Monday, 2 March 2015

Changing tastes of IPA

Are UK beer drinkers' tastes changing when it comes to IPAs?

Partly inspired by Chris Hall's recent post comparing two double IPAs (Galway Bay's Of Foam and Fury and the highly sought after Pliny The Elder from Russian River) partly inspired by my own recent trip to the US. It also incorporates our thoughts about Pliny, Magic Rock's Cannonball and Thornbridge's Halcyon when we had the chance to drink all three together (alongside our own DIPA, Outrage Bandwagon) last year.

While undoubtedly the US and UK beer scenes continue to influence each other Chris Hall suggested in his post that the two scenes, with specific reference to IPA, were growing apart. Certainly there is evidence that UK brewers are trying to do something different but I was not totally convinced that us Brits (and indeed our Irish brethren) were really growing apart from our American cousins. In my mind when I had super fresh US IPAs they didn't taste so different from super fresh UK IPAs.

However, I've now changed that stance. 

Last month I was in Washington DC for work and I took the opportunity to drink as many fresh US IPAs that I could find without suffering hop overload. Over two days, I managed to work my way through the following: Sierra Nevada's Hop Hunter, followed by Bell's Two Hearted Ale, then 21st Amendment's Brew Free! or Die IPA, Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA, Troegs' Blizzard of Hops, Stone's Enjoy By 02.14.15, Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA, Troegs' Nugget Nectar (Crystal and Columbus dry-hopped, both on cask), Victory's Anniversary 19 Session IPA before finally finishing up with Deschutes' Freshly Squeezed IPA. A pretty good effort, I think.

Looking back at my (almost) instant Untappd reviews, I gave most of these beers fairly decent to good scores. Most had bags of delicious hop aroma and each glass was packed full of different hop flavours making them highly drinkable. But after sinking my first half pint of Beavertown's uber-fresh Bloody 'Ell on its launch day, something crystallised in my mind immediately. US IPAs are very sweet.

Those that have been drinking decent beer will have experienced this before; old imported US IPAs that are total malt bombs, dripping with sickly barley sugar taste with little to no hop aroma or flavour and perhaps a bit of bitterness in the back somewhere. 

The more I reflect on the beers I had in DC last month, the more I realised that the majority of them had so much of that sickly barley sugar flavour in the background, in some cases it was almost overwhelming the hops despite the beers being fresh. Particular culprits were the Hop Hunter, the Enjoy By and the 60 Minute IPA. However, the notable exceptions were Victory's Anniversary Session IPA and Troegs Blizzard of Hops. The latter two were clearly brewed with mostly pale malt and packed full of late hops. These beers simply sang out about how hoppy and fresh they were. Both were very reminiscent of Weird Beard's Little Things That Kill series, Beavertown's Gamma Ray or Pressure Drop's Pale Fire.

Following that line of thought, I started thinking about the beers that have really taken off in the UK. Notwithstanding the beers I've just listed, I feel the trend from most UK breweries is to have less crystal malt to let the hops really shine through. Looking back at the IPAs/DIPAs I've had over the past year from UK breweries, there's now a long list of fantastic beers that really show off the hops while having enough malt backbone to hold the beer up and prevent it from becoming a mouth-puckeringly bitter beast. Some notable examples being Thornbridge's Halcyon, Magic Rock's Cannonball, Buxton Axe/Ace Edge and Rooster's Baby Faced Assassin, to name a few.


Travelling back in time to February 2014, Emma and I were fortunate to find ourselves in possession of fresh bottles of fresh Pliny the Elder, Cannonball and Halcyon all at once. We thought we'd do to do a head-to-head tasting with the intention of writing it up as a blog post but we had a busy year and that post was never written up. But now feels a good time to summarise our thoughts on how we felt those beers compared with each other.

Pliny the Elder

Well-balanced but up front bitterness with piney, spicy notes and a touch of grapefruit. Beautiful mouthfeel and so very easy to drink. Deserves its reputation.


Almost perfectly balanced bitterness with bags of sharply refreshing citrus fruits and a very clean malt backbone makes this so easy to drink but lacks the luscious mouthfeel of Pliny. Those zingy hops on top of that stripped back, 100% pale malt, base makes this beer stand out on its own. Its drinkability is terrifying.


Beautiful tropical fruit flavours with a well-balanced and lingering bitterness, all coupled with a soft yet rounded mouthfeel that makes it just slip down.

