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The IPAs of California

The bright, bitter, and aromatic India pale ales of California sparked an infatuation with hops that emanated across the craft-beer landscape and developed into the modern IPA style.

John M. Verive 1 year, 30 days ago

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While the India Pale Ale wasn’t born in California, it was reinvented in the Golden State. From Anchor Brewing to New Albion Brewing Co. to Sierra Nevada, the first generation of modern craft brewers found a niche adapting the strong, hoppy British pale ales into a streamlined vehicle for delivering the essence of New World hops. Brewers simplified the malt bills, experimented with diverse hops varieties, and created new processes and equipment for imbuing brews with hops character. These bright, bitter, and aromatic ales sparked an infatuation with hops that emanated across the craft-beer landscape and developed into the modern IPA style.

Understated Malt, New Hops

The rise of the IPA (an offshoot of the American pale ale style) to craft-beer prominence began forty years ago. In 1975, Anchor Brewing was struggling against the tide of American Light Lager and determined to keep their novel brewing techniques and unique ales flowing. They had introduced Anchor Porter in 1973 and wanted to follow that beer up with an American take on a British pale ale to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s Ride. “We learned about the Cascade hops variety from a hops-grower friend,” says Anchor’s veteran Brewmaster Mark Carpenter. “It was a new hops at the time, and no one was really using it as an aroma hops.”

Anchor’s iconoclastic owner, Fritz Maytag, paired that pungent new hops variety with dry-hopping techniques he adapted from those learned during a research trip to England—Carpenter says that at the time, Anchor was the only American brewery to dry hop their ales. The distinctive Cascade character was underlined with an understated malt flavor, and Liberty Ale would unexpectedly become a template for the first modern craft beers. But it wasn’t an instant success.

“At the time, people said you just couldn’t drink it. There were just too many hops in it,” Carpenter recalls. With forty years of brewing experience at Anchor, Carpenter has a unique perspective on how tastes have changed in America and the world. “I never would have guessed IPAs would become such a driving force,” he says. “When you have brewers in Munich making California-style IPAs, the brewing world is upside down. That all traces back to Liberty Ale.”

Higher and Bolder

By the mid-nineties, California craft brewers had begun to explore the IPA style and started what Carpenter calls “the chili cook-off effect” of ever-climbing IBUs and ever-bolder aromas. Relatively close proximity to the hops fields in Washington and Oregon meant access to new hops varieties that fueled creativity, and in San Diego new breweries such as Stone, AleSmith, and the Pizza Port brewpubs focused on experimentation with hops. Slowly, a regional variation of the IPA style began to emerge.

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“Over the years,” says Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele, “the West Coast IPA evolved to be a very pale golden color with a very dry finish and overwhelming hops intensity.” Simple grain bills with little crystal malt in the recipes became the standard. “Balance?” Steele says, “We forget that side of the equation to maximize hops character.” Clean fermentations further accentuated the hops, and an emphasis on dry hopping helps tease subtle flavors and aromas from all those hops.

While the early West Coast IPAs centered on the “C hops” varieties—Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, and Centennial—as more IPAs hit the market, the competition drove brewers to find ways to differentiate their brands. With a limited palette of hops varieties and a style that required a muted malt flavor, brewers stood out from the crowd by tuning their techniques.

“The temperature of dry hopping is where a lot of breweries are doing different things,” Steele says. “It has a big impact on what flavors you’ll get out of the hops.” After much experimentation and study, Stone now dry hops beer at about 60°F (15°C) to maximize the extraction of hops oils, but Steele says all the mechanics of dry hopping still aren’t well understood.

It’s difficult in a production brewery setting to conduct the kind of controlled experimentation that science demands, and with few laboratories studying hops, the brewpubs around San Diego become the next proving ground for IPA development. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the West Coast style was further refined by a cadre of brewers including Stone’s Steve Wagner, Tomme Arthur from Pizza Port (and later The Lost Abbey) and Vinnie Cilurzo—who brewed at the Blind Pig Alehouse in Temecula before moving north to found Russian River Brewing.

“Tomme Arthur and Jeff Bagby [Pizza Port] are two brewers with the biggest influence on how I structure IPAs,” says Julian Shrago, the co-owner and brewer at the celebrated Beachwood Brewing brewpub in Long Beach. Beachwood is known for offering a wide variety of West Coast IPAs, and Shrago has a knack for making small subtle tweaks to grain bills and hops schedules to create dozens of distinctive IPA recipes. Arthur taught him to eschew caramel malt, even in double IPA formulation, and from Bagby he learned to amalgamate different hops flavors and specific dry-hopping techniques. “Bagby is a master of hoppy styles. I never would have dry hopped in the serving tank if it weren’t for him,” Shrago says.

