Are you going to San Francisco?
Matthew Curtis reveals how the West Coast IPA went from trailblazer to modern classic
Saturday 24 September 2022
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Stone USA & Friends
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Bitterness sits at the core of a West Coast IPA. To the uninitiated it can be unpleasant, aggressive, intimidating even – like listening to the opening few bars on your first Slipknot record. But just like bone-crushingly heavy metal guitar riffs, given the chance and some time, it grows on you, inescapably, until this bitterness becomes a quality you simply can’t get enough of.
As a species we’re instinctively programmed to eschew bitterness, because it triggers a warning in the primal part of our brain that tells us this thing we’re tasting isn’t safe to eat. But the palate can be trained, and our programming rewritten. In terms of how we interpret the sensation of drinking very bitter beer, this even has a name. Coined “Lupulin Threshold Shift” in 2005 by Vinnie Cilurzo, the co-founder and head brewer of California’s Russian River Brewing Company, it refers to how drinkers will find bitter beers gradually more appealing with increased exposure.
A few years earlier in 1999, Cilurzo, who took ownership of the brewery with his wife Natalie two years before, produced – or perhaps I should say invented – a new style that would take the beer world by storm. Packed with both bitter and aromatic North American hop varieties, and weighing in at a hefty 8% ABV, the beer called Pliny the Elder (named after the ancient Roman scholar who first documented hops) was the first among a new style of beer known as “Double IPA”.
Its combination of heady, citrus fruit and pine resin aromatics, combined with a light, delicate, but still very noticeable malt character, followed by a righteous wallop of bitterness, saw it become an overnight cult classic. In the two decades since its initial release it’s been often imitated, but never bettered. A beer with a rare 100% rating on review site Beer Advocate (after more than 15,000 ratings) it is a beer that serves to epitomise the popularity and the glory of West Coast IPA – the beer style that arguably put “craft beer” on the map.
“The gold standard [for West Coast IPA] was, and is, Russian River’s Blind Pig (and by extension, the Pliny the Elder),” journalist and California native Alyssa Pereira tells me. “It’s hard to think of a more perfect representation of what this beer should be.”
I love West Coast IPA. In fact it was my discovery of this style that made me want to write about beer in the first place. But back in 2010 – when I tried my first sip of Odell Brewing’s eponymously named IPA in its Colorado taproom – this style was still called “American IPA”. I’m also not even sure if I actually enjoyed that first taste, but that didn’t prevent it from being compelling, and eventually (no doubt after my own experience of Lupulin Threshold Shift) a sheer joy to drink.
How it became universally known as “West Coast IPA” is all part of this particular styles’ fascinating history. One that can be traced as much back to brewing in the state of New Jersey (very much not on the US West Coast) as it can to 19th century Burton-upon-Trent, here in the UK.
West Coast IPA – the beer style that arguably put "craft beer" on the map
There is a romanticised notion that India Pale Ale was created to be shipped off to be enjoyed in the British colonies in India, that the beer was brewed strong, and that wooden barrels it was shipped in were packed with spoilage-preventing hops to help it survive a months-long journey. Not all of the IPA brewed in Burton was shipped away though, with much of it enjoyed at home here in the UK. In terms of the origin of the West Coast IPA, what’s important is that historical IPA recipes defined the style as strong and hoppy – although it would be many decades before the modern US-grown aromatic hops that give the style its distinctive taste would begin to be cultivated en masse.
In 1890, Ballantines Brewery of Newark, New Jersey began producing a beer called Ballantines IPA. It weighed in at a hefty 7.5% ABV, and a whopping 60 IBUs (International Bittering Units – used to measure the bitterness of a finished beer). Production of this beer continued into the late 1990’s following the brewery’s acquisition, initially by Falstaff Brewing of St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually Pabst (of Pabst Blue Ribbon fame). Although not strictly an “American IPA” other than the fact it was brewed there, this was an IPA brewed in the Burton tradition, which picked up a cult following. In the 1970’s a six pack sold for around five dollars.
Burton IPA, and later Ballantines, preserved the notion of IPA in terms of strength, and flavour. The latter, in particular, would have accustomed American palates to strong, bitter beers. This leads us to 1975, when the Anchor Brewery of San Francisco would develop a beer called Liberty Ale using a brand new hop variety known as Cascade. Born of the English Fuggle and Russian Serebrianker varieties, first trialled in 1971 and possessing strong, distinctive grapefruit aromatics, Cascade would go on to redefine American beer, and arguably birth both American IPA, and what we now commonly refer to as “craft beer”. It would become the most cultivated hop in the US until 2018, when it was replaced at the top spot by a variety called Citra (which is now the most cultivated variety in the entire world).
Unlike Ballantine, Liberty Ale is still in production, and relatively easy to get hold of. Drinking a bottle is a window into the past. It pours a deep shade of copper, and has honeysweet malt enveloping its strong, pink grapefruit aroma. To taste it is righteously bitter, but the sweet barley sugar character maintains its balance – the latter being the true key to a great West Coast IPA. It would go on to inspire a great many beers, which began emerging at an alarming rate from 1978 onwards, when homebrewing was legalised in the US by then president Jimmy Carter. Among these was the now legendary Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which although technically isn’t an IPA, helped lay the blueprint for its distinctive flavour and character.