We also drank our own recently brewed DIPA Outrage Bandwagon alongside them and, surprisingly, it compared favourably but the tasting also gave us some pointers on how we could improve it further.

In terms of overall preference we could not agree on a single favourite. Emma preferred the citrus hop bite on top of the oh-so-clean pale malt of Halcyon, whereas I had a hard time splitting Cannonball and Pliny. To this day, I'd probably give a different answer depending on time of day, direction of wind and the position of the sun, they were that close.

What did that tasting tell us? Well, Pliny and Cannonball clearly share a common ancestor although are certainly different beers while Halcyon sits out on its own in terms of how clean it is yet retaining enough malt backbone to support it. One thing we took away from all three is that none of them have that overtly barley sugar sweetness that sometimes muddles hop flavour, at least when they're fresh.

Surely this undermines my point from earlier? Maybe, but I don't think so. Of the beers I drank last month, only Bell's Two Hearted Ale was similar to Pliny in its balance between malt and hops. But without sampling every IPA being brewed in the US and UK currently, it is perhaps difficult to make a definitive conclusion but given the limits of money and travel all I can rely on in this case are my own personal observations.

Over the years, I've heard many apocryphal stories of how the American palate prefers sweet over many other flavours and certainly there are a lot of highly sweet foods and drinks available in the US. However, there seem to be plenty of sweet food and drinks available on UK shelves these days, so I'm not entirely sure that we're that different. One thing is abundantly clear, UK breweries are making IPAs that are less sweet than their American counterparts and we're drinking them by the caseload. 

Less crystal malt is clearly a good thing.

Post script

Following the initial draft of this post, we had a few beers I brought back from a work trip to the US: Ninkasi's Tricerahops DIPA, Bell's Hopslam DIPA and a fresh bottle of Pliny the Elder (thanks to Doug and Mike for these!). All of them were great...BUT we detected the underlying sweetness in both the Tricerahops and the Hopslam. Weirdly, we thought Pliny tasted different to the one tasted a year ago during the parallel tasting outlined above. This time it tasted much cleaner and less sweet (to our palates anyway). Just to make sure we broke out a bottle of Halcyon we had in the fridge to compare.

The result of this comparison was that the Pliny definitely tasted closer to the Halcyon than before, we could both still taste the flavours contributed by the malt but Pliny was far less sweet than any of the other US IPAs that I'd had recently and much closer to the UK brewed IPAs. We reached out to the team at Russian River Brewing and received a very helpful response from owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo. Vinnie indicated that the recipe for Pliny the Elder had not changed but he felt that he and his team had improved as brewers over the past few years resulting in beers with better flavour stability and hop flavour. Vinnie also thought that he and his wife, Natalie, had become better at selecting the hops for their beers resulting in better hop characters in the beers they brewed. [Post edited on 04/03/15].


Yvan Seth said...

"Less crystal malt is clearly a good thing."

Hear hear!

I've long thought this about US beers... sweetness pervades. I've not much of a sweet tooth and I find sweetness a problem with a lot of the US stuff I've tried. Pretty-fresh Pliny included (it'd been flown over a week before or something), I wasn't converted to the cause. Very interesting to hear of your chance in perception of the beer, recipe change or extreme batch variation...

Of course most of my US experience is imports of dubious provenance... but as you say, they turn into total malt bombs. In a way UK ones do not even after a year on the shelf (not that they're much good at that point, they're just differently bad). US stuff is all liquid Werther's Originals.

I'd like to do a US-IPA tour some day... be interesting to try them on their home-turf.

End of the day it's all a matter of individual tastes I suppose. But I suspect that culturally the US has developed a leaning towards the saccharine. Perhaps the UK is on the same sugar curve, but behind the US.

Anyway, for me pale-malt hop-bombs reign supreme...

Tony said...

I've always thought that Pliny's reputation rests on it being neither hop nor malt bomby. This is also why you get so many folk being 'meh' when they finally taste it.

Took a trip to Amsterdam a month back. Was very impressed with the subtle, soft IPAs that seemed to be the trend there. (My understanding is that Kris's Wines have some Het Uiltje Big Fat 5. Must get up there soon.)

John Clarke said...

Yes, this echoes something I've been saying for some time now (two or three years at least I reckon since this dawned on me) - US IPAs seem to carry the hops with a big crystal/cara malt backbone while the trend over here has been to use mainly very pale malts and let the hops really sing. Possibly because our modern IPAs evolved from the golden ale trend?

russimp said...

