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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

How American IPAs Evolved

Over at our local alt-weekly Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Week, arts and culture editor Martin Cizmar has an interesting article that got me thinking. In it he argues a point I've been making for years--IPAs are moving away from bitterness and toward flavor and aromas. Willamette Week often takes a provocative, bubble-piercing approach that is a nice antidote to a self-congratulatory city. But in this case, I think that urge led Martin down a blind alley.
When Portland beer geeks sampled the beers blind, it turned out they preferred brighter, juicier versions like those in the Northeast, which have only recently popped up in Portland. The five best IPAs in the city come from brand-new breweries, and most of those have been influenced by Heady Topper, Julius and Sculpin, beers that present hops as a reward rather than a challenge.
I think this is wrong in a couple small ways and one big way. The Northeast, like the rest of the country, is not a monolith. Martin seems to be talking about New England here, but New England was actually very late getting to the hops party.  Heady Topper is a fascinating beer, but its influence was basically nil in the pubs and breweries of New England, which have largely tended toward English-inflected, balanced, and notably malty beers. (Its influence among the uber-geeks of BeerAdvocate is another matter.) Martin proves this pretty ably because in the three examples of Northeast IPAs he offers, one is from San Diego. It's not an old trend there. Those small New England breweries didn't even drive a palate shift in Portland, Maine, so I have a hard time believing they drove one in Portland, Oregon.

Like hops into cooling wort, so are the IPAs of our lives.

And anyway, Portland has its own fairly long history of the kinds of IPAs Martin describes. It starts with a beer he actually did mention--Bridgeport IPA, which dates back 20 years and is a beta version prototype for these kinds of beers: mid-IBUs with tons and tons of flavor and aroma. That would seem a more influential beer in moving the Oregon palate than a beer you could only buy onsite in Vermont. 

The more important mistake is thinking in terms of imitative causality at all. (Though this is a nearly ubiquitous idea, and one to which I used to subscribe.) There has been a shift from very bitter IPAs to IPAs marked by flavor and aroma, but it has happened around the country as brewers each made natural discoveries on their own. It developed incrementally, inside hundreds of breweries across the country, as the national palate shifted toward not just IPAs, but IPAs that expressed as much of that heady flavor and aroma Americans hops are capable of. When you understand the mechanics of trying to produce these qualities, it makes sense that the discoveries would happen brewery by brewery, with hundreds of little "a-ha!'s" happening co-emergently around the country.

The first inkling I had of this was talking to Ben Edmunds more than a year ago, when he mentioned how much more IBUs were extracted in late-addition hops that we realized. Last summer, we sat down and talked about hoppy American ales for my homebrew book, and he blew my mind when he described discoveries the brewery made as it tried to drive ever more flavor and aroma into its beers.

I finished an article describing this process for All About Beer that will appear in the next issue--and I don't want to completely steal that piece's thunder. But it's worth hinting and the broad themes now, in perhaps a pump-priming fashion. In talking to breweries from Maine Beer Company, Ben, Harpoon, and Ardent Ales (Richmond, VA), I kept hearing the same story (I heard it again from Gigantic's Van Havig recently). There was definitely a big trend in super-bitter beers, but it wasn't the only trend. Breweries have for a long time been trying to create beers with more vivid flavors and aromas that de-emphasized the bitterness. The difference between 2006 and now? In 2016, they can actually do it. Here's the thumbnail version of how this all happened.

American Hops
It of course starts with these incredible American hops we have. Unlike European varieties, they're not subtle or nuanced. They are gale-force flavor-bombs--so much so that they were originally derided as unusable. It didn't take too long before Americans started to find their hop tooth, and by the 2000s we were getting more and more attached to these tropical, citrusy, piney, dank flavors. They were mostly pretty high in alpha acids, hops' bittering agent. That would prove to be an issue down the line.

Dry-hopping is an old technique that has been used for decades (centuries?) in the UK and Germany to infuse hop aroma into beer. Americans learned it a long time ago, too, so American ales have often had wonderful aromatics. So bitterness is easy, and aroma is easy. The difficulty is flavor. Breweries have learned to push hop additions later and later in the boil, and many (most?) now do a post-kettle hop addition for their hoppy ales. That is, after the beer is taken off the flame, they add another dose of hops and let them steep in the slowly-cooling wort. This is often the largest dose of hops, and breweries sometimes structure their recipes by thinking of this addition first--not starting with the bittering addition, as has been usual for centuries. 

The fascinating part happened next. Those post-kettle hops? For basically all of history, brewers assumed they contributed no appreciable bitterness to the beer. If you google around and look at hop utilization charts, you'll see that according to conventional wisdom, steeping hops in sub-boiling wort shouldn't give you IBUs, or not many. And because breweries hadn't ever used very many post-kettle hops, they didn't have any reason to dispute this idea.

