If you have a friend who is as much a beer nerd as I am then you have probably heard this story a hundred times, but bear with me, please.
During the early 19th century, England would load up ships with barrels of ale to be delivered to India, then a colony of England. In order to preserve the beer through the long, arduous journey across the seas, brewers used their standard pale ale recipes, but added more hops (hops serve as a natural preservative), and these became known as India Pale Ales. What they didn’t realize, or so beer historians assume, is they were creating a beer with a much different flavor profile by adding those hops. Legend has it, barrels of these extra hopped beers were recovered from a sunken trade ship and returned to England to be served to the public, and the English loved it. While this legend is questionable, (i.e. How well could a submerged barrel of beer keep in the salty ocean anyway?) somehow the public got their hands on some and enjoyed drinking it.
Nearly 200 years later, this style would become all the rage here in the States. While neither Sierra Nevada nor Dogfish Head were the first American breweries to release India Pale Ale, they were arguably the front runners in its popularization. Thanks to their efforts in brewing and distribution, they helped IPAs blow up on the American beer scene 10 to 15 years ago. Now, nearly every American brewery offers an IPA, or, in most cases, more than one.
Interestingly, IPAs are perhaps the most diverse style of beer. As beer expert and author Randy Mosher states in his book Tasting Beer, one brewer’s IPA is another brewer’s pale ale. In some cases, even the most seasoned beer enthusiast can only tell the difference in a pale and IPA by what the brewer puts on the label.
There are British IPAs and American IPAs, with the latter having a much stronger hop presence than the former. In America, there are east coast IPAs that have a little more malt backbone to them than their hop-centric cousins, west coast IPAs. While the British were the originators of the style, American breweries are the ones who have truly perfected it. By boosting the ABV and utilizing uniquely American hops, American brewers created a more crisp and dry version of the style which makes it the perfect accompaniment with your patio on a hot summer’s day.
With so many breweries brewing so much of the same style, it can be difficult standing out amongst the crowd. So how does a brewery create an outstanding IPA? I took this question to representatives from some of the Nashville-area’s local brewers to see how they achieve that dynamic.
The Black Abbey Brewing Company | Five Points IPA
“We didn’t put out an IPA, like a true IPA, for the first two years of our company. The purpose of that is we wanted to make sure that the IPA that we put out was special and stood out against a lot of the competition, because just about every dude on the block makes an IPA,” Isaiah Kallman of The Black Abbey Brewing Company explained.
So, what did they come up with in those two years? A beer that, at 94 International Bitterness Units (IBUs), is one of, if not the most, hopped beers in Middle Tennessee.
The heart and soul of an IPA lies in its IBUs. IBUs measure the amount of bitterness hops provide to a beer, and with IPAs that number is usually quite high. One of the many great debates amongst beer nerds is whether or not brewers have become more concerned with brewing a concoction with an astronomical IBU count, more than just brewing a palatable beer.
Kallman states, “I don’t really enjoy a ton of IPAs. There’s, like, a couple dozen that I think are really good, but my go-to is not typically for an IPA. Mainly because I think it has kind of become a bit of a pissing contest, it is as if everybody is trying to outdo the next guy. Like, what’s the most outrageous, hoppiest thing that (brewers) can hit somebody in the teeth with. I don’t want my beer to be a dare . . . I sometimes wonder if the idea of balance gets lost in that competition.”
Kallman certainly has a point. The typical human palate can only detect bitterness up to 100 IBUs, yet the highest IBU count on the market is Flying Monkeys Alpha Fornication which clocks in at 2500 IBUs. While not many beers come close to that many IBUs, the market does have plenty that break the palate’s threshold, and you have to wonder what is really the point of it all.
However, Five Points IPA doesn’t let those hops go to waste. According to Kallman, Five Points is brewed with seven different hops, but Citra, Amarillo and Cascade hops are the true stars. These hops helped the brewer achieve the citrus-forward flavor profile which they desired while also providing notes of pine for balance.
Surprisingly, at 94 IBUs a good malt-to-hop balance is present. Even the casual IPA drinker such as Kallman and myself will be surprised to see the IBU count once tasted, as this one is paired with a solid malt backbone to help offset the bitterness.
