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Monday, January 23, 2012

What Is This Mysterious "West-Coast IPA" of Which You Speak?

Leaving aside the debate about who brewed it first--and I very much want to leave that debate aside--a more salient question arises: what the hell is a West-Coast IPA? If that which-is-first debate shed any light, it was, I think, on the insubstantiality of this "style." There is India Pale Ale. Even an anti-style guy like me admits it, and its perameters are pretty well-established: strongish, hoppy, pale. Not quite a strong ale, but more than a pale.

West-Coast style? You tell me. I think people mean some combination of five things:

1. Made on the West Coast
2. Strong(er than regular IPAs)
3. Made with American hops
4. Juicy with citric flavors and aromas
5. Bracingly bitter

But how do these things differ from any other American IPA? With the exception of place--made in CA, WA, or OR--how do these characteristics particularly distinguish IPAs made in San Diego or Muncie? Everyone makes beers like this now--even in Europe. American hops are a worldwide phenom, and citric juiciness pretty much defines American IPAs, not a regional variation. Surely we're not going to argue that every style gets its own regional title just because it happens to be brewed there--Midwest wheats, New England stouts, Southern browns. That's not style, it's boosterism.

But I'm open-minded. Tell me what you think it is. If everyone in comments agrees, I'll be happy to concede the point. (No I won't--I'll be dyspeptic and profane, but I'll concede.)

Do tell--


  1. 1) no caramel malts 2) unbalanced (really, no desire to be balanced), leaning heavily toward hops, both of these contributing to 3) a drier ipa than non-wcipas.

  2. A heavily hopped IPA with at least 6 percent alcohol and 60 IBUs. BridgePort IPA is a very nice beer, but I wouldn't consider it a "West Coast IPA" in this sense - it's not strong enough for the term.

  3. Where do Victory HopDevil and Bell's Two-Hearted fit in the equation?

  4. I agree with andy. The key is a complete lack of balance, no strong malt backbone competing with the hops. Something like Bell's Two-Hearted, while a very good IPA, still has a noticeable malt sweetness that makes it more balanced. It's not exclusively a geographical distinction. There are west coast breweries that put out more balanced IPA's (moylans comes to mind) and there are non-west coast breweries that make beers in the "west coast ipa" style (odell ipa is a great example). I think the name "west coast ipa" came about because these strong unbalanced IPAs are just much more common here than in other parts of the country.

  5. Green Flash West Coast IPA, RR Pliny and Stone IPA are light years away from say Harpoon IPA.

    An eastern brewery making a West Coast Style IPA.

  6. It's just IPA made on the West Coast. There are plenty of very similar beers made on the East Coast but because they are made on the East Coast they are not West Coast IPAs.

  7. West coast IPAs are hop bombs with little to no malt balance. The lighter body and drier finish help accentuate the heavy hop bitterness. Green Flash West Coast IPA is the benchmark in my opinion.

    And I think #1 in your criteria list has no bearing. You can make a west coast style anywhere, just as you can make an Irish stout anywhere. I'd say the west coast moniker came about due to the proliferation of over-hopped IPAs coming out of California, San Diego County in particular.

  8. Of all the IPA's I've ever had here, I'd only ever say that Deschute's Red Chair had something uniquely Northwestern and/or West Coastian to it. You can find hop-bombed IPAs with little or a lot of malt on any coast or in-between, there doesn't seem to be any real distinction or prevelance.

    While I was back home in Michigan recently, a local bottle shop had a custom "IPA 6-pack" that just had 6 random IPAs in it, all mid-western or East Coast, and all but one was hop-bomb without enough malt to back it.

  9. I agree with andy. The lack of caramel malt sweetness is the notable difference, pleasantly tipping the balance and creating a drier, unique beer. When traveling I often find it hard (though not impossible) to find that type of beer outside of the west coast,thus making the differentiation noteworthy to me.

  10. Interesting. I've always thought of the difference between Northwest IPAs and San Diego IPAs to be one of hop emphasis. In the NW, we like the flavor and aroma of hops--a saturated, juicy quality. In San Diego, it seems like--and I'll defer to locals--that bitterness is far more prized than hop flavor and aroma.

