The Making of an IPA

Nearly three years ago, the Widmer Brothers launched a clever project: rotating IPAs, a new one every quarter or so.  Everybody loves IPAs, and everybody loves the next IPA even more.  So why not rotate them?  Apparently even variety can become predictable, though because a couple weeks ago the Brothers released a full-time year-round IPA called Upheaval.

This is a fascinating development.  Any time a national brewery decides to release a new year-round beer, I start looking at the tea leaves.  What does the beer say about where the market is headed?  Given that this is an IPA, what does it say about where the style is headed?  It's pretty clear that at least for the next few years, all the growth and excitement is focused on IPAs, so when a brewery puts a new brand on the shelves, they're putting down a bet about where things are moving.

A few years back, Deschutes released Chainbreaker, which was revealing in a ton of ways.  It combined the two most popular ale styles--IPAs and witbiers--and the result was by no stretch of the word an IPA.  (It's just 5.6%.)  But it illustrated that the letters "IPA" have enormous valence, and putting them on a beer helps sales.  Deschutes recently announced that they were bumping Fresh Squeezed IPA to a regular offering (that's three IPAs in the standard line), another revealing decision.  Last summer I wrote about how I thought Fresh Squeezed was a great example of a new trend in IPAs toward sweetness--and this seems to verify the popularity of that trend.

So what can we learn from Upheaval?

What It Is
Widmer Brothers is not making a big deal out of this, but it kind of is: Upheaval has a grist nearly identical to Hefeweizen.  Hefe has 43% wheat in the grist, while Upheaval has 40% and a dab of caramel malt.  2014 is the brewery's 30th anniversary year, and I personally wish the brewery were doing a bit more to highlight this intentional homage (more on that at the end of this post).  Widmer Hefeweizen, while ill-named, was a revolutionary beer.  European wheat beers are all made with interesting fermentation or spice character.  When Americans started using wheat, they did something different, using it to accentuate the American-ness of their beers--clean, soft backbones that allowed the hops to express themselves.  Hefeweizen had 30 IBUs of Willamette and Cascades and was in fact a wheaty pale ale.

Upheaval has bales of hops (Alchemy blend plus Chinook, Simcoe, Brewer’s Gold, Willamette, and Nelson Sauvin), but they lean very heavily on late-additions to pump up the aroma and flavor.  It is a burly 7% and pretty dry (3P/1012), but the wheat really saves the day.  It provides a softness that helps bridge the gap between the hop levels and attenuation.  The brewery tested the beer at 85 IBUs, but it doesn't taste anywhere near that bitter to me.  It's cloudy, perfumy, and sessionable.  It is also--and this is key--recognizably a Widmer beer.  That may be partly due to the Alchemy, but I think also the Nelson Sauvin, which are sort of a house hop on Russell Street.  

Cloudy, soft, a focus on hop flavor and aroma, and a lot of alcohol: all those qualities seem consonant with the trends in modern IPAs.

Branding Flavor
It was that flavor that really got me thinking.  Widmer Brothers uses a proprietary hop blend called Alchemy in nearly every beer they make, at least for the bitter charge.  If you want a really good sense of what it tastes like, try Alchemy Ale, which only uses that blend.  For most people, it has a fairly recognizable mixture of flavors, ranging along the citrus to pine continuum, but to me there is a pungent undertone that suggest overripe tropical fruit (passionfruit, durian).  It's not a passive melange, either--you (or at least I) know it when you encounter it. 

Back when I first started writing about beer, BridgePort was trying to dump their cool wildlife series (Pintail, Coho Pacific, Blue Heron) in favor of a "brand identity."  They went to a standardized label and called their beers by style (instead of a name like Pintail, they used "porter" or "amber").  The incredibly avid PR woman was sold on the idea that this would make it easier for people to bond with the brewery so that they could always welcome a BridgePort no matter what style was pouring.  (Or something--it didn't make sense at the time, and I was aghast that they were dumping one of the best brands in beer.)  The problem, of course, is that people don't drink breweries, they drink beers, and they pick and choose with blithe disregard to what brewery makes a particular beer. 

What Widmer has done is move toward a set of flavors that say "Widmer Brothers," though, and that's a much deeper level of branding.  There are very, very few breweries in the world that have pulled this off (Dupont springs to mind, some of the Trappists, Fuller's).  I put it to Brady Walen, erstwhile blogger and current Brand Manager at the company, and he agreed.
"One of the reasons we decided to move forward with the Upheaval IPA recipe, as opposed to some of the other popular Rotator IPA recipes, is the fact that this beer an awesome IPA that is distinctly Widmer Brothers. The Alchemy hop blend certainly helps us hit that target, but so does the use of wheat and not filtering it. The visual, aromatic and flavor characters all have signatures of a Widmer Brothers beer. From a brand standpoint, that’s exactly what we’re looking for; we want to ensure that the beer fits the brand and works well within the portfolio. The discussions we had as we developed the beer and the brand revolved around these signatures. They’re all deliberate decisions make Upheaval IPA the best choice for a year-round IPA offering from Widmer Brothers."
Can you brand beers by their flavor?  Should you?  There is a risky downside to this approach: it means you're targeting people who share your palate and alienating those who don't.  The Widmer Brothers are running an interesting experiment.

The Back End
These releases don't happen by chance--there's a lot of overhead to bring them to market, and I assume a fair amount of risk if they fail.  The brewery couldn't give me a figure, but if you think about the associated costs, they add up quick.  Think about all the moving parts; a brewery starts by coming up with the idea and doing test batches, coming up with a name and then designing the packaging, putting it through the TTB process, educating distributors, and doing the PR and promotion at launch.  "Our team across several departments spent a lot of time in 2013 and this year thus far bringing this brand to life," Brady said.  He elaborated:
Upheaval IPA started as a small batch recipe we brewed at the Rose Garden pilot brewery in spring of 2013. We had plans to launch a year-round IPA in 2014 and had considered several IPA recipes for this planned slot in our lineup. The Upheaval recipe, however, was a real standout for us so we decided to pursue further recipe development, test brews, and other R&D to ensure that we could scale up the recipe for production. In parallel, we developed the brand name and packaging internally, and were submitting labels for government approval just as the government shut down in 2013. This delayed our normal label approval process by several weeks, but we kept all of the other components moving forward internally. This beer as part of our portfolio has been about a year in the making. 
There's one other little factoid I found interesting in all this.  The brewery invited a few media types down to Bailey's to try the beer, and Rob Widmer was on hand.  I asked why they were playing down the wheat angle.  He told me (paraphrasing), "Well, there was another Wheat IPA on the market and we didn't want to be confused with it."  He was talking about Shock Top Wheat IPA, a beer apparently so bad it damaged the category.  That confusion may be a problem nationally, but here in Portland, I doubt they'll encounter a lot of confusion.

All of which goes to show that lots and lots of thought goes into these things.  It makes you wonder if everyone sits around the brewery afterward in a low level of panic, thinking "what if no one buys it?"  But then, I suppose there's beer to crack if they get too anxious.
Jeff Alworth11 Comments