I miss many things about living in the Pacific Northwest—among them, the region’s music scene and Portland’s equidistance from mountains and beach. Mostly though, I miss the IPAs. The India pale ale is celebrated, if not worshipped, in this lush region that produces some of the world’s most sought-after hops and some of the most sought-after IPAs. This beer style is omnipresent in Washington and Oregon, and—according to several of the region’s prominent brewers—it is evolving in aroma and flavor.
More Hops Forward
“The Northwest IPA of ten years ago is certainly different from what we might think of as a quintessential Northwest IPA today,” says James McDermet, the head brewer at Fremont Brewing in Seattle, Washington. “Classic Northwest IPA fits very well into the American-style IPA category and focuses on American hops characteristics like big juicy citrus in the aroma and flavor that is often balanced by some sweet, caramel malt character.”
The general trend in Northwest IPAs, according to McDermet, has been a move away from the caramel malty character and a focus on a drier, more hops-forward beer. “For our IPA, we try to maintain some malt sweetness to keep the beer from being too bracingly bitter and keep the beer more balanced while focusing on Northwest hops aroma and flavor as much as we can,” says McDermet. “This is not too far away from the West Coast style—both focus on big hops aromas and flavors. The only real difference might be how dry the beer is and the perceived bitterness level. I think of West Coast IPAs as a bit more bracingly bitter, but it’s likely just due to the lack of malt character and low residual sweetness.”
Hazy and Aromatic
“Historically, I think a Northwest IPA [is] different from a West Coast IPA,” says Josh Pfriem who owns Hood River’s pFriem Family Brewers. Northwest IPAs have more of a sturdy malt bill, he explains. “They’re hazy and aromatic with an assertive bitterness while the West Coast IPA is lighter in body and brighter and [puts a] huge emphasis on aromatic hops.”
Pfriem’s 7 percent ABV, 65 IBU IPA is brewed with Gambrinus Canadian Pilsner, Simpsons Caramalt, Simpsons Crystal Light, and Simpsons Crystal Dark grains with Chinook, Mosaic, Citra, and Warrior hops before it ferments with American ale yeast. “I think most Northwest brewers are trying to achieve huge hops aromatics, light body with just enough malt to balance the hops, smooth finishes with just enough bitterness, and brightness,” he says about modern-day Northwest IPAs. “These beers are very fresh, hops-forward, and fruity... they have lots of citrus and drink easy.”
Late-Kettle and Dry-Hop Notes
Sean Burke of The Commons Brewery in Portland, Oregon, agrees that the Northwest IPA style is evolving. “Not that long ago Northwest-style IPAs tended to be a bit more malty and have a bit more residual sugar,” he says. “I think there is more of a push to pull back on the Munich and crystal/caramel malts to drive more of the late-kettle and dry-hops notes.”
Burke also agrees with Pfriem that the Northwest IPA is somewhat different from the typical West Coast IPA. “West Coast style tends to be drier and a bit higher in alcohol. I think Northwest-style IPA would really be more of a subcategory of West Coast IPA.”
“I believe in aroma and hops flavor, not necessarily in bitterness,” says Tony Lawrence, brewmaster and co-owner at Boneyard Beer Co. in Bend, Oregon. His deep copper-colored, citrus-forward RPM IPA is a testament to that statement. It’s bold and refreshingly hoppy on the nose and to taste without the bitterness associated with dank Northwest-style IPAs. “Right now in the Northwest, IPAs have big aroma and big hoppy finishes; they’re moving away from the dry and bitter IPA that we used to see more of back in the day,” he says.
“My biggest influences for where I wanted my IPA to end up were Firestone Walker’s Union Jack and Russian River’s Pliny the Elder,” Lawrence says. Boneyard’s RPM is brewed with a blend of several Northwest hops—including Cascade, Centennial, and Citra—at more than 2.5 pounds per barrel.
“You need a bit of a backbone to support those hops,” Lawrence explains. “You don’t want the malt to steal the show, but [you want] a little bit of something for the hops to stand on. I put a little bit of sweetness in my IPA for the hops to dance with. I prefer dry beers, but I make this beer sweeter than I typically would like to [in order to] balance out the hopping profile.”
A swig of RPM starts with big aroma that “sets everything into motion”; then comes bold malty sweetness, Lawrence says. “And then the hops flavor takes you on a journey. The whole thing finishes clean; it snaps off, and you’re ready to repeat the process.”
Unlike a lot of IPA brewers, Lawrence prefers IPA a few months after it has been brewed. “A little bit of age on the hops is good,” he says. “I prefer pelletized hops after 3–6 months. If you let hops age out a little bit, some of their oils become less vegetative.”
“I’m unsure whether there is a single Northwest IPA style,” says Nick Arzner who owns Block 15 Restaurant & Brewery in Corvallis, Oregon.
Block 15’s Alpha IPA, Arzner explains, has evolved over the years to highlight hops on the “citrusy and piney side with background tropical fruit.” Alpha is built on a blend of Crisp Best Pale and Rahr 2-row malts with kettle-hopping of CTZ, Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook “and a hearty dry-hop addition of Centennial, Citra, and Simcoe,” he says. Most of the hops that Block 5 uses come from Oregon and Washington but are supplemented by Australian, European, and New Zealand hops. “For hops-forward beers, I favor a blend of the newer hops varieties—such as Citra and Mosaic—with varieties that have been around for a bit—such as Columbus, Chinook, and Centennial.”
Block 15 also makes an 8.1 percent ABV, 110 IBU double IPA called Sticky Hands. It was born out of The Hop Experience Project—Block 15’s rotating recipe that combines alternating base beers with different hops varieties. “Through brewing variations, we discover ingredients and techniques that we then apply to our base version,” Arzner says. “We began brewing Sticky Hands in 2012. During that time, we worked with six different base malts, numerous specialty malts, four yeast strains, and myriad hops combinations and products. Currently, we can 16-ounce (473 ml) cans of Sticky Hands every other week to keep it fresh and lively.”
“So many of the Northwest’s great IPAs express unique characteristics. Some are sweeter, some dry, some tropical or citrus or dank herb leaning, some favor malt character. If anything, ‘Northwest-style IPAs’ tend to have a great aroma and drinkable balance,” says Arzner.
It seems that Northwest-style IPA, if there is such a (sub)category, is an ever-evolving beer style. “Five years ago the general concept for designing an IPA was a little old-school,” says Lawrence. “Northwest brewers are pioneers, but there was a mentality that there’s no reason to fix it if it’s not broken. But then some new brewers came out swinging with a different template.”
That template, agree all of these brewers, is one that’s bright and hops-forward but not aggressively bitter. It’s more experimental in the hops and methods used; and it’s still just as bold and complex as those old-school pioneer IPAs.
PHOTO: MATT GRAVE