“I sort of think about the ideal West Coast IPAs as being maximalist by design,” Pereira says. “Besides being fresh and very bitter, they should taste piney, resinous, and maybe even a teeny bit astringent, with just a hint of sappy sweetness to balance it out. Sometimes a little bit of citrus.”
But how did ‘West Coast IPA’ become distinctive from ‘American IPA’? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer can be found if you dig into the beer history of California, and one city in particular: San Diego.
In 1993 the Pizza Port brewpub located in the city's Ocean Beach district released a beer that would set a precedent, and inadvertently (and almost certainly unintentionally) a hops arms-race. Inspired by Sierra Nevada pale ale, but amped up, San Diego style, Swami’s IPA immediately became a hit among local drinkers – a whole year before Russian River would release Blind Pig from their Santa Rosa brewpub, far to the north of the state.
What separated these beers from those that came before them was how muscular they were in terms of punchy hop flavour and bitterness. The kind of flavour that can be intimidating to those newer to beer, but hopelessly addictive once caught in its lupulin-drenched tendrils. More followed, with Alesmith brewery launching in 1995, and fellow San Diego brewery Stone releasing its eponymous IPA in 1997. As we know Pliny arrived in 1999, whereas 2005 saw the arrival of yet another San Diego classic: Ballast Point's Sculpin.
By now these riotously hoppy, resinously bitter beers were taking not only the US by storm, but people overseas were clamouring to get their hands on them too – often trading rare bottles of Lambic from the likes of Belgium’s Cantillon to get hold of them. (With West Coast IPA now being relatively ubiquitous, I feel a tad foolish trading away some of my own stash…)
It went from a trailblazing, genre defining beer, to one of legacy – a classic, old school style
In 2011 things came to a head when another San Diego brewery, Green Flash, trademarked the term “West Coast IPA” – although they allowed other breweries to use the term “West Coast-style” in their own product descriptions. They even released an insanely bitter IPA called Palate Wrecker, while rivals Stone released Ruination, both attempting to push drinkers' Lupulin tolerances beyond reason. In Denmark, Mikkeller made one called 1000 IBU in an attempt to get one over on the Americans. Bitterness was hip. But just as it was peaking, the craze collapsed.
A shift in palates in the mid-2010’s saw the emergence of a softer, juicier IPA which was named after New England, the northeastern corner of the US from which it emerged. This began a marked shift in how the term ‘IPA’ was used, split into a multitude of substyles, and hence what was ‘American IPA’ – meaning a clear, bitter beer – became forever associated with the term ‘West Coast’. Fortunately for other brewers, although not for them, in 2018 Green Flash declared bankruptcy, forfeiting the trademark it possessed for just seven years in the process.
This chain of events saw the way West Coast IPA was perceived shift – it went from a trailblazing, genre defining beer, to one of legacy – a classic, old school style. With competition among breweries shifting from making the most bitter beer, to the most juicy beer, Westies once again settled back into the balanced, nuanced window they had previously occupied. The game changer had lived long enough to become a true cult classic.
“I think Hazy IPA has definitely influenced West Coast IPA in really good ways,” Evan Price, founder of Green Cheek Brewery in the LA suburb of Orange, tells me. “Because of Hazy IPA, I think brewers are focused on the hoppy aromatics and flavour of their West Coast IPA’s even more than they were in the past.”
West Coast IPA has had a huge influence on beer and brewing in the UK too. In 2005, when a pair of young brewers named Stefano Cossi and Martin Dickie (of BrewDog infamy) brewed a West Coast inspired IPA called Jaipur for a garden party at Derbyshire’s Thornbridge Hall, they broke a golden rule of British brewing, by cranking up the ABV to higher, more historically accurate levels, just like their American kin.
While US hops were used regularly by British microbreweries since the early 1990s, this led to the emergence of a series of stronger, distinctively more US-style beers, as IPA in its true form returned to British brewing vernacular. Others followed, from Marble’s Dobber, to Buxton’s Axe Edge, and Magic Rock’s Cannonball. The UK’s drinkers were now experiencing Lupulin Threshold Shifts of their own. At Thornbridge, Jaipur is still its most popular beer, 17 years on from when it was first brewed.
“I think a well-made West Coast IPA, with a slightly chewy malt character, lashings of bitterness and big piney finish is just such a satisfying beer,” Thornbridge Production manager Dominic Driscoll tells me. “They’re very difficult to get bored of.”
Since the emergence of West Coast IPA, from pioneers like Anchor and Sierra Nevada in the 1970s, to the San Diegan trailblazers of the 90s, to the bitterness battle of the late 2000s, IPA has continually been subdivided into a multitude of new categories. From cloyingly sweet Milkshake IPAs to rustic, funky Farmhouse IPAs, the mark West Coast IPA left on the brewing scene told breweries it was okay to tear up the rule book and try something different. But it wasn’t just for brewers, it also gave drinkers a licence to be more experimental, and try new things; to challenge their own palates in pursuit of flavour. This paid dividends, for without the emergence of West Coast IPA, beer as we know it today would look very different indeed.
In fact, I asked Green Cheek’s Evan Price what he thinks beer in California might look like today if West Coast IPA hadn’t come along in the first place…
“It would be a sad, sad place,” he says. “I don’t want to even think of it.”
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