Ice to meet you
Matt Curtis gets cosy with Cold IPA, 2022’s “hottest new beer style”
Saturday 17 December 2022
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Ones to Watch
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“Our mission at Wayfinder is to make lager cool,” Wayfinder Beer’s Kevin Davey tells me.
Situated on the banks of the Willamette River, in the beer-centric paradise of Portland, Oregon, Wayfinder is every inch the modern craft brewery. Founded in late 2016, this handsome brewpub has it all: the exposed brick walls, the warm wooden fixtures, and gaping windows letting all that glorious Pacific Northwestern sunshine into the room to light up the beer in your glass, and the smile on your face.
Behind the taproom, head brewer Davey works with a brewery specced to produce decoction mashed beers – allowing the creation of authentic takes on classic styles like Munich Helles, Bohemian Pilsner, and even his version of American adjunct lagers. The beers are everything you’d expect from this part of the world – crisp, refreshing, and packed full of flavour and character.
But in 2018, when brewing a tribute to rock and metal label Relapse Records, Davey thought he’d try something a little different. He tells me how he wanted to produce a new style of beer, one that took inspiration from both traditional, high gravity American adjunct brewing – where ingredients such as rice and corn (maize) are used in addition to malted barley – as well as heavily hopped, classic West Coast IPAs, such as Russian River’s iconic Pliny the Elder.
He developed a recipe in which around 30% of the grain bill used adjuncts (rice, in the case of this beer), while the rest was made up of lightly kilned pilsner malt – with no other speciality malt, or other grains like oats or wheat. The beer is then fermented with a lager yeast until there is very little residual sugar remaining, but at warmer temperatures, as if it was an ale. During fermentation the beer is heavily hopped with modern North American varieties including Amarillo, Citra and Chinook, plus Saaz from the Czech Republic. Dry hopping the beer during active fermentation triggers a process known as ‘biotransformation’ that leaves the beer with a resinous, citrus and tropical fruit character.
The resulting beer, however, was no lager. Nor was it a classic West Coast IPA, but instead something that tasted different – something “wester than West Coast,” according to the Wayfinder website. Davey christened the style ‘Cold IPA’.
“I’m a marketing whizz,” he tells me over the phone, when I ask how he came up with the name. “Everybody liked it, and it felt a little controversial. We wanted to get noticed. Is that a bad thing?”
Certainly not for beer lovers in search of tasty new experiences. In October 2022 I had the opportunity to visit the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver, Colorado, where I immediately headed to the Wayfinder stand to try the original Cold IPA for myself. The 7% ABV beer poured exceedingly pale, with a straw-coloured, lager-like appearance. The aroma was where this subtlety ended for a moment, with strong notes of lemon rind and terpene-dank hops to the fore.
Everybody liked it, and it felt a little controversial
What I found fascinating about this beer is that when you taste it, you get a rush of flavour; booming, pithy orange and lemon, with a thick resinous character just like a classic West Coast IPA. Then, as soon as it’s there, it’s gone again, the bold flavours whisked away to be replaced with a dry, biscuit character, and a finger-snap of peppery bitterness. It immediately made me want more, so I asked for another pour there and then.
Although its popularity was slow to proliferate initially (perhaps due to lockdown, and general beer style fatigue) in 2022 Cold IPA began to gain serious traction. Suddenly breweries all over the world were starting to experiment with recipes of their own – not unlike the Brut IPA craze of 2018-19. Something felt different though. Where so many Brut IPAs fell short of the mark – feeling more like a simulacra of an idea, rather than a bona fide attempt at something new and exciting – Cold IPA, somehow, felt more defined. This was likely because of Wayfinder getting ahead of the curve and producing a whole web page of guidelines for those who wanted to try making one for themselves.
“[Traditional] Lager has always had this heritage to it – we wanted to make lager less stuffy,” Davey says. “We started by making an American light lager, using our decoction kettle as an adjunct cooker to brew a high gravity beer with more complexity.
“I definitely didn’t want to make an India Pale Lager. I’ve never thought they were very good,” he adds.
As Cold IPA has grown in prominence, so too has the discussion around it. One obvious question was: “what’s the difference between this and an India Pale Lager (IPL).” Brewed and fermented long and cold like a lager, an IPL can taste like an IPA, but is still definitely a lager. Cold IPA (which is, ironically, fermented warm and not lagered) is brewed to a higher gravity, and technically has more similarities with styles like California Common (such as Anchor Steam) or a German Kölsch. However, it’s typically stronger than an IPL, the extra alcohol allowing brewers to hop it heavily, like a classic West Coast IPA.
