Wayne Wambles, brewmaster for Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, set out to create a tropical and juicy IPA called “Jai Alai” way back in 2008, before it was trendy. A decade later, Jai Alai still tastes fresh and current and has proven curiously timeless relative to a number of its competitors. Whether it’s the balance of the recipe design, a methodical approach to raw materials, or brewing toward a sense of place, his approach has much to teach.
Designing an IPA to appeal to a wide range of beer drinkers is hard. Designing one that remains appealing to drinkers ten years later is damn near impossible. Today, commercial brewers regularly reformulate even flagship brands to make them more appealing to current palates, but a very small cadre of IPAs—Firestone Walker’s Union Jack and Odell Brewing’s IPA come to mind—remain as fresh and relevant today as they did when they first appeared in the 2000s. Cigar City Brewing’s Jai Alai IPA is a member of that elusive club, but Brewmaster Wayne Wambles had more humble goals when designing the beer.
“My whole concept for that beer was to make an IPA as tropical as I could possibly make it,” says Wambles. “If you take a look back when the beer was actually designed—it was piloted for the first time in 2008 and released in March of 2009—no one was making IPAs like that back then. A lot of people were making IPAs that were more citrus-forward, or citrus and piney, but they weren’t making IPAs that were more focused on mango and pineapple and orange marmalade. I was trying to emulate our tropical feel, our location and concept, through the beer.”
One key to every great IPA is the overused yet elusive concept of balance. For Wambles, this meant dialing in residual sweetness from malt and specialty grains to accent and reinforce the tropical hops notes and prevent the inherent bitterness from tilting the perception into West Coast bitter and dry IPA territory.
“That sweetness turned the hops character into something more luscious and juicy, before ‘juicy’ became a New England thing. Even today when you drink it, the center of the flavor profile will still have that caramel sweetness, then as it trails off, the hops rush in and help to balance that in the finish. It’s not an East Coast IPA, and it’s not a West Coast IPA. I was trying to straddle that fence right in the middle.” Today, many brewers are pushing the trend of using less and less caramel and crystal malts in their IPAs, leading to beers that are more golden than amber.
While Cigar City has maintained the original malt bill (for the sake of brand consistency) in Jai Alai, Wambles supports the general trend of dialing down caramalts in order to reduce oxidation and promote shelf stability.
“Over the course of time, we started to notice a relationship between shelf stability and grist percentage usage rate of caramalts,” says Wambles. “The beers that tended to have higher caramel malt usage rates and are hops-forward like our IPAs and pale ales—all of these hops-forward beers that might have higher percentages of caramalt usage—tend to be less shelf stable.
“All these speculations and approaches from other commercial brewers to reduce caramel malt have some validity behind them. Our sensory analysis has shown that higher amounts of caramalt expedite oxidation when compared to beers with lower percentages of caramalt or none at all. We don’t know exactly why that’s happening, but we do know that it is happening, and that’s regardless of dissolved oxygen levels in the beer. Even with the best dissolved oxygen levels ever, we’re still seeing that degradation. It’s fascinating and frustrating at the same time because we still don’t know exactly why; we just know that through our sensory panels, it’s a factor that’s on the table.”
While reformulating their core brands is something Cigar City won’t touch, Wambles has been working to adjust infrequent or seasonal beers accordingly.
“Florida Man is a double IPA that we make, and we pretty much pulled all the caramalt out of it. With double IPA, it’s really a balancing act and even more complex.” Like many brewers at their commercial scale, Wambles is a self-professed hops fanatic. Over many years of walking hops fields, rubbing and smelling hops with growers, and brewing test batches, he’s built a mental library of flavors and impacts that various hops will have when used in various capacities. His recipe- development process is an exercise in visualization.
“I think of the overall contribution I want from each hop variety, at certain points on the hot side or during the dry- hopping process,” says Wambles. “Since I know what each one does independently, I envision what they will do collectively. So I can build together groups of multiple charges for a single hot-side addition or single charges on the dry-hop side, and already have a sensory visualization of what that’s going to be like in my head before that’s beer is ever made. Most of the time that works out—I’ve been thrown very few curveballs.”
As technology in the brewing world progresses and brewers become more and more specific about their parameters for raw materials, Wambles looks forward to using tools such as gas chromatography to build a more consistent baseline profile for the hops they prefer, so that farms can simplify the selection process by only presenting lots within that prearranged spec. It’s a data-driven, precision approach to brewing that fits his no-nonsense personality, but he’s quick to note that all of these tools still don’t replace the sensory foundation for the craft of brewing.
“It’s just knowing your raw materials, really. It’s no different than a chef knowing what something is going to taste like when he/she adds spices together into a dish.”