I'm not sure that there's necessarily a 'better and worse' scenario here. Sometimes I'm looking for that cutting through, clean taste. Sometimes I'm looking for that rich, slightly cloying mouthfeel of a sweeter IPA. With the former, I often feel that a moremail citric taste pervades. With the latter, there seems to be more room for passion fruit and over-ripe mango flavours. I'm personally surprised that there aren't more English brewers that want to market the richer, sweeter IPA's and double IPA's. A couple of notable exceptions from the last year or so, though, have been Siren's Tickle Monster and Buxton's Nth Cloud (and perhaps Double Axe?), but instead that on this side of the Atlantic we only produce this flavour when we really push the ABV through the roof!!

Emma said...

Guys, thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.
Yvan - I think to really appreciate US IPAs, both West and East Coast, you have to go there and drink them fresh. As I noted, not all of them had that sweet undertone to them, and has others have commented on Twitter, West Coast IPAs tend towards dryness, while East Coast IPAs tend towards sweetness. Unless I know that a US IPA has been brought to the UK in short order in refrigerated transport, then I tend to avoid. Why have something you almost know you'll be disappointed with when you can probably have a far superior beer in terms of freshness on tap or in bottle that's brewed less than a few hundred miles away?

John - I'm not on top on my British brewing history as I should be but from personal observation I believe that our modern US-style IPAs developed out of British brewers wanting to brew beers that they'd tried in the US but couldn't get here, so early attempts were much closer to their US counterparts in terms of malt bills and sweetness. However, from personal experience I've noted the trend to remove much, although not necessarily all, of the crystal malt from recipes to reduce the barley sugar sweetness that you can get from too much of it. For an intense dry hop you do need some residual sugars in the beer, I've noted the rising use of Carapils to add those unfermentables that a pale, dry IPA needs. I've not noted any relationship between traditional golden ales and UK-brewed US-style IPAs.

Russ - I think the mouthfeel you're describing is the natural product of DIPAs in particular, where you have both the higher ABV plus the necessary malt backbone to support it. If I recall correctly, Tickle Monster tasted sweet mainly because it had an awful lot of mango in the beer. The challenge for the brewer is how to take the ABV up the scale, without adding too much cloying sweetness and keeping it dry. Brewdog's new Restorative Beverage for Invalids and Convalescents is an interesting case in point.

Unknown said...

I agree with you, more or less, about the sweetness thing; though I don't agree about that batch of Enjoy by, I thought it was cracking and easily had enough hop character on top of the malt bill. The Hopslam certainly has some underlying sweetness, though some of that is because it's brewed with honey - I can't really make sense of this brewing decision but nevertheless I enjoyed trying it.

And the answer to 'why try something you think might not be as good as it ought to be' is because despite the risk it's still exciting and interesting, and who knows if or when you'll get the opportunity to try it on its home turf!

Brett said...

Great article! I haven't had the chance to try any US-style UK IPAs yet because they're just not on the shelves here. I was never really a fan of the the classic UK IPA, but then again the few I had tried might have been old or just poor examples.

I've always been wary of the "everything is sweeter in the US" argument because I've traveled, and candy, chocolate, and desserts are pretty much just as sweet no matter where I've gone, so sometimes I think people are just looking for an excuse to rag on American culture. However, I will agree on the heavy use of crystal malts in a lot of US IPAs, and especially DIPAs. While a lot of modern American and Australian hops do lend a very tropical quality, I prefer the examples that finish a bit dryer. Lagunitas IPA, Ithaca Flower Power, and SIerra Nevada Torpedo jump to mind. When they're fresh, they're excellent examples of balanced American IPAs.

The inherent drawback of the modern IPA style is that it must be drunk fresh. Late hopping, Dry hopping and the use of hopbacks produce wonderful citrusy, piney, floral qualities that fade very quickly. And since the malt bill is generally pretty simple to let the hops shine, you end up with a pretty boring beer if it's allowed to go too long. For that reason, the Brits and Americans (on the whole) will probably never truly appreciate the others' examples of this particular style. Your average beer drinker just isn't as observant when it comes to drink-by dates, and methods of transport, so they're far more likely to just say "Oh this beer sucks" rather than "this beer should have been drunk by a month ago."