    What I hadn't factored in is the malt. Hmmm.

    One thing that seems to be emerging from the comments is a style of beer that is definitely not descriptive of Oregon and Washington IPAs--at least, not in the main. On those beers I do consider myself passingly familiar. :-) I wonder if it has to do with the presence of hop fields locally?

  11. Stan, I was going to pull out the Two-Hearted if need be. It was my back-pocket counterpoint. This malt thing is interesting, though. Those beers are more malty even than the Oregon and Washington IPAs.

  12. Jeff I wouldn't say bitterness is prized over hop flavor and aroma, as WCIPAs typically have plenty of both, especially aroma. Going back to the malt, the lack of it emphasizes the bitterness. If you have two otherwise identical IPAs of say 75 IBUs, but one has a solid dose of light to medium caramel malts and the other very little, the one with less malt will taste significantly more bitter.

  13. It sounds like West Coast IPA terrain lies somewhere between a standard and an imperial IPA. The WC version has a weak backbone and a lot of hop aroma and citrus flavor. Some of the best of these aren't even that bitter...Stone being an exception. Bridgeport doesn't fit. Not enough hop bomb. Widmer Broken Halo and X-114 IPA are closer to the WC style, though possibly a bit under-powered in ABV.

  14. I am really surprised by this conversation. Not one of the 5 things that you mentioned, Jeff, is something I consider to define a West Coast IPA. And all of the explanations about lack of balance make no sense at all. So many agreements too. I have never before this thread ever heard anyone comment on malt balance when defining a WCIPA.

    To me the answer is very simple: west coast hops. Just like vineyards, there is clearly a terroir at work with hop growing regions. No one will argue that Saaz are distinctly different from East Kent Goldings which are distinctly different from Cascades. You could not possibly take a huge volume of hops grown in Michigan and toss it into a beer and have anyone consider it west coast no matter how few caramel malts you throw in or how unbalanced and bitter it is.

    And it is the west coast hop that has put America onto the map in countries like Belgium, Germany, and England - places steeped in beer traditions. It was not even 15 years ago that these countries wouldn't even dream of taking a cue in the brewing world from America in making beer. I firmly believe the West Coast Hop is the key to American beers finally being respected in Europe.

    I think unquestionably that the volume of hops, the mixture of types of West Coast Hops, and when they are used (boil, dry hop, etc) will make or break whether it falls into the WCIPA category. Certainly just because you make a beer with just Simcoes in it, that doesn't automatically make it an IPA. It must have that citrus aspect and some level of bitterness. But to me there is no expectation of alcohol content, balance, where it's made, or extreme bitterness. As long as that West Coast hop aroma and flavor is all over the beer, that qualifies for me.

    Jeff, I too hate strict style guidelines. There is an obvious blurring of lines between pale ales, APAs, IPAs, Double IPAs, Imperial IPAs, and Triple IPAs. Founder's just released their "All Day IPA" a session IPA at 4.7%. It is citrusy, crisp, well balanced, not too bitter. To me it is quintessentially West Coast. They call it an IPA, who am I to tell them they are wrong? So it's a West Coast IPA. And has none of the qualifiers mentioned above except that citrus hop flavor.

    Anyway, I have rambled enough. I think my point is made. Love the discussion, I just can't believe I am the first one to say this stuff.

  15. I don't really understand this debate at all and all it's really doing is giving me a headache.

    If a "West Coat IPA" is all of the things that has been mentioned in this thread, what, then, is an American-style IPA? Do we honestly believe there's enough of a difference between the two to the extent that "West Coast IPA" should be substantiated as its own style?

    You'll have a hard time convincing me that's the case. You can only subdivide so many times before the notion of "style" becomes useless and/or meaningless.

  16. Furthermore, apologies for the typos. Typing on a tablet is a feat of strength.

  17. "Do we honestly believe there's enough of a difference between the two to the extent that "West Coast IPA" should be substantiated as its own style? "

    IMO, no. In a way, it's more of a regional dialect, rather than a whole different language.

