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The ‘sweetening’ of American IPA


Last week I promised to find links related to actually drinking beer. Plenty to choose from if you pay a bit of attention.

No Man Loves Life Like Him That’s Growing Old.
“The back room and bar were heaving when we arrived and squeezed into the hatched snug on the right as you enter. It gives you a kind of railway tunnel view of proceedings. There was a geriatric karaoke in full swing. At the far end an oldish guy on an electronic music box was squeezing out old time tunes accompanied by even older types giving it laldy on the microphone.” [Via Tandleman’s Beer Blog]

Changing tastes of IPA.
“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.” And, “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.”

I’m not sure everybody would describe such beers as sweet, but myself I share the anti-crystal bias. And I think back to 2006 and Vinnie Cilurzo talking about when the Russian River Brewing production facility would come on line. He said that anybody who worked for him must “understand the beers are defined and have our signature. They must be bone dry – that can’t change. The new brewer suggests adding crystal, ‘You’re fired!'” That was before fruit-forward hops such as Citra, Mosaic and El Dorado hops were available. Alone they don’t have to make a beer sweet, but couple them with a bit too much crystal and a lack of firm bitterness and you get sweet. However, that’s only some American IPAs. Not La Cumbre Brewing Elevated IPA, Fat Heads Head Hunter, Firestone Walker Union Jack, Russian River Blind Pig, Schlafly AIPA, Half Acre Senit. The list of firmly bitter beers is pretty long. [Via Crema’s Beer Odyssey, h/T Boak & Bailey]

The beer that changed my life.
“The golden liquid was strangely bitter to my inexperienced palate, but there was a rich sweetness to it as well. The taste grew on me, litre by litre, until by the end of the trip I was a lager drinker. I remember carrying ten bottles home in my luggage.” [Via I might have a glass of beer]

Up and coming beer destinations?
Lars Marius Garshol picks Vilnius. “To most people, farmhouse ale is the same as saison and biere de garde. Two hours in Vilnius is enough to destroy that illusion for ever. Uniquely in the world, apart from Belgium, Lithuania has not just preserved its ancient farmhouse brewing culture, but managed to commercialize it. There are at least 15 breweries in Lithuania brewing beers that are either real farmhouse ale in the Lithuanian tradition, or to some degree commercialized versions of farmhouse ale.” [Via larsblog]

The Craft Beer Series.
“I’m stuck in two beer series right now: Bell’s Planetary series and Victory’s Moving Parts. When a new component of either series pops up on the shelf, I buy it. Neither series is wowing me in the way Lilyhammer did in the beginning of season 2 with its pop cultural references (Animal House, Godfather). Neither series has me wondering how it will all wrap up in the end as we debated Breaking Bad’s conclusion (we knew, though, that Walter White would go down in a glorious manner; we just didn’t know how). Still, I can’t quit the series. I’ve started it. I’m a part of it. I have to see it through.” [Make Mine Potato]

An Overflowing River Of New York Beer.
“I had 15 beers across 12 breweries in three different NY beer bars and one bottle shop. I had beers from big breweries, small breweries, new breweries and old(er) breweries.” {Via BeerGraphs]

Luck of the draw.
“Definitely a mixed bag, then. Proof that raffles are not the ideal way to source new beers.” [Via The Beer Nut]

9 Responses to The ‘sweetening’ of American IPA

  1. Alan March 9, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Had a great Friday night in a NY bar adding splashes of brown ale to overly desiccated US IPAs. When the powers behind crystal malt return, you can hideout in my shed.

  2. Gary Gillman March 9, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    I think at bottom there are two reasons the U.S. IPAs seem sweeter than the English ones. First, on average they are higher gravity and there is a commensurate malt (and hop) impact to match that. Second and perhaps more important, most IPA here is all-malt. Much British pale ale and bitter isn’t, at least up until the time American practice starting influencing British practice more directly via e.g., London murky. All malt beers, all things equal, taste sweeter or maltier, they just do. Even though crystal or caramel malt is a characteristic of British bitter, 15% or so is (usually) sugar which ferments out and lightens the body. The American beers follow the pre-1845 British practice of all-malt and have the richness and palate-quality one would associate with that tradition.