Tennessee Brew Works | Cutaway Rye IPA
“When you look at the numbers from the Great American Beer Festival, they had over 300 entries in the IPA category. So, yeah, how do you stand out? How do you make yours unique?” Cicerone Thomas Gingerich of Tennessee Brew Works said of the challenge in brewing an IPA that is distinguishable from others on the market.
To remedy this problem, the brewers at Tennessee Brew Works decided to toss some rye malt in their IPA.
“That’s the key with our IPA,” Gingerich explained. “It’s a Rye IPA, so, you know, if you’re looking for a true 100 percent IPA (Cutaway IPA) is probably not going to be the exact one you’re looking for . . . It’s a 20 percent rye malt that we use on that, so you’re getting a lot of that spice that a rye whiskey drinker would go after, but then it’s also that subtle sweetness that balances nicely with the piney notes you get from the hops as well.”
If the brewers were looking to find a great balance in an IPA, they found it! The rye really does offer that sweetness Gingerich mentions, particularly on the front of the palette. The Cutaway then finishes with some nice notes of citrus, particularly grapefruit, and pine. At 70 IBUs, it obviously isn’t as hoppy as Five Points, but the rye gives you a little something different not seen in many IPAs.
“That balance is the key,” Gingerich reinforced. “That’s what makes it stand out. I want to make a beer that you’re going to be able to drink more than one of. You know, you get some of these beers that are just super, super heavy on the hops. What’s the next thing you’re going to do? You’re going to go with different one to kind of give your palette a little bit of a relief. If I’m brewing beer I want to make sure you can enjoy it.”
Mayday Brewery | Evil Octopus
“To me, Evil Octopus is the epitome of cantaloupe in a beer . . . I like Black IPAs because they are really, like, smooooth. You know? With Black IPAs you get sort of more subtle hop characters,” former Mayday head brewer and current Fat Bottom brewer JP Murphy stated.
One of the more rare finds you’ll come across in the IPA style is a very dark variety known by many different names. Once referred to as Cascadians, the terms “black IPA” and “India Black Ale” (IBA) are more common and used interchangeably. For me, calling it a black IPA seems wrong, as it can’t be both black and pale. The Beer Judge Certification Program seems to have settled on black IPA, however.
Murphy is in an interesting case. He has brewed for two of the few Middle Tennessee brewers that market a black IPA. Having only started at Fat Bottom a few weeks ago, he hasn’t had the chance to brew a batch of their Black Betty IBA (thank you for getting it right, Fat Bottom) just yet. However, he has brewed plenty of Mayday’s Evil Octopus IBA (score another for IBAers).
According to Murphy, traditional black IPAs use a particular malt known as black patent malt. These are typically used in the darkest beers, like porters and stouts. However, for the purpose of this style, the malt is debittered by removing the husks. This provides the beer with a roasty character the brewer wants while doing away with the bitter character.
However, Murphy describes the brewing process of Evil Octopus substitutes other malts for the typical black patent malt, yet it still yields the same color.
“It was almost like a heavy stout or porter, and then just hopped like crazy,” he said.
Whether you are a dedicated hop-head, or you trend more toward maltier, sweeter beers, I am confident there is an IPA out there for you. Maybe you’ve had a bad a experience with one hop variety and it has scared you away from the style. I know I did, but I have come to enjoy the style. If you give yourself the time and patience, you will find a beer that gives you complexity when you crave it, and the IPA is one of the most versatile styles to pair with food.
As I write the following, I sit in my car outside of my establishment of employment in 90-plus-degree heat, and I am just thinking how an IPA would hit the spot. Unfortunately, my line of work would greatly frown upon that, so I am left daydreaming about that next pint of crisp, hoppy goodness. So, which one would I reach for? Here are a few that I have recently sampled and my impression of them, with a heavy local influence, of course.
Furthest from home, yet probably my personal favorite, is the IPA from California brewer Lagunitas. Lagunitas gives my palette what it craves from an IPA: a good hop bitterness, yet enough malt backbone to keep it complex. Hints of sweet malt can be picked up on the nose, but grapefruit is the dominant character here. The taste is nearly identical to the smell, save for some pine on the finish that I didn’t get in the nose. It drinks much like their Pilsner as far as the mouthfeel goes, medium-light body with a crisp and dry finish.
