The American Midwest is where innovation meets tradition in the most unassuming and satisfying ways. You can taste it in the food, you can see it in the architecture, and it’s definitely a distinguishing characteristic of the beer.
“We’re in a part of the country that’s somewhat removed from a lot of the spiky trends, which is nice,” says Todd Haug, director of brewing operations at Minnesota-based Surly Brewing Co. “What we see here tends to fall along a more narrow bandwidth, but it’s way more solid. We may be a few years behind on some of the food and beverage trends as a result, but we have a better foundation for what good food and beer means and for the right reasons, not just because they’re popular or what you’re supposed to be doing.”
America’s obsession with IPAs is a perfect example in microcosm. There’s seemingly infinite room for variance and experimentation within the style, and brewers continue to push hard on either end—from super dense and malty grain bills in the English tradition on one side to very lightly malted with extreme hops additions on the other. Not surprisingly Midwestern brewers tend to fall, well, somewhere in the middle.
“The Midwest is a hot-bed for blending together Old-World brewing tradition with new American stuff,” says Haug. “I think it’s organically come out of the breweries and brewing culture that was established here very early on coupled with a new wave of American ingredients—even fifteen years ago hops varieties weren’t what they are now—and that’s what’s manifested itself into what people are calling a Midwestern IPA.”
While it’s tough to define a Midwestern-style IPA as being just one thing, most examples falling along that range exhibit a balanced malt character with some depth and complexity and are hopped at similar rates as West Coast IPAs using primarily American hops for flavor and aroma.
“It’s not even always crystal malt,” Haug says of the grain bill. “It could be in the mashing regimen and leaving a little more residual sugars to give it balance.”
While three highly decorated mainstays tend to represent the Midwestern style—Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, Goose Island’s Goose IPA, and Founders Centennial IPA—smaller brewers are further exploring this sweet spot with a wide variety of raw ingredients and techniques. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s not always as much about amping up the hops as it is about adjusting the grain bill to best showcase the beer’s hops character.
Haug points to Surly’s flagship beer, Furious, as an example of what’s happening on the fringes of the middle. “The gravity is a lot higher because it’s a 7 percent beer and uses a lot of malts that are not even English varieties but make really good English-style ESBs,” he says. “It’s that richness and that full-bodied backbone that allow us to pile on all these hops and have this really interesting synergy of sweetness and bitterness that interplays really well, instead of just all bitterness.”
What’s also nice about some of our IPAs is that they change as they warm up in the glass, and even with age,” he says.
The Right Balance
Matt Gallagher, brewmaster at Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago, agrees on the primary importance of the grist bill in brewing a well-balanced IPA. “From my standpoint, the most challenging part of brewing a hoppy beer is the malt bill and less the hops bill,” he says. “You can keep throwing hops at it, but if the malts aren’t right, those hops aren’t going to come through correctly.”
Gallagher says striking that right balance was the toughest part about developing the recipe for Gone Away (formerly known as Heyoka), the brewery’s winter seasonal IPA and a silver-medal winner at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.
Gallagher calls the beer a “classic IPA amped up a couple of notches in intensity” with piney, floral, and spicy flavors from lots of Chinook, Centennial, and Columbus hops. He was originally aiming for an IPA more in keeping with the West Coast style and devised a recipe with lots of pale malt in place of the 2-row that the brewery usually uses to increase the hops amplitude, but when he tasted the results, he didn’t find the clean hops expression he was looking for.
He brewed several subsequent batches and “found that if we kept the hops the same, but lowered the percentage of pale malt and increased the percentage of 2-row, all the sudden the hops really jumped out and were shining through.
We finally reached a tipping point where there’s enough maltiness that it’s balanced from a drinkability standpoint, but not so much that it covers up the hops flavors.”
Gallagher uses a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 2.75 to one, he says, with a 90-minute boil and a bittering addition at 60 minutes, as well as hops additions at 30, 15, and 5 minutes and “a big whirlpool addition” before the beer is dry hopped. The beer is fermented with the same ale yeast and at the same temperature that Half Acre uses for most all of its beers.
Eric Bean, owner and brewmaster at Ohio’s Columbus Brewing Company, also appreciates a similar balance of underlying malt flavor to accentuate the hops character in an IPA.
While the brewery’s double IPA, Bodhi, won a bronze medal in the American-style IPA category at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, Bean considers its flagship IPA to be more representative of the brewery’s Midwestern roots.
Where Bodhi “is all pale malt, a little crystal, and as many hops as we can stuff in there,” Bean says, Columbus Brewing’s standard IPA “is very balanced in the sense that it has a fine tropical fruit characteristic but also some underlying malt tones that I think really bring out those hops flavors and keep it very drinkable.”
He’s also conscious of his local customer base, which, in keeping with Midwestern tastes, tends to prefer beers that are more straight-down-the-middle and reliably drinkable.
“To be honest, our IPA is never going to win GABF Gold in the IPA category,” he says. “We know what’s going on on a national level, and we’re not so concerned with that. Our IPA is more consumer driven, what we think our consumers want and what we want to be able to have in an everyday drinking beer.”
In addition to the grain bill, Bean also continues to tweak his liquor-to-grist ratio in search of perfect attenuation. “We’re looking for that right amount of residual sweetness to bring out the flavors in the beer and keep it refreshing, too,” he says. “You don’t want something cloying [because] it muddles the experience and totally ruins the hops flavor.”
Gerrit Lewis, cofounder of Chicago-based Pipeworks Brewing Co., hesitates to allow that there even is “a definitive Midwestern IPA character”; however, he has found that a substantial malt backbone is a great way to showcase and fully express the character in different hops varieties.
Pipeworks makes a huge variety of specialty and one-off beers in its quest to explore flavors and produce “a beer for every occasion,” but, especially with the brewery’s series of single-hops Imperial IPAs, Lewis prefers a grain bill that employs four or five different grains rather than just one or two.
“It’s darker in color and a little stickier with more character malt,” he says. “The flavor is a little rounder; more full and robust overall.”
And, in the Midwestern tradition, it provides a solid base on which to experiment with a variety of bold new flavors.
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.