Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On India Pale Ales - Central Waters Glacial Trail IPA

To follow up on Matt Lange's entry on Monday, I wanted to talk today about India Pale Ales. It always seems that the worst offenders of the unbalanced beer syndrome are IPAs. It is a style that is easy brew, it is a style that readily covers mistakes, and it is a style that is very easy to overdo. It is also one of my favorite styles because of the sheer diversity and flavor capabilities - from English bitters to the noise-rock inspired hop-bombs to the newer variations like Stone's XI - a dark IPA with a roasted, stout-ish notes.

At some point in the not-too-distant past there was one style: India Pale Ale and it meant, basically, one thing: a strongly bittered bite in the finish. In most other respects it was sort of a cross between a pale ale and an amber - with some caramel or biscuit malts for color and complexity, but otherwise a fairly simple, if not slightly stronger malt bill. Typically with a strong ABV around 7-8%. Today, we call this a sub-category of the India Pale Ale - the English IPA.

Central Waters' Lac Du Bay IPA was in this English tradition. Paul Graham, head brewer at Central Waters, agrees: "The Lac Du Bay IPA was an English IPA. Very malty, higher in alcohol (7.5%), and hopped with English hops (more earthy and flowery)." Unforutnately, "the retirement of Lac Du Bay was not by choice. The hop shortage (or what the some of the players in the industry made to appear as a shortage - that's a whole other story) caused the retirement. We had access to American hops still, so the change [to the Glacial Trail] was made." But, never fear, the Lac Du Bay may be back: "I am sure that sometime in the future we will be able to get the hops again. In fact, they were just offered to us, but unfortunately we don't have the production space right now. Our plan is to bring it out as a seasonal when the timing is right (hop availability and production space)."

Then, the West Coast started growing hops. Specifically, the West Coast started growing Cascade hops. Cascades are great hops - great for aroma, great for bittering. They typically weigh in at around 5.5% Alpha Acid, so in many respects they are similar in form and function to European noble hops - except the aroma is much more up-front and distinctive. Instead of the soft peppery, earthy and grassy aromas of the European Saaz and Goldings and Hallertaus, the Cascades have an assertive grassy and citrusy aroma - oranges and grapefruit. It is a distinctive aroma which really comes through in the bitterness as well. Together, this flavor and aroma combination can really compliment a sweet malt bill, resulting in amazingly refreshing beverages.

Starting with Sierra Nevada in the early 80s, the Cascade has come to be associated with American brewing, and particularly the American West Coast. What brewers quickly discovered is that consumers loved it. It made its way into the pale ales, amber ales, common beers, stouts, and india pale ales being made all up and down the Pacific Coast. As brewing stronger and stronger beers became a competition in the late 90s, brewers found that the strong aromas and flavors of the Cascade masked the alcohol flavors. So, beers that were upwards of 9% ABV could actually taste refreshing. These now form the basis of what we call an American IPA - indeed, you can, for the most part, substitute "cascade hoppy" whenever you see "American" or "NorthWest" in front of a style name (e.g., American Amber, American Stout, American Pale Ale).

It is in this American tradition that we find Central Waters' newer IPA, the Glacial Trail. As Mr. Graham notes: "Our goal with Glacial Trail was a balanced American Style IPA. We wanted the beer to be bitter (68 IBU's), but not in your face - where you would not be able to taste anything else. The beer has a great malty backbone that we wanted to compliment the bitterness."

Then came the hop bombs - intentionally unbalanced beers meant to show-off the aroma and flavor profiles of the hops. Beers like the Dogfish Head 120 and the Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale are some of the best of this style; but just throwing a ton of hops in the kettle does not a quality hop-bomb make. There must be complexity, both in flavor and aroma, but in the bitterness and malts as well. Tyranena's Hop Whore is really the best Wisconsin example of this third IPA category.

So, we now have, basically, three types of India Pale Ales - 1) the so-called "English" style, which is restrained and malty with a clean, bitter finish; 2) the American IPA, which is much hoppier, usually with Cascade hops, but still focused on balance and typically with caramel and German specialty malts; and 3) the hop-bomb (also called "Double IPA", and Imperial IPA) which is intentionally unbalanced to show-off hop aromas, flavors and bitterness. I like each of them, or rather, I'm not opposed to any of them - I've had excellent examples of all three.