“It’s the beer IPL wishes it could be,” Beer writer, cartoonist and Cold IPA fan Em Sauter tells me. The author of Hooray for Craft Beer produces accessible, visual guides to beer styles, and has invested a decent amount of time mythbusting for those who refute that Cold IPA is a new style at all.
“It shows that beer is constantly evolving,” Sauter says. “Like music, you can do so much with a handful of notes/ingredients. I love the thought process of it but it also doesn’t take itself so seriously.”
It’s easy to be cynical about a new beer style when craft beer feels like it is constantly trying to reinvent itself. As a fan of IPLs (for example: the excellent Running with Sceptres from Bristol’s Lost and Grounded) I confess I initially turned my nose up when I heard there was a new IPA on the block.
It didn’t take long for me to come around, my opinion being swayed by the very first Cold IPA I happened across. Produced by Brighton’s UnBarred brewery, the 8.4%-er has a good claim on potentially being the first of the style brewed in the UK. To taste it was bright, clean and full of tangy pineapple – like a fresh West Coast double IPA but like its Wayfinder-brewed parent, matched with a dry, delicate finish making it oh-so-crushable.
UnBarred’s head brewer Jordan Mower tells me how he first became inspired to try brewing a Cold IPA after reading about Wayfinder’s original. Following the same principles, it uses Simcoe, Idaho 7, and Galaxy hops to provide a more tropical fruit-forward take on the style, but with the same dry, refreshing character. Surprisingly however (to me, anyway) Mower explains how the reaction to the beer wasn’t initially quite as positive as he hoped.
“The reaction to the name must have put people off even buying it. I couldn’t believe how slow sales were,” he says. “But when people tried it and the reviews started coming in, it took off.”
Building on the eventual success of his first attempt, Mower tweaked the recipe, bringing the ABV down to a sessionable 5.5% and releasing Skelter, a Cold IPA that’s also gluten free. It was released to mark the brewery's third birthday, this August. “It’s been a great success, with pubs taking it on as a permanent offering,” Mower adds.
Also throwing its hat into the Cold IPA ring has been Macclesfield’s RedWillow Brewery, which produced a 6.5% ABV version, again based on Wayfinder's original recipe, called Cloudless in reference to its pin-bright appearance. Brewery co-owner Toby McKenzie explains how he used a grain bill that contained 40% torrefied rice (meaning the grain has been heat treated, which helps produce a fuller body, and better head retention), a clean fermenting lager yeast strain, plus cryo-treated hops, to give it plenty of intense hop flavour.
“My guilty secret is that I did actually enjoy some of the well made Brut IPAs,” McKenzie tells me. “I really liked the idea of a beer that was very clean and crisp, allowing the hops to stand out.”
Tasting RedWillow’s effort was what cemented the style’s significance for me. It’s no secret that I believe that the West Coast is the best coast, but something about the added crispness within a Cold IPA made me fall head over heels. Where an IPL does a good job of imitating a lager, with a soft, malt-led body and enough hops to give it more oomph than a German or Czech classic, Cold IPA leans closer to the West Coast IPA style, only with less intensity, and more drinkability. Dare I say it; the reason I really like them is that they’re really fun?
“For [our] Cold IPA, we used this cool product called Incognito, it is a whirlpool only hop product and we decided to really build the beer on the shoulders of Mosaic hops,” Ryan Maliski of Hello Brew Co. tells me.
Sat at the bar of his brewery taproom in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, I tell Maliski that this is the best cold IPA I have ever tried. It delivered unto me a grapefruit and mango smack around the chops so potent it could’ve been featured in a 90s commercial for a popular orange-based soft drink. What this made me consider is that if Cold IPA is a new style, then it still has bags of potential to further improve, as brewers begin to interpret and play around with the original idea. And if this example – a collaboration between Maliski and Cy Bevenger of nearby Timnath Beerwerks – then it has serious potential indeed.
What struck me about Hello’s iteration was how the body of the beer was used as a blank canvas to showcase the fruit character of modern hop varieties, but also how refreshing beers packed with this level of hopping can be. What was remarkable is that the bitterness was all there, but not manifesting in an astringent or challenging way like it can be in some classic West Coasters. This is a beer someone new to the style could pick up and enjoy – a perfect way, perhaps, for less weathered palates to be introduced to the boldness of modern hops.
The success of Cold IPA so far is what Wayfinder’s Kevin Davey seems to take in his stride. Musing on the beer’s success, he expresses how he’s “honoured” that a recipe he developed four years ago is now seeing global traction among brewers and drinkers.
“It’s kinda weird the way craft beer works these days,” he tells me. “Things move really fast, because we have such an impatient market.”
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