Bell’s Two Hearted
This is a brewery out of Kalamazoo, Mich., and is newly available in Tennessee, however it has been available over the Kentucky line and further north for years. Two Hearted is the flagship beer of Bell’s and it trends more toward a pale ale, but as alluded to above, one brewer’s pale ale is another’s IPA. At just 55 IBUs, it’s one of the least bitter options on the list. If you aren’t typically an IPA drinker and you don’t want to dive straight in, this is a good one with which to get your feet wet. It’s similar to Lagunitas in that it provides you with a solid malt backbone to help those hops go down more easily, Again, a lot of grapefruit here, with some other less obvious citrus notes, but not so much pine as Lagunitas. This is a great one to wash down a heavily topped pizza, as I have done on many occasions.
This IPA out of Memphis struck me a little differently than most of the others. While most offered a citrus-y note on the nose and tongue, I got all pine on this one. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I very much did. It did offer a hint of sweet malt on the front taste, but that was quickly subdued by the pine. This one went down very smooth.
Black Abbey 5 Points
As mentioned in the main article, this Nashville brewer produces the most heavily hopped beer in the area (at least to my knowledge), and it’s also the most bittered on this list at 94 IBUs. The nose offers a giant whiff of citra hops with some grapefruit notes as well, setting up the expectation that one had better brace himself or herself for one tongue-tingling, hoppy ride. However, the taste was much more complex than that. It’s surprisingly balanced (as far as IPAs go) for such a high IBU count with hints of caramel malts amidst a barrage of grapefruit and other citrus notes. If you aren’t a hop-head, don’t be scared off by the big IBU count. You just might be surprised.
Tennessee Brew Works Cutaway Rye IPA
Rye is a cornerstone ingredient for many offerings from the Nashville brewer, and they utilize it well with Cutaway. The rye helps to boost the complexity, giving it not just a sweet malt backbone, but a little bit of spice too. Of course, pine and grapefruit are most prevalent. I’m a big fan of having this with a burger. I have had many a black and bleu burgers at the Boulevard Bar & Grille with a Cutaway right there next to it.
Jackalope Leghorn Rye IPA
Another Nashville brewer, and another rye IPA. In my humble opinion, this is basically a less aggressive version of Cutaway. If you’ve never had a rye IPA and Cutaway seemed somewhat appealing to you, but you aren’t quite sure, I’d recommend starting here. It basically has all the same notes as Cutaway, but more subtle.
Fat Bottom Knockout IPA
This offering from another Nashville brewery is very different from most IPAs. The dominant characteristic on the nose is the sweet malt, not the hops. Subtle citrus and floral hop notes can be found on the nose behind all that sweet malt, however. The sweet malt taste is more dominant than you find in most IPAs, but the hops are more apparent on the tongue than the nose, and linger on the back taste. A sommelier may characterize the mouthfeel as semi-sweet.
New Heights Batch #1 Coffee IPA
Speaking of something different, Nashville’s newest brewery offers just that. Coffee comes across more so on the nose than either hops or malt, and while coffee is most dominant on the tongue as well hop bitterness is also apparent. Where this one lost me was on the finish, as I got something reminiscent of hot buffalo wings. This isn’t the first pale coffee beer I’ve had that’s that has given me that same impression, so perhaps this says more about how my palette interprets the blend of pale malts with coffee than anything. While it wasn’t my favorite, several patrons at my regular watering hole disagree with my personal assessment.
Mayday Evil Octopus
Octopus because it is brewed with eight different types of hops. Evil because it’s wicked good! This offering from our own hometown brewery delivers something not detected in any other IPA that I’ve tried—cantaloupe. The crazy thing is that cantaloupe isn’t even used in the brewing process, this is just a product of the blending of hops and malts used. When you take a whiff of this black beauty you’re going to get cantaloupe. When you take a sip, you’ll get those big cantaloupe notes on the front end while a slight hop bitterness kicks in on the back. As it is with most black IPAs, the malt counteracts with the hops, lessening the intensity but still keeping them part of the equation. This one has a velvety smooth finish that will keep you wanting more.
There are a ton of IPAs out there to be had, more than I will try to list here. What are your favorite IPAs? Let us know in the comments section!