Remaking a Flagship

Original IPA on the left, reformulation on the right.

Ten years ago, right about the moment the second wave of IPAs were being brewed in America, Hopworks Urban Brewery opened in Portland. Its flagship was one of those new IPAs, characterized by bursting citrus aromas riding on top a classic caramel-malt chassis. At the time, Hopworks had a number of things going for it, including a bike-oriented theme in the bike-iest city in the country, and a focus on organic ales. But what propelled it to success--the brewery made 14,000 barrels last year--was that flagship.

But like every brewery of a certain age, those once-novel beers started to taste dated once the IPA's third wave arrived a few years ago. In a surprising, fascinating move, Hopworks has reformulated their flagship, a makeover that changes everything (including the label) except the name. I was fascinated to hear more about the challenges of breweries in this situation, and how Hopworks came to the decision to change the beer, so I sat down with founder Christian Ettinger, Head Brewer Trever Bass, and Marketing Manager Eric Steen to discuss it. Their story is one that is happening in brewery after brewery, and I thought I might learn a few lessons in hearing it.

The Conundrum

Tastes change. Any brewery that has been around a decade or more and built a customer base on popular brands has encountered this. Sometimes that means trends have moved away from a style that was once more popular (amber lagers, anyone?). More problematic is the situation in which IPA-makers find themselves. The style is wildly popular, but it has evolved. Breweries like Hopworks helped popularize IPAs, but made a version of the style that now seems old school, with more sweetness and body, assertive bitterness, but less focus on the flavors and aromas of hops.

When I sat down with Trever, Christian, and Eric, I sampled the original IPA to remind myself what they were leaving behind. Hopworks has always used an English yeast strain, and their original formulation has a fair dose of caramel in the palate. It is somewhat aromatic, but nothing compared to the IPAs that excite people today. That blend of flavors produces a distinctly British character, which was typical of brewpubs for the first twenty years of craft brewing. It's a nice beer, quite nice, actually--but there's a distinct time-travel quality about ordering up a pint.

But here's the thing: switch the formulation and you have two problems: 1) you may alienate the people who already like the beer--your core customers--but also 2) the people who have moved on and seek super-juicy modern IPAs may never find it. “That’s a discussion we’ve had," Bass said. "Is it going to turn some people off? Sure. You can’t not offend somebody by making a change. But hopefully what we can do is bring in more customers than we lose and have more of what people think of when they think of an IPA.”

Ettinger, the founder, who presumably formulated his perfect IPA ten years ago, was even less sentimental.

We’re just tearing the Band-Aid off and rolling with it. The market’s there and you don’t want to ride your flagship, as formulated a decade ago, into the next decade.
— Christian Ettinger

There are good arguments to stick with a flagship: it has a broad customer base, a brewery is heavily identified with it, very often it's the brewery's best beer, and, because tastes do change, it might find itself back in fashion down the road. Reformulating a flagship is a riskier venture, but has its own upsides: a more modern take on a beer opens up the market to current and future drinkers, it marks the brewery as innovative and willing to change, and it may produce a better beer. When Hopworks looked at the ledger, I think it was that last factor that really spoke to them. The brewers themselves were drinking different kinds of IPAs, and felt the time to change had come.

Palate Changes Inside the Brewery

Breweries are hermetically sealed environments. “Our tastes evolved, too," Ettinger said. "As our brew crew has grown and evolved they’re bringing in a great perspective. Internally our tastes have changed; we’re talking a lot about bitterness, about juiciness, about dry hops. We used to talk a lot more about malt—and I don’t hear those discussions coming up as much. Our palates as beer drinkers have changed."

Like any brewery, Hopworks makes dozens of beers a year. Although they now can their core products, they have two brewpubs through which they cycle countless experiments and one-offs. Even though their flagship remained relatively consistent, the nature of the other IPAs they were brewing evolved along with the market. That actually served to highlight how dated the flagship was looking.