    • Chris March 9, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

      Hi Gary,

      I think you’ve missed the point on the US v British IPA, particularly the one I made in our blog that Stan quoted from. I was referring to the US-style IPAs being brewed by British breweries, which are just as high (if not higher!) in gravity than US IPAs and are all malt. Your comment suggests that a traditional English bitter is a straight comparison to a modern US IPA; I disagree as they are too very different styles that once had a common ancestor. Neither is “London murky” a fair comment on the current crop of British-brewed US IPAs; that is more of a symptom of very small breweries being unable to afford shiny conical FVs and glycol chillers to drop hop matter and yeast out of suspension, at least in their early days. Working for one of the newer London breweries, I can say that we pride ourselves on brewing hop forward, yet bright, beers but we’ve also taken to cutting crystal malt out of many of our IPAs to ensure that the hops and bitterness shine through often against a dry finish, rather than being muddled by a overly sweet aftertaste.

      The only styles of UK-brewed US-style IPA I can think of where sugar is typically used, are DIPAs and TIPAs, where sugar is used to boost alcohol content and lighten the body so the beer isn’t a chewy, sickly mess that obscures all those expensive hops. From my own knowledge, I believe that this is a technique that we learned from the many fantastic US breweries that pioneered the current US IPA/DIPA/TIPA styles.

      I see from a further comment below that you’re hoping to try Punk IPA from Brewdog and while that was a ground-breaking beer when Brewdog released it a good few years ago now, it doesn’t fully represent where the UK is in terms of brewing IPAs. The case in point being the beer released by Brewdog on Friday 6 March 2015 called “Restorative Beverage for Invalids and Convalescents”, a dry, all pale malt, bitter, hoppy beast of an 8.7% DIPA. Highly sessionable because of its flavour and dryness but terrifying because it doesn’t taste or feel like the ABV stamped on the bottle.

  3. Jeff Alworth March 9, 2015 at 8:22 am #

    I’m not sure if Oregon was in the sweet-IPA vanguard, or if I just noticed it quickly, but when I tasted Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA a couple years ago, that’s when I first noticed it.

    • Stan Hieronymus March 9, 2015 at 8:36 am #

      Fresh Squeezed is a perfect example. Some people (and I am in that camp) agree that the immensely fruity nose adds to a sweet impression, but I’ve talked to plenty who consider it plenty bitter.

      This weekend in Indiana I had Upland Brewing’s session IPA, Campside, and quite liked that it might be described as a miniature IPA. So less alcohol & body, of course, American hop fruitiness (dry hopped with Mosaic and Simcoe), but firmly bitter, dry finish.

    • Gary Gillman March 9, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

      Hi Chris:

      That’s very useful and many thanks for the considered comment! I did have Punk IPA draft tonight (as imported to Toronto) and it had a big PNW hop bouquet and zest against a fairly lean body, I wouldn’t call it sweet though. It was followed by draft Sierra Nevada Pale Ale which did have a richer, malty-sweet body yet all the exquisite hop character the brand is known for. So here the American was sweeter than the British albeit both in the same style and all-malt.

      Good to know the new crop of UK IPA (or what I call APA, same thing at bottom) is all-malt and often ditches the crystal – that will only assist their authenticity and bring things back really to what they were in England in the early 1800’s when ales were all-malt and all pale malt, too.

      I would think any residual difference between American and English IPAs is really in the degree to which aroma is bruited over bitterness in the body. This is a trend here lately as Jeff noted in his blog entry noted above. Frankly I prefer the best of both worlds: very assertive hopping in the both taste and aroma!


  4. Gary Gillman March 9, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    Some of the new crop of IPAs may seem sweeter because latterly the hopping stresses the aroma component more than flavour-bitterness, but once again the richness of American IPA in general is down to the all-malt tradition which became approved practice under the influence of Anchor, all grain homebrewing, the perceived importance of the German Pure Beer Law, etc. When you compare a 4% British bitter with 15-20% sugars against an all-malt, minimum 1050 OG American pale ale, the differences are immediate and obvious. I can’t speak for the new generation of American-inspired IPAs however, Punk IPA is a good example (a local beer has it on draught, I’ll try it tonight). If this new crop is using all-malt as a general practice, then the extra sweetness of American beer may principally be down to the recent trend of stressing aroma hopping over bitterness in the body, the British versions of APA may be following in other words the older American ones which were quite bitter in the body.


  5. Gary Gillman March 9, 2015 at 9:05 am #

    Local bar, I meant.

  6. Alan March 9, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    Maybe this use of sweetness is auphemism for another euphemism – juicy. Bengali Tiger is a very juicy and hoppy IPA which does, as GG says, trade on the residual sweetness a higher strength beer offers but also relies on hops which emulate sweet things, too. Hard to build, for example, an IPA around South Pacific tropical fruit salad hopping without at least emulating fruit salad.

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