  18. For me it is all about the abundant use of local fresh farm hops. The hops make the style sect. Period. I feel Port Brewing makes the best 'WC' style IPA's around, and i wish some more local made such a thing. I guess my favorites are more around the 7% mark, but that is because they have to be to get that lovely flavor. I dislike IPA's that use a lot of caramel malts, and contain that sweet caramel profile that many barleywines contain. A nice cloudy glowing orange and balanced fresh hoppy ale is what I call a damn fine 'WC' style IPA.

  19. I think the term West Coast IPA charitably implies that NW IPA's have intense hop flavor (exceptions exist, but to me NW IPA's are characterized by balance). It really ought to be California IPA, because that, to me, is where the hop bomb was popularized.

    When I think of West Coast IPA, it is a beer in the style of a Pliny or a Green Flash IPA. Gloriously lacking in balance. Just a liquid hop delivery vehicle. But it does not have to be brewed on the West Coast any more than a Belgian golden ale needs to be brewed in Belgium.

  20. By my definition ( entirely based off of my drinking and brewing experience):

    6%to 8%ABV

    Golden to light copper

    The beer must be very attenuated despite original gravity ( a finishing gravity no higher then 1.012 or 3 to 3.25 Plato)

    Bitterness can be between 40IBU and 100+ measured.

    A huge hop aroma and flavor is an essential character. NW style citrus hop flavors plus/and/or hops that provide dank and pine like flavors. Heavy dry hopping is a must.

    Clean or low ester yeast character.

    Malt character should be low. "Balance" is not the name of the game here.

    Over all: A higher alcohol and highly drinkable beer that hides it's strength with layers and layers of hops, not malt.

    In my 8 years in Portland I haven't had many beers that fit my description, the ones that do, tend to come from San Diego or the greater bay area.

  21. From someone on the other coast, most folks (at least the ones I hang around) over here use the term "West Coast" regardless of where the beer was made or what ingredients were used or from where the ingredients came.

    It is used to describe an IPA that is high on the bitterness scale and that typically exudes citrus, grapefruit, pineapple, and other fruits. It is thrown around pretty loosely.

    Perfect example of a recent IPA being described over here as "West Coast" is Lagunitas Sucks, even though it does stem from over there.

    I never hear or use "East Coast" as a descriptor for an IPA.

  22. As an East coast resident I do hear East Coast IPA sometimes thrown around, but it's mostly a stand-in for English-style IPA. This implies, as stated above,caramel malt notes for balance but moreover, a conscious choice NOT to do a West Coast IPA. These brewers proudly announce they brew a "traditional" IPA. And so it comes around again.

  23. From listening to interviews with brewers of true West Coast IPAs (Mitch @ Stone, Vinnie @ Russian River, Peter @ Alesmith, etc.) there are some things they have in common.
    1. Very simple malt bill. Usually only 2 malts and they choose malts that easily covert and leave little to no residual sweetness. ie. Two Row
    2. They add sugar...mostly dextrose to help dry it out and raise the ABV
    3. They are bittered with high cohumulone hops like Apollo, for instance, and flavor and aroma hops are the low cohumulone variety like Cascade.
    4. They finish very dry...usually 1.012 down to as low as 1.004.

    All of this is applied whether it is a single, double, or triple IPA which is usually differentiated by OG and resulting ABV and sometimes DIPAs and TIPAs are hopped during the grain sparge (ie. Green Flash Palate Wrecker)

    Put a Stone IPA next to an East Coast IPA like Cigar City Jai Alai or Harpoon IPA. Drink Stone first then drink the other one. Then you will notice how malty sweet it is.

  24. OMG, Arrrrrrrgh!!!
    Lagunitas, IS a west coast brewery (Petaluma, Ca) 2 hours from my house, genius!
    & STOP misusing the term "West Coast" IPA! Cost Cali boys $, time @ the store AND the reputation of the poor brewery who is mistaken for our style & clowned, for failing expectations.
    How you can be so flippant about "west coast" term usage, actually disgusts me.....