IPA is dead! Long live IPA!
The quintessential craft style eats its own tail
Saturday 07 May 2022
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"I keep hearing in the beer media here in the States, ‘West Coast IPA isn’t dead,’ or ‘Bitterness is coming back’ and I kinda take offence to that!”
It’s the start of an impassioned speech which Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company, gives me when posed with the subject of West Coast IPAs and their alleged revival. But, for someone who has been at the forefront of producing intensely bitter beers since 1997, Vinnie has, and will, stay true to his roots. “I jokingly said there was an assault on bitterness in the last four or five years but Pliny and Blind Pig have never slowed down, they never went away and we never reduced the bitterness on those beers.”
Since its advent in 2002/3, (although not being recognised as an official style until 2018) it’s the New England IPA, or NEIPA for short, that has been leading this assault. Along with its other hazy & juicy cohorts, the NEIPA has taken over the brewing world. With a focus on intense aroma & flavour, particularly those of tropical, stone and citrus fruits, it’s easy to see why it has become so popular. Given our innate instinct to distrust bitterness, the accessibility of this style has been a gateway for thousands to discover what beer can be. It’s important to remember, though, that bitterness isn’t all bad.
“We stayed true because I think bitterness is such an important part in the flavour and overall contribution to beer. Even thinking about classic English styles, bitterness was such an important part of the mouthfeel,” Vinnie concludes. Considering that Pliny the Elder was voted America’s best beer by members of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) for seven years between 2010-2017, it’s clear that a lot of people agreed with him too.
Vinnie isn’t the only one that has been flying the flag for the West Coast style, though, he is but one of many from the US doing so. It’s thanks to the likes of Russian River, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head & Firestone Walker (to name but a few) that a generation of UK brewers have taken inspiration from them, and are attempting to follow in their footsteps. After speaking with Stuart Neilson, co-owner of North Riding Brewery in Scarborough, the West Coast style is where it all began for him.
“My first experience of West Coast IPAs was definitely prior to the NEIPA boom of recent years. Back in the late noughties we had access in the brewpub to the likes of Stone, Odells and Sierra Nevada, these were by today's terminology the West Coast IPAs that we are making today,” Stu recalls. Having had his eyes opened to what hoppy beer could be, he has since tried to replicate this in as many ways as possible. North Riding have a regular and rotating range of US IPAs, US Session IPAs and Single Hop Pales, all taking inspiration from the West Coast of America.
Stu goes on to explain that, in agreement with Vinnie, it all comes back to bitterness. “For me the important aspects are the malt bill and also bitterness, so we tend to go for about 80 International Bitterness Units (IBU) by using my favourite bittering hop, Magnum. Then the hop profile needs hops like Chinook, Simcoe & Centennial to bring the pine, the resin and the citrus notes.” Whilst North Riding follow closely in the footsteps of their forerunners, they do err on the side of tradition by serving their beers in cask and bottle only, something which Stu relishes. “Although you're more likely to find this style in can & keg nowadays, we're happy to bring them to the cask table. I know from the regulars at the pub that the last few we've produced have gone down very well,” Stuart tells me.
North Riding’s owner goes on to say that he thinks things have come full circle, and they’re re-kindling people’s love of the style which they have been serving for the past 15 years or so. When asked if he thinks people have begun to associate the term ‘IPA’ with a hazy and hoppy New England style, he finishes off by saying, “I certainly don't think IPA is synonymous with the NEIPA style [but] it depends on what people have been buying that have been sold to them as ‘IPAs’ in the past. We had a customer recently bring a kernel IPA back to the bar to check if it was ok, as it was bitter!”
Education is clearly the way forward, allowing customers to understand the differences between styles and what sits in their glass. It’s a path that all brewers have been down and one which all drinkers should go down. But that can only happen if brewers continue to champion the style and that’s exactly what Mark Costello, owner of Horsforth Brewery, intends to do this April.
Nestled, almost secretly, underneath and behind Horsforth’s high street on New Road Side, the brewery taproom will shortly host its first homebrew competition. The brief? Simple; brew the best West Coast IPA possible. Why? Mark explains, “I love Westies! When I started getting into craft beer it was beers like Punk and Jaipur that really turned my head - plenty of hop aroma but also a nice bitter edge.”