So fast-forward to the US, as Americans were trying to make IPAs with tons of post-kettle, high-IBU hops. They would plug their hop schedules into their beer recipe software, dialing in the amount of IBUs they wanted. Instead, they found that they were getting way more IBUs than the software predicted they would. Ben Edmunds told me, “The thing it opened our eyes to was that from a balance point of view, we were way higher in BUs than we wanted.” Since he had to use the flavor addition (late in the boil or following it) to keep that electric hop flavor up, the only thing he could do is start reducing the bitter charge So we started peeling away, peeling away. And the beers all got better.” In many of those IPAs that Martin Cizmar (and I) love, the first-addition bitter charges are tiny.  Ben: Frankly, it’s not a secret, but all the brewers who make these award-winning beers—everyone does it. Those sixty-minute hops are basically for kettle performance.”

This was a pattern that repeated itself in breweries across the country. Brewers weren't learning this because they tasted beer from other breweries, they were learning it in their own process. (In that forthcoming article, look for the stories from the brewers themselves.)

It's still common to hear people talk about IPAs as having regional differences. I think that's not only wrong, but it distracts from a far more interesting phenomenon. Over the course of the past decade, because of the influences of an emerging national palate, American brewers were beginning to develop new techniques to adapt to the hops and an orientation toward flavor and aroma. It wasn't a clever brewer or three who, like a hoppy Johnny Appleseed, spread the gospel of this new brewing style. It was the endpoint of an emerging national approach to brewing, one replicated in brewery after brewery across the US.  So I agree with Martin's major point: we love American IPAs that have very intense flavors and aromas. But this an American, not regional, style.


  1. Regarding your comment on gale-force flavor bomb hops being unusable, there is the case of Simcoe. This is Patrick Smith of Loftus Ranches:

    We’ve been part of the hop breeding program for a long time, since the 1980s. A lot of the varieties we’re growing came out of the breeding program. In fact, we were the first to grow Simcoe. First field in 2002. It came out of the experimental program. No one wanted it at first. We grew it for a couple of years and it wasn’t selling. It was marketed as a specialty bittering hop. That’s what it was bred for. As we approached commercialization, we liked its bitterness profile. It’s not a sharp bitterness. So you can use a lot of it without turning the beer into a bitter mess. Craft was very small back in 2002. The economics of Simcoe didn’t work for large brewers. So it sat. We didn’t even harvest one of the fields the second year…left it hanging. Something happened. What happened is Russian River picked up on Simcoe as a great hop for high hop beers…Pliny is the one that put the hop on the map and saved it. Once big IPAs and double IPAs took off, Simcoe became very popular. As recently as 2007, it was grown in small quantities on three farms. Today it is the fourth largest variety by acreage in the US. We’re talking about SEVEN years. It was nearly extinct.

  2. Any talk among your U.S. brewery sources about using hopbacks — basically giant teapots— to impart hop aroma and flavor rather than bitterness?

  3. For the record, Jason Perrault - the breeder who made the crosses that resulted in Simcoe - gives credit to Weyerbacher (in Pennsylvania) as well as Russian River for promoting Simcoe.

    At the 2008 Craft Brewers Conference, when some discussion suggested that Simcoe might be abandoned, Dan Weirback tried to get a license to grow it himself.

    Credit where credit is due.

  4. Pete and Stan--thanks for adding texture to this piece. I suspect there's a whole vein to mine in the development of different hop strains in this narrative--particularly Citra and the super-flavor hops that came after (El Dorado, Mosaic, etc.).

    Yes, definitely. I call them "post-kettle" because the function is the same--steeping them in warm-but-not-boiling wort. Breweries have different set ups; hopbacks and whirlpools are the most common (in fact, post-kettle hops are often just called "whirlpool hops"), but breweries without these vessels have other set-ups.

  5. Wouldn't a review of the technical seminars at CBC and regional equivalents over the last decade indicate a centralization of the trend making as opposed to the suggested simultaneous natural event?

  6. Do you doubt the brewers' reports of how their own processes evolved? Indeed, the CBC seminars are generally run by brewers, so aren't we talking about the same thing?

  7. I think a big part of the problem is the model writers like this use is evolution. When you use a a term like that it suggests a few things -- discrete populations, little or no opportunity for movement of traits between species, a gradual, linear change of traits, and so on.

    A moment's reflection reveals that's a terrible model for beer. There is absolutely nothing to stop a brewer in San Diego from flying out to Prague, trying a beer, talking to the brewer for information on their ingredients and process, and then doing something similar back home.

    Mutations can jump around in a completely non-biological way, and trying to describe change with terms like evolution is misleading at best.

  8. To define American IPAs as one group is to define them all as Miscellaneous. Surely most (if not all) "regions" have more exemplars than any esoteric style of pilsner or German amber.