But I've also had really bad examples of all three, and, I think, that this is what Matt was getting at in his essay that we published on Monday - the "bigger" beers can be an all-out assault on the pallette. And, when brewed incorrectly, can be a not-very pleasant all-out assault on the pallette. We can agree to disagree on some of the specifics (e.g., I love the Ruination), but I agree overall that there are way too many poor examples out there.

Unfortunately, this overpowering aroma and bittering flavor can also mask brewing incompetence. Failed to clean out the kettle? No problem, bitter the hell out of the beer with Cascades and no one will ever know. Incomplete fermentation? No problem, with enough Cascades no one will even notice the yeast. Chill haze? No problems, use enough hops and the beer is supposed to be cloudy anyway!

However, the biggest problem is that many of the worst offenders, taking a cue from the wine industry, market their beer as sophisticated with the correlative assumption being that if you don't find the beer to be sophisticated then you, the drinker, just aren't sophisticated enough. And Stone is not the only brewery guilty of this - many, many breweries fall prey to this. Yet many of the beer snobs among us, fearing to lose our beer cred, fall right in line, proclaiming the flavors to be huge but failing to discern that there is only one flavor and when the beer warms up it turns into bitter, syrupy piss. Some of this lemming-ness is a result of said marketing: we're too afraid that the brewery is right - if we don't find the beer sophisticated and complex it must because we aren't sophisticated enough. Some of it is because of a herd mentality - one person, a hop head, loves a beer a posts a great review of it and each subsequent reviewer, seeing that this person thinks it is so great, agrees that it is great - the logic being that one beer cannot both be a 10 and a 1. But it can - and that is the great fallacy of numbering systems, but that's a different post for a different day.

In the meantime, let your taste be your guide. If you don't like a beer, you don't like it.

Glacial Trail IPA (Base Malt: Briess Pale Malt; Specialty Malts: Caramel 10L, Caramel 40L, Munich 10L; Hops: Summit and Ahtanum; ABV: 6.75) (BA. RB. By the way, both of them refer to this as "Glacier Trail" - what is it with people and the "Gla" formative that makes them always think something "glacier"??)

Appearance: served at 45 degrees, a hazy brownish-red, it's approximately the color of the stained wood that my coffee table is made out of; a strong, if not small, off-white head
Aroma: a lemon and pine brightness on-top of a grapefruit hoppiness; a faint bready sweetness lies below the aroma
Flavor: the hoppiness is immediately noticeable, but the first flavor that I can distinguish is the caramel malt with a slight roastiness to it; I'd had this a few months ago and I thought I had remembered more of this roastiness - perhaps it is due to a long kettle boil and the caramelization was greater in that first batch? In any event, there is a slight roastiness; as it warms up, the malts come through both in the flavor and the aroma
Body: oily and full-bodied
Drinkability: I really find myself enjoying this beer. It warms up very well and changes from the hop-forward American IPA to a more well-rounded quasi-amber - in fact, at about 55 degrees you could call this an American Amber and I'm not sure anyone would complain.
Summary: I'm not familiar with the Ahtanum hop, but the Summit is a high-alpha-acid hop with an aroma and flavor profile similar to the Cascade, with citrus and grapefruit notes - it appears to be one of the few high-alpha-acid hops that is also good for dry hopping and late-kettle additions. Brew365 tells me that "[Ahtanum] has a citrus and floral character much like cascade with the addition of some piney or earth notes. Grapefruit quality is more forward in than in cascade as well." Apparently, the Ahtanum is used in Stone's Arrogant Bastard.


  1. I couldn't agree more that the over hopping of beers is getting a little silly. That said I am really impressed when someone makes a hop bomb that I really like. Happened at the Great Taste with Pearl Street Brewery's Dankenstein Double IPA. Went in with low expectations and was really impressed with the balance. Glacial Trail is awesome too.

  2. Dankenstein rules!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.