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.

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.