The Grainfather: Everything IPA

On the first Thursday in August, beer enthusiasts, breweries and bars across the globe celebrate IPA Day, a toast to one of craft beer’s most iconic styles.
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On the first Thursday in August, beer enthusiasts, breweries and bars across the globe celebrate IPA Day, a toast to one of craft beer’s most iconic styles. The IPA has some of the most diverse spectrums in both flavour variations and brewing practices, making it increasingly accessible to many a beer lovers palate and brewer’s choice of experimentation. IPA day celebrates this and we’d like to join in and discuss both the variety of IPAs there are to brew as well as tackle common questions that arise for homebrewers new and experienced.

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There’s no doubting the popularity of the modern IPA among beer lovers today – quickly becoming the craft beer darling, a good IPA showcases a huge amount of hop bitterness and flavour in a pale and dry beer body. Now IPA has expanded to include Black, White, Red, Rye, Brown and Belgian, plus, more recently (though not officially) the ‘New England’ IPA.

The IPA is a good style for many brewers just starting out as producing a decent IPA is fairly easy. It can be done with a SMASH grain bill and the high hopping rates can cover a multitude of first time mistakes. However, producing a stand out IPA requires a good knowledge of your ingredients and how they work together. You should be aiming to produce a great beer that is balanced towards ‘hoppy’ rather than producing an okay beer and hiding it behind muddy hop flavour.

To better understand this let’s first discuss the main IPA styles in a nutshell.

IPA Style comparisons

English - Generally will have more finish hops and less fruitiness and caramel than British pale ales and bitters. Has less hop intensity and a more pronounced malt flavour than typical American versions.

American - Stronger and more highly hopped than an American pale ale. Compared to an English IPA, has less of the “English” character from malt, hops, and yeast (less caramel, bread, and toast; more American/New World hops than English; less yeast-derived esters), less body, and often has a more hoppy balance and is slightly stronger than most examples. Less alcohol than a Double IPA, but with a similar balance. 

East coast - Hopped to the same level as an American IPA with a higher focus on new world hop flavour and aroma, the perceived bitterness is lower. More body, due to the additions of wheat and oats commonly used. Examples have a low to high degree of cloudiness.

Red - Similar to the difference between an American amber ale and an American pale ale, a red IPA will differ from an American IPA with the addition of some darker crystal malts giving a slightly sweeter, more caramelly and dark fruit-based balance. A red IPA differs from an American strong ale in that the malt profile is less intense and there is less body; a red IPA still has an IPA balance and doesn’t trend towards a barleywine-like malt character. A red IPA is like a stronger, hoppier American amber ale, with the characteristic dry finish, medium-light body, and strong late hop character.

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White - Similar to a Belgian Wit style except highly hopped to the level of an American IPA. Bitter and hoppy like the IPA but fruity, spicy and light like the Wit. Typically the hop aroma and flavour are not as prominent as in an American IPA.

Black - Balance and overall impression of an American or double IPA with restrained roast similar to the type found in Schwarzbiers. Not as roasty-burnt as American stouts and porters, and with less body and increased smoothness and drinkability.

DoublE - Bigger than either an English or American IPA in both alcohol strength and overall hop level (bittering and finish). Less malty, lower body, less rich and a greater overall hop intensity than an American barleywine. Typically not as high in gravity/alcohol as a barleywine, since high alcohol and malt tend to limit drinkability.

Belgian - A cross between an American IPA/imperial IPA with a Belgian golden strong ale or tripel. This style is may be spicier, stronger, drier and more fruity than an American IPA.

Brown - A stronger and more bitter version of an American brown ale, with the balance of an American IPA.

Rye - Drier and slightly spicier than an American IPA. Bitterness and spiciness from rye lingers longer than an American IPA. Does not have the intense rye malt character of a Roggenbier. Some examples are stronger like a double IPA.

Common IPA Brewing questions

What malt bill should I use?

A tricky question as there is a lot of scope when producing an IPA. A good pale malt is the usual starting point, either Maris Otter, 2-row or Ale malt. For an American IPA crystal is typically used as this provides dextrins which aggressive dry hopping can strip slightly from a finished beer. Crystal should be a maximum 5% of the grain bill and should typically be a lighter coloured variety. Swapping a small proportion of the pale malt for Munich or Vienna can add some complexity to the malt character. Wheat is also a good option for IPAs, providing some body in the final beer. Finally, carapils (or dextrine malt) can also be used to help with body but should count towards your 5% maximum on crystal malts.

This is a good start for most IPAs. For a RyePA, swap pale malt for rye in equal percentages. You can go really high with Rye malt if you want but don’t forget that Rye malt will make the beer drier and spicier. Between 10-20% Rye is a good starting point. For a white IPA, similarly swap pale malt for wheat in equal percentages.