We had a customer recently bring a kernel IPA back to the bar to check if it was ok, as it was bitter!
With a background in accounting and finance Mark recognises not only the importance of this style of beer, but the opportunity for budding amateurs to have their brews judged too. “I started out as a home brewer so I figured it would be a good chance to give an opportunity to someone to come and brew their beer on our kit and sell it commercially.” With a panel featuring the likes of renowned beer writer Melissa Cole and owner of Nomadic Beers, Katie Marriott, judging is likely to be harsh, but fair. Venture from the path of bitterness at your own peril.
Looking back fondly on the IBU wars of the early 2000s, Mark believes that with bitterness comes balance, and that’s why he favours a West Coast IPA over a NEIPA. “I love the balanced flavour profile - it’s not all up front juice, it’s nicely balanced with the bitterness which makes it more drinkable.” It’s this unique profile and journey that Derek Bates, co-founder of Duration Brewing, also believes a west coast IPA brings, which a NEIPA doesn’t.
“I made quite a lot of hazy style IPA/pale at Brew By Numbers (BBNo)... but they just don’t do it for me as a beer, they don’t have that distinct beginning, middle and end that I think a West Coast brings,” Bates explains as part of his rationale behind producing them so frequently. Whilst Duration may be a modern farmhouse brewery, producing wild and blended farm-style beers, their reputation for creating modern west coast IPAs precedes them, with their home in Norfolk now a much-loved destination.
Cutting his teeth brewing in the US, Bates is perfectly poised in recreating beers inspired by the West Coast here in the UK. He is, however, keen to point out that he didn’t learn this style in particular, but that is just what they did. “West Coast IPA was just ‘IPA’, there wasn’t really any of these now distinct sub-sectors.” Bates found himself amongst brewers trying to make their beers as bracingly bitter as possible, mastering a style that would be formatively known as the West Coast IPA later.
With beers now being placed into categories, Bates is hopeful that people now know the difference between styles and what to expect from them. “I would like to believe the vast majority of folks now know the distinction, perhaps they don’t know the terms, but they do realise you can have different [types of] IPA.” Despite his preference he isn’t anti-NEIPA, though, as he adds,“I like to see diversity in the brewing market and people being able to have both rather than it has to be one or the other.”
Concluding our discussion, Bates shared his thoughts on the future of the West Coast style, and who they are currently servicing; new or existing customers. Thankfully, he believes it is both. “Of course those that love the style & always have are, I’m sure, happy to see the resurgence with folks like ourselves, Thornbridge, Elusive and others championing the style. That being said though, I often see evidence of folks that have only known the NEIPA style end up getting quite into the WC stuff and that’s great.”
But, like the Duration owner says, people can only continue to discover this style if people continue to champion it. A ‘one and done’ culture may have developed recently in the brewing industry, but that isn’t the case for Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing, as he can’t keep up with demand for his most popular beer, Oregon Trail. A gold medal winner in the World Beer Awards for the UK, it’s fair to say Elusive’s 5.8% West Coast has been popular since its inception.
“The recipe has roots in my first ever all grain home brew, which was inspired by Green Flash's West Coast IPA,” Andy tells me, beginning to explain the beer’s history and concurrent success. Considering it was first brewed by them commercially in 2019, it has captured the hearts & minds of many in a relatively short timescale, with Andy keeping Oregon Trail true to style. Staggered additions of Citra & Chinook in the boil create layered bitterness with Simcoe, Columbus and Mosaic used to dry hop the beer, completing an all-American hop bill.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop here, as Andy goes on to explain. “We have a house West Coast yeast which ferments the beer out nice and dry. We specifically target a dry finish with the beer to help push the bitterness forward and keep things clean and balanced.” And it all comes back to that important word; balance. Whilst the NEIPA may be an all-out assault of hop-driven fruit flavours, a medley of pine, resin, citrus and bitterness give a West Coast IPA its unique, balanced profile.
It’s these contrasting profiles that make Andy believe the two styles can co-exist as part of a varied bar line-up, but he will always favour that of the West. “I'm a big fan of that piney and resinous thing the classic hops used in West Coast IPAs can impart,” Andy tells me, before re-affirming that the style isn’t, and shouldn’t be, going anywhere. “Can you imagine a world without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Stone IPA?!”
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