There are a lot of amazing commercial and home brewed IPAs these days. Unfortunately, there are plenty that miss the mark, by a lot. I see recipes posted on the web and forums that make me shake my head in disbelief. I realized though, there’s a lot that goes into making a good IPA, and it’s not as easy as simply throwing 400lbs of hops at the kettle to paraphrase a commercial brewer. So let’s go over some of the more important steps to brewing a good IPA, and how to fix some of the common mistakes I see.
FYI: This post is geared toward West Coast IPAs. Those that like East Coast IPAs……I’m sorry, but our tastes differ =)
One of the biggest issues I see with IPAs is lack of attenuation. With IPAs, and especially Imperial IPAs, you really need to dry the beer out. Low residual sweetness is one of the most important aspects to a great IPA. Now low residual sweetness should not be confused with low maltiness; you can have a malty beer that isn’t sweet. So how do we fix attenuation issues? If you brew with extract, consider some simple sugar in the recipe to help dry things out, or cut back on the crystal malt. For the all grain brewer, mash low to aid in attenuation. Finally pitch plenty of healthy yeast to take the beer to the finish line. I don’t want to throw out specific numbers because it can really vary based on recipe, but shoot for under 1.015 or so, with around 1.012 being ideal. Don’t use those figures as hard and fast rules, as there are plenty of exceptions. Let your taste buds be your guide.
Another huge issue with both commercial and home brewed IPAs is the malt bill. 15+% crystal malt in general, is NOT OK for an IPA. I don’t use that much crystal malt in my American Amber Ale. IPAs are supposed to be a showcase of hops, so keep the malt bill simple. It should be a platform to build off of, not a pool filled with caramel. With that said, crystal malt can be nice in an IPA if you show restraint. I find 4-5% adds a nice character to the typical IPA. Additionally, specialty malts that have a bready, crackery, or biscuity quality are often really nice. Victory, Biscuit, Munich, and Vienna can all lend a really nice flavor, again, providing you show restraint in their use. Nothing about the malt character in the beer should be strong or assertive, just supportive.
Yeast selection is something that no one ever really gets ‘wrong’, but there’s more to the American IPA than just California Ale yeast. I have nothing against California Ale yeast; I love that yeast dearly. It makes a fantastic IPA, but variety is the spice of life. You’ll see that a very large percentage of extremely popular commercial IPAs use English yeasts. It turns out that subtle English esters meld with American, citrusy hops, and give a tropical fruit like quality to IPAs. Personally I find the flavors fantastic. Bell’s, Firestone Walker, Three Floyds, Surly, Deschutes, Stone, and Four Peaks all use English yeasts in their IPAs. Coincidentally, they all make amazing IPAs. Now, don’t assume you can just grab WLP002, mash at 152 and ferment at 70*, as you’ll have an overly sweet, ester-laden beer.
If you want to use an English yeast for an American IPA, you have to take it into account in your recipe formulation. Mash low, to account for the lower attenuation. You’ll possibly need to adjust your grain bill to include less dextrines as well. Also, plan to ferment cooler. 64-66* for most English yeasts produces a rather clean ester profile. It’ll still have more character than Cali-Ale yeast, but it won’t taste like an ‘English’ beer after you throw a bunch of American hops at it.
Ah, the hops! This problem is the one that absolutely baffles me. It takes hops to make an IPA people; a fucking ton of hops. I see so many IPA recipes that use 3-4oz of hops in a 6 gallon batch. If you aren’t using 3-4lbs/bbl of hops in a west-coast IPA, you aren’t using anywhere near enough hops. That’s between 9 and 13oz. Yes, that’s a ton of hops, and yes it can be expensive to brew an IPA.
The second huge issue with hopping is lack of dry hops. Again, I see beers with a paltry 1oz of dry hops added to a 7.0% ABV west-coast IPA. I also see clone recipes with 1oz of dry hops, where the commercial beer has a massive dry-hop character. That simply won’t get the job done. Most commercial brewer’s that are brewing world-class IPAs are using at least 1lb/bbl of dry hops. That’s 3oz in a 6 gallon batch, and that’s the starting point. Anywhere between 1 to 2lbs/bbl is where you should be. Yes, that means up to 6oz of dry hops. That may sound absurd to some, but it’s the reality of the modern West Coast IPA.
The hops themselves leave tons of room for interpretation, as do hopping schedules. I think the only ‘key’ worth mentioning here is to use a super high alpha acid hop for the bittering addition. This allows you to use a smaller quantity of hop to achieve the same level of bitterness. It really helps cut down the vegetal character that you can get from cooking a lot of hops for a long period of time. Warrior, Magnum, CTZ, Summit, Apollo, and Bravo are all great candidates.
How it all plays together
Lastly, you have to pay attention to how all the elements of your recipe play together. I hate the word balance when referring to IPAs, as that’s not what we’re looking to achieve. We’re looking for the best possible drink-ability in a very unbalanced beer. It’s all about finding a middle ground with your yeast, malt bill, attenuation, and hopping.
For example, if you want to use a simple malt bill in a beer with a lot of bitterness, an English yeast can help round things out nicely. But in a beer with lots of specialty malts, an English yeast might be too much, making Cali Ale yeast the better option. If you bitter the bejesus out of the beer, some crystal malt, or dextrines can help keep the beer drinkable.
The point being, if you’re going to turn one component of the recipe up to 11, you might want to back down on another component to help ‘balance’ it. But for the love of all that is holy, don’t add too much crystal malt, and please, pile on the hops. If you ever stop and think, this seems like too much hop, then you might be getting close!