A black IPA is a little bit more complex. The colour is mostly going to come from dehusked Carafa malt such as Carafa III but you shouldn’t be using more than 5%. You can either mash this with the rest of your malts, add it to the malts just before you sparge and sparge through the grains or cold mash the Carafa separately from the main malt bill and add it to the wort. Similarly, chocolate or brown malts can be used in small quantities in the main mash or cold sparged through to provide some additional flavour to the final beer without the acridity typically associated with dark malts.

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What hops should I use?

Hops are where the fun and experimentation in IPA brewing really lies. There are no real limits on what you can go for here but some general rules of thumb would be; oily, high alpha hops work great. Basically, you want a big aroma in the packet if you expect to get a big aroma in the finished beer.

Hops with similar traits work well together, think Citra and Centennial with big citrus flavour or Simcoe and Amarillo or East Kent Golding and Fuggles. Combining hops with similar traits with another variety is a great way of making hop flavours really pop. With Citra and Centennial, you might combine them with Chinook, still keeping within that big American ‘C’ variety family but adding a backdrop of spice and pine to make the citrus easier to pick out and more distinctive. Ella and Galaxy is another good example of this with Ella’s slightly spicy character combining with the passionfruit of Galaxy to provide a distinctive ‘grapefruit’ flavour.

Experimentation is key here as different palates will pick out different flavours in certain hop varieties. Play with hops until you have a good feel of which varieties match, which varieties clash and which varieties contrast and then you will have a good understanding of hop combinations to use.

When should I add my hops?

Many brewers follow a hopping schedule along the lines of 60/20/10/0 with the idea being that hops added at these different times will add different levels of aroma and bitterness. This can work well and is used by many brewers but if you’re after really powerful hop aroma we would recommend that you make your hop split 60/0. Begin by looking at the target ABV for your beer and then decide on a grams-per-litre hop addition for that beer. As a rough rule of thumb, 5% may be 5g per litre, 6% is 6g etc. Then use this to work out the contributed bitterness.

When you add your hops at the end of the boil and leave them to soak in the wort this is called a “hop stand”. Utilisation from this technique will vary depending upon the wort gravity and the temperature when you initially add your dry hops but it is likely to be somewhere between 3-5% so you can estimate your IBU contribution from that addition. After that you can work out the size required of your 60-minute addition to bring your total IBU’s up to the level required for the style.

This gives you the minimum amount of hops required at the start of the boil to achieve the necessary bitterness whilst ensuring you are getting the maximum out of your aroma hops by not boiling off the volatile hop aromatics.

For the freshness of aroma that is key to the style you should also consider dry hopping your IPAs. This simply means adding hops to the fermenter. For best results, add your hops with two to three more days of fermentation left. At this stage fermentation will not be vigorous enough to drive off delicate aromatics but there will still be enough movement in the fermenter to distribute hops and the flavour will be imparted more fully. If you are adding a very large amount of dry hops some brewers recommend splitting the addition. Leaving the dry hops in the beer for more than three days risks imparting more grassy and vegetal flavours. For the freshest flavour three days is plenty of contact time with your beer.

What yeast should I use?

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For most IPAs you are looking for a clean fermenting ale strain that won’t produce much in the way of esters or phenols, although recently Vermont ale yeast has been getting a lot of attention as its peach and citrus esters can complement beers with high hop levels and British yeast strains because they are less flocculent and leave more aroma compounds in suspension. Typically though high levels of yeast flavour can interfere with the hop character which is something you want to avoid in almost all styles of IPA. However. some (like the Belgian IPA) allow low levels of ester and phenol character.

If you are going for an American style IPA where a high level of bitterness is key you could even consider slightly under-pitching the yeast, a technique recommended by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River to counteract the IBU-stripping effect that some yeast strains can have.

What should my water profile be?

Again, this is going to depend on the style of IPA you are brewing and what malts are in your grain bill. For a hoppy, bitter IPA you should be focusing on your sulphate/chloride ratio. Chloride ions help to accentuate malt character in your beer whereas sulphate ions will have a drying effect, and by drying out your beer this will accentuate the hop character.

Most brewers will try and limit the level of chloride in their water and raise the level of sulphate when brewing a hoppy beer. There is some evidence to suggest that it is the ratio of chlorides to sulphate that has more of an effect than the actual level, with a ratio of 1:1 being ‘balanced’ and a ratio of 1:5 being hoppy to the point of undrinkable. Getting your ratio somewhere in between will help to accentuate your beer’s hoppiness.

This becomes more complex when brewing a black IPA as you are dealing with specialty malts which can add unwanted ‘burnt’ or ‘acrid’ flavours to your beer. In this style, it’s important to remember that carbonates help to mellow the effect of dark malts, but there is a negative relationship between high levels of carbonates and hoppy beers. Therefore you need to have a carbonates level that is high enough to mellow the dark malts, whilst also limiting your sulphates level to avoid drying the beer out and over-amplifying the astringency.

For many brewers, water is a ‘last piece of the puzzle’ element, only becoming a concern if the beers are not coming out as desired, but it’s well worth getting your head around the basics of water salt additions to really raise the level of the beers you are producing.

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