanest, bitterest beer of the time—Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA. When I first encountered it in the late 1990s, the bartender waved me off. You’re not going to like it! Too bitter! Too strong. And he was right—it was too bitter, too strong—but I loved it anyway, and the giant pile of Columbus hops it threw at us.

Little did we know, a shooting match was about to begin.

The IBU Wars and the Death of Crystal Malt

So, we had maltier East Coast variants and drier, more assertively bitter West Coast ones. Those were the battle lines before the early 2000s, when Pliny first appeared.

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Russian River’s Pliny the Elder was far from the first strong or double IPA, but it captured drinkers’ attention for just how potently bitter and dry yet drinkable the beer was. That was the birth of the modern double IPA concept. The game was on to see who could make it bigger, bolder, better. (For the record, Pliny is still my standard—it’s stupidly easy to drink, despite being a hop bomb.)

What set beers such as Pliny apart was that they were demonstrably IPAs—turbo-charged, hop-forward, and drinkable. If you think various arguments about the hazy IPA have been bad, you probably missed the geeky clashes over whether double IPA was really just another name for barleywine. (Those were fun.)

For the next decade, as craft climbed out of the 1990s crater, brewers began paying more attention to bitterness—and putting the IBU levels on the labels. Before, that measure was only useful for recipe purposes. Suddenly, it became a marketing tool and a badge of honor.

“This beer has 80 IBUs!”

“Mine has 100 IBUs!”

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“This one is 10% ABV and has 320 IBUs calculated!”

Never mind that few brewers actually measured their IBU levels, instead relying on calculations developed for very specific purposes and specific systems. Why let reality get in the way of marketing?

The IBUs-at-all-cost race reached its most available apotheosis in the form of a gargoyle—specifically, Stone Ruination. That beer evolved into such a tongue-coating experience that it was almost impossible to taste anything afterward. There were bigger, meaner beers out there, but none combined the ubiquity and potency that was found in Ruination.

Gradually, as hop levels climbed and expressing that character became paramount, the maltier, more barleywine-esque style of double IPA began to recede. Brewers focused on pulling back the chewier malts, favoring the still-rich character they got from overloaded mash tuns. They simplified the grain bills—more pilsner and pale malts—and crystal malt became a pariah. Sugar also played a larger role in producing drier beers that were more capable of pushing hop’s sting. Meanwhile, the formerly frowned-upon “macrobrewer” tool of hop extracts became a practical way to avoid beer loss to masses of vegetation.

Toward Juicier Flavors

As with all moves to the extremes, eventually, pugnacious approaches became tiring. You have only so many taste buds, after all, and where’s the fun in drinking beer after beer that tastes of bitter pine resin—particularly when that’s no longer braced with a sturdy malt backbone?

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The response started a trend that continues to this day. Brewers began experimenting with newer ways to push hop flavor and aroma, with less bitterness. Helping this trend was an influx of new hops bred for bigger aroma. Remember: Back in the day, growers focused on maximizing alpha acids and crop yield. There wasn’t much need for interesting aromatics when you were distilling the bittering compounds for the biggest lager breweries.

The first wave of new hops—Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra—reinvigorated IPAs, giving us whole new profiles to play with. (Turns out, you can only taste so many combinations of Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial.) Citra, in particular, was a big winner, with flavors of citrus and pineapple. It continues to be the top craft-hop crop in Yakima. Subsequent waves of hops—including some from the Southern Hemisphere—have sustained that push for flavors and aromas over bitterness.

This movement is perfectly encapsulated in one of my local favorites, Beachwood Amalgamator IPA. Julian Shrago, Beachwood BBQ & Brewing’s cofounder and brewmaster, says he formulated the beer when Mosaic first appeared as an experimental hop. The multiple flavors found in that one hop fascinated him.

According to Shrago, the original brewpub versions in the early 2010s were aggressively bitter, pushing more than 80 IBUs. As Beachwood expanded and opened a production facility, Shrago retooled the beer, softening the bitterness and emphasizing later whirlpool additions (though not taking it as far as some breweries by removing all boil additions). The updated version of Amalgamator is still plenty bitter, but also richer and rounder, with a more complete and deliciously baffling Mosaic profile.

The Rise of Haze

As West Coast brewers began edging back the bitterness and new fruit-forward hops began appearing on the market, IPA was about to be toppled by Heady Topper and its offspring.

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The short version of that story: John Kimmich learned from Greg Noonan of the Vermont Pub & Brewery that there wasn’t anything wrong with a bit of haze in their IPA as long as it tasted great. At the Alchemist, Kimmich later created Heady Topper with that notion in mind. It became a sensation, with enthusiasts driving from all over New England to get this beer that said, “Drink from the Can.”

The beer was unique—soft, with large fruity tones. It was unlike other IPAs at that time, finding new ways to push forward that hop flavor and aroma. We also shouldn’t understate the influence of that haze, and of that can.

Shaun Hill’s star at Hill Farmstead also ascended, then came Tree House, Trillium, Other Half, and others. Tastes began to change, coevolving with a more visual flavor of social media. Instagram displayed images of colorful cans and Teku glasses brimming with glowing orange light. The word “juicy” became almost as meaningless as the word “balanced.”

IPA purists raged against the haze and debated the merits of the craftsmanship, but it didn’t matter—the public still couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Bright, wildly labeled (and pricey) 4-packs of cans have funded more than a few rapid ascents.

If there is a new arms race, it’s in measuring pounds of dry hops. Ludicrous amounts of Mosaic, Citra, and Galaxy go into the whirlpool, the primary, the secondary—anywhere you can, except the boil—all in the drive to extract maximum oil and minimal bitterness.

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However, recall that the IBU Wars came and went. Are the Aroma Wars already fading, giving way to a new/old sort of balance? It may be happening, as brewers find new techniques to extract oil from fewer hops (hey, they’re expensive!) while minimizing hop burn from excess tannins and other compounds.

The Loopback Effect

Vectors of influence are myriad. Hazy, New England–style IPA has now influenced brewers around the world—including those on the West Coast. Inevitably, it has also left its mark on West Coast IPA.

Both Shrago and Green Cheek’s Evan Price have modified their approach over time.

At Beachwood, Shrago made a decisive move to lower the bitterness. At Green Cheek Beer in Orange County, Brewer and Cofounder Evan Price went on more of a journey. He says his IPAs started aggressively harsh, laden with a gypsum bite that drove things down. Over time, they wobbled softer, bringing them more in line with that fruitier, softer edge of the hazies.

However, both Shrago and Price discovered that they couldn’t leave the bitter nature of the West Coast IPAs behind. Instead, they’ve modified it—to still have an overpowering aroma, but with a more resolute bite.

Could this be another unification point, like the previous East/West détente? Can you combine a huge fruit-forward front—rich, round, and bursting—with a crisp, bitter back end that clears the way for your next juicy sip? We already have some affirmative answers—just see some of the IPA reviews (page 79), or the Brewer’s Perspective of Connor Casey of Cellarmaker on “West Coast Hazy” (page 73).

Whatever the next steps in the evolution of IPA might be, let’s try to remember that none of this happens without those new hop varieties or without the push by brewers such as Bert Grant for better aroma. Consider raising your next glass of IPA to Mr. Grant.

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