  9. While not a Monolith, didn't the whole trend culminating with Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, Trillium, Treehouse, Tired Hands, etc... start with Greg Noonan in Vermont in the 90s? Again, not all IPAs went that route, but this does seem distinct from, say, the West Coast breweries putting out IPAs (which seem to originate with Sierra Nevada as a model). I'm sure dry hopping and less bittering hops are part of it, but what I associate with the Northeast beers is yeast - Conan and other English strains that aren't as clean fermenting (i.e. they accentuate the fruitiness and juiciness of the hops) as the Chico American Ale stuff.

    Looking at those breweries, there's also a tendency to use other adjuncts in place of something like crystal malt, so you get oats, wheat, maybe rye, and so on. The hops change with what's available, and a lot of breweries experiment with new stuff, but when I started drinking IPAs (turn of the century timeframe), things seemed very different from the new guard of Northeast IPAs. I don't know that you could claim that the Northeast were the only folks doing this or that it influenced Oregon, etc... but it seems clear that the Northeast has a tradition. Heady Topper didn't happen by accident, John Kimmich worked for Greg Noonan. These brewers all seem to know each other and collaborate somewhat frequently.

    Maybe it's not regional, but there's something going on here...

  10. Oh gosh, yes. Always doubt recollection. I've got some folk on the track of CBC records now. Plus, interesting, a connection I need to follow up to early NE US highly hopped but lower alcohol ales. Need to see if the records from 20+ years ago still exist.

  11. Cool article. Back in the early 2000s there seemed to be two types of IPAs, the "east coast and midwest" C-40 bombs, and the perky and dank "west coast" styles. All of this stuff has splintered several ways since then, and Mark I think is onto it.

    The deviations aren't just lower bitterness, it's in using a British yeast strain (Boddington's strain ie Wyeast 1318, which is what Conan allegedly started as and throws fruity esters) instead of the ultra-clean Chico strain, heavy adjuncts like major oat additions, and looking for a juice-like cloudy appearance vs the crystal clear ideal of the west coast styles. I'm 100% in agreement about how the BU wars changed nationally and gradually, but there's a newer "species" of IPA that Great Notion is introducing to Portland that seemes to have it's origin in the Heady phenomenon.

  12. There are indeed Vermont influenced breweries in Portland, Maine. In fact, they've done quite well to expand the influence of the style. Bissell Brothers and Foundation have been making some serious rounds with their fruity haze bombs and are just as sought after in the beer heart of Vermont as anywhere else. If you've actually been to the other Portland in the past few years, you'd see that the impact is very apparent. Not like Harpoon has any knowledge of that or anything... seriously.

  13. Anon, I guess my point is this. Heady Topper debuted in 2004. At the time, New England beers were still very much in the balanced, English-inspired mode. Then TEN YEARS later Bissell Brothers opened their doors. Maine Beer Co had Lunch out in 2011, which was one of these modern hoppy beers and would seem like a much more obvious precursor. But even that was many years after Heady debuted.

    The point is that all around the US at the same time, starting about five years ago and progressing to today, these late-hop IPAs started replacing heavily bittered IPAs. Of course there were precursors, but Heady's far from the only one. And if these precursors were so incredibly influential, why did it take many years for that influence to be felt? And why did that influence strike at the same time all around the country?

    A more obvious answer is that it didn't. There has been a slow-moving evolution in American brewing that has led to this moment, an organic process that replicated itself in brewery after brewery.

    It's not enough to cite an antecedent if you're arguing causality. There are always antecedents. You have to make a case for how it actually influenced other breweries and beers and sparked this wholesale change in brewing. Having talked to a number of brewers about their own process, I have yet to find anyone who was particularly influenced by Heady or any other beer.

    I may well be wrong. (I so often am.) But someone has to start finding all these breweries who were directly influenced.

  14. Heady definitely had a precursor- the Bombay Grab IPA from the Vermont Pub and Brewery. It even uses the same yeast strain, Conan, which Kimmich used to grab by the barrel from the pub's brewery basement. This is of course the very yeast that others across the country have used to experiment and evolve their brews. And Greg Noonan's influence most definitely traveled across the country, via all the advice and help he freely gave and the style defining books he wrote. A knowledgeable beer friend is working on a Noonan tribute project and has found the impact he had on the brewing industry was extensive.

    Incidentally, I happened to be at the Pub last night, enjoying the new experimental release of the 2X Bombay Grab- a Heady inspired recipe. It was a full circle beer experience for sure.

    Having travelled cross country as a beer lover before and after the Heady phenomena, that there has most certainly been a direct change and it is doubtful to me that coincidence and organic evolution are the entire cause. I've certainly spoken to many a brewer (all across the states) who cite inspirational changes to their brew approach as a result. In fact, I can only recall one (from a small Delaware brewery) who stated directly that he wasn't affected and thought much like you do. Personal experiences are of course subjective but I am definitively certain of my stance here.