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Besides the serving-tank hops additions, which can use either whole flower or pellets depending on the specific character he’s looking for, Shrago has also adopted another technique he learned from Bagby and Vinnie Cilurzo: mash hopping. “The chemistry works a little differently in hops added during the mash, so you’re permanently locking in different flavor and aroma components as opposed to throwing things in the boil [or dry hopping],” he says. “I firmly believe in having a wall of flavor and aroma, and I think the way that you do that is by adding different varieties of hops at many, many different points. Just tons of layers.”

A Firestorm of Interest

As brewers devised new techniques and technologies for extracting flavor and aroma compounds from hops, the hops growers bred new varieties that offered yet more diverse flavors and aromas. “Having a relationship with your farmer is a real key to making great beer,” says Matt Brynildson, decorated brewmaster at Firestone Walker Brewery. In recent years, Brynildson has spent time exploring Germany’s hops yards for new varieties, and Firestone Walker has released two new IPAs centered on emerging German cultivars, including Hüll Melon and Mandarina Bavaria. “IPA has a lot of life still, and there are a lot of hops flavors and aromas yet to be explored,” Brynildson says.

One man at the forefront of that exploration is Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Tom Nielsen. The technical lead for flavor and raw materials at the brewery, Nielsen studies, analyzes, and tests every aspect of flavor in beer. Sierra Nevada is a huge consumer of hops, and Nielsen has championed many of the experimental varieties that have gained cult status among IPA geeks. He goes beyond the sensory side of hops selection and also looks at the chemical compounds that give each cultivar its distinct character. He knows there are a lot of flavors still to uncover, and he doesn’t see the popularity of IPAs flagging anytime soon.

“Today there’s a firestorm of interest in IPA—it’s very contagious,” Nielsen says. “People aren’t looking for their new favorite band anymore; they’re looking for their favorite brewery and favorite IPA. In this market, you really have to set yourself apart.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing’s spirit of innovation is instilled into their beer, and a near endless parade of unnamed experimental hops varieties get tested in the brewhouse every year. “We’re using experimental hops in a lot of our new product development,” Nielsen says, and besides the tropical and earthy flavors that have defined the West Coast style in recent years, he’s really excited about new flavors beginning to emerge from the hops yards of Yakima, Washington, and he works closely with growers to breed new cultivars that may lead to all new flavor profiles. “You have to know what to look for,” he says. “You have to figure out what the chemistry is that’s producing these aromas, then set up breeding designed to find varieties that carry those compounds.” He’s currently hunting for woodsy varietals with cedar, vanilla, and coconut aromas.

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“Twenty years ago if you were brewing an IPA, you’d be using one of four ‘C hops’ varieties,” says Mitch Steele, “and now it’s all about new hops varieties. IPAs are going into new territory.”

Stone recently reformulated both their Pale Ale and the groundbreaking Ruination double IPA to feature more of these nouveau hops flavors. A trend of producing small digressions of tried and true IPA brands, such as the Grapefruit and Habanero variations of Ballast Point’s popular Sculpin IPA, is also becoming more common. “Beer drinkers crave variety,” Steele says, “and [variants] generate interest and curiosity.”

Offering IPAs for service on the nitrogen draft lines commonly reserved for stout styles is another way brewers have capitalized on customer curiosity, even though nitrogenation is counter to many of the qualities that define an IPA. A nitro IPA isn’t as aromatic as a standard carbonated IPA, and the perceived sweetness is greater. “Nitro has a cool factor right now, but I don’t think brewers fully understand the impact of nitrogenating an IPA. They aren’t formulating recipes for an IPA specifically to be served on nitro,” Steele says. “It’s still in exploratory mode. It’s uncharted territory for us.”

Even after decades of evolution, there’s still plenty of territory within the confines of the IPA style to explore. Innovative brewers adapting traditional British styles kicked off America’s love for hops, and the IPA has grown into an icon of American brewing and a tremendous force in the marketplace. Nearly one out of every three craft beers sold in America is an IPA, and most of those brews can count the pale, dry, and intensely aromatic IPAs of California as their forebears. The brewers who specialize in expressing hops character work on the cutting edge of brewing, exploiting new technologies, techniques, and ingredients to craft hops-driven beer that pushes the boundaries of traditional styles. California has always had tremendous influence on American culture, and the Golden State’s craft breweries have an indelible impact on America’s beer culture.

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PHOTO: MATT GRAVES

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