"That thirty-minute charge from flame-off?" Ettinger said. "That was a big deal ten years ago, right? You don’t see that anymore--even a fifteen [minute charge]. Now it’s all just whirlpool and dry hop. Also realizing the role the caramel malts have played. Almost a deleterious effect. Sweetness is the antithesis of bitterness and you’re bringing these other hop components; it’s fight the hop flavor you’re trying so hard to amplify. That alone—if you drop the caramel malt out, you’re going to let the hops sing.”

Last year they introduced a second IPA, Gear Up, which was a more modern take on hops. No caramel malt, focus on tropical fruit and aromatics. They might have stuck with the two-IPA approach and let the flagship gracefully fade away--an approach you see elsewhere--but they decided to explore changes and see how a reformulation might work.

Juicy Juicy Juicy

Trever Bass started out brewing three beers.  “One was our classic recipe, slightly different," Bass began. "Just a few tweaks to give it some nuance. Keep the caramel malt so we wouldn’t offend anybody. I wrote another recipe that referenced our classic IPA but wasn’t a big step away from it, and then wrote a third recipe that was nothing at all like our classic IPA." After discussing it as a group, they went with the Goldilocks version--recipe number two. There are a number of changes, but the most obvious is a saturated juiciness common in modern IPAs.

In fact, drinking the two side-by-side, the new one drinks very differently from the original. (I'd love to have tried the one that they thought was a radical departure.) It is very modern--soft bitterness, acres of fruit flavors, very quaffable. Although the beer is built around hops, Hopworks sources a particular malt from Klamath falls, and it actually contributes a fair amount of flavor. It's slighty nutty, a bit woody, and even seems to have a hint of spice. The malt works very nicely with the hopping--in a way it never could in the caramel-heavy original.

Eric Steen (left), Trever Bass (center), and Christian Ettinger (right)

"The hopping technique for the new one is more toward the newer-wave methods where you’re really cranking aroma out of that beer," Bass said. "When you open this can, you should know this is a heavily dry-hopped beer." The methods are familiar--huge late additions, including a moderate whirlpool addition, and then a massive dry-hop load. As a testament to how things have changed, Bass got defensive when I asked whether he uses hops at the start of boil. Keeping in mind that as recently as five years ago, no brewer would even have understood the question--of course he would use such an addition!--Bass said:

We’re definitely still brewers. I know a lot of brewers will avoid kettle hops altogether—and that’s okay!—but dammit, just put something in at the beginning of the boil. Some green material, however small.
— Trever Bass

Yeast has become a major player in the way modern IPAs are made--another big change from the old days (you know, 2012). For decades, Americans preferred a neutral yeast, and the "Chico" strain used by Sierra Nevada was the standard. Hopworks started with the Young's strain (Wyeast 1768), and esters have always been a part of their profile. Interestingly, the new beer--contra trends--is clearer than the old one. Nevertheless, it gooses the juiciness by adding a peachy, zingy fruitiness.

“It’s the hottest strain in yeast right now," Ettinger said. "it’s the yeast strain everyone’s making hazy IPAs with. Now we’re able to hand out a lot of pitches to breweries and they make the haziest IPAs. It’s a pretty diverse yeast strain and can do a lot of things.”

The final touch is a new package. One of their first seasonals was Abominable Winter Ale, dating back to 2008. The iconic label by Martin Ontiveros has long been a fan fave, and they've recently started expanding that look in a kind of soft rebrand. They recently introduced Ferocious Citrus IPA with one of the "beast" labels, and now the new IPA will have one too. In a lovely nod to the scientific name of hops--lupulus--the creature on the new can is a wolfish beast.

Beasts. The old and new IPAs are in the middle.

My palate has evolved along with the rest of the world, and I like the new beer substantially more than the original. (Though on an icy January day, the old one might be a perfect IPA.) But I'm also one of those people who hasn't had Hopworks flagship in years. Like everyone else, when I drop in, I try one of the one-offs or new IPAs. It's a great new beer. Now the question is--will longtime drinkers think so? And will those promiscuous fans who normally overlook familiar beers try the reformulation? The brewery has a lot riding on the answers to those questions. No doubt other breweries will be watching closely, as well.