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Brewers Turn Towards Brut IPAs

The newest trend in IPAs is inspired by Champagne. | Photo by Kelly Puleio.

Over his couple-decade career, Drake’s Brewing brewmaster John Gillooly has brewed boatloads of hoppy beer, encompassing IPAs—black and white, session and imperial, juicy and, well, you get the picture. “We’re a hop-forward brewery, so we’re interested in putting hops into all sorts of different expressions,” Gillooly says of the San Francisco Bay Area brewery.

But none of his pale ales and IPAs exited kegs with the velocity of Trocken. The Riesling-inspired crusher, introduced last winter, was way pale, seltzer-fizzy and drier than deadpan humor, yet retained a New England IPA’s aromatic explosion. “It was one of our fastest-selling one-offs ever,” he says.

It was an early try at a brut IPA, a budding style that relies upon a brewing enzyme to eliminate a beer’s residual malt sweetness. Consider it a counterpoint to murky haze and lactose lushness, a clear and dry morning after a sugary reign. “It feels like an actual evolution,” Gillooly says.

The foggy, juicy New England IPA has broken regional moorings to become an international object of desire, leading to long lines whenever breweries sell fresh cans. The West Coast IPA, bitterly amped and citrus spritzed, was no longer king of the thrill. Instead, the opaque New England upstart, barely bitter and laden with the latest fruity hop varietals, filled glasses and Instagram feeds.

Beer fads, however, are as sticky as knock-off Scotch tape. Which brings us to the brut IPA. Taking its name from brut, one of the driest Champagne classifications, the IPA has become the hottest tinder fanning the hop fires. “This is the latest whack in the volley of style development and reaction of one against the other, and building on what’s come before,” says Brewing Eclectic IPA author Dick Cantwell, Magnolia Brewing’s head of brewing operations.

A year ago, brut IPA was San Francisco brewpub Social Kitchen & Brewery’s thought experiment made really, really drinkable. Now, it’s become a viral rejoinder to the hazy IPA’s blob-like spread, rapidly dispersing from Bay Area breweries to beer makers worldwide. Instead of listing every tiny brewery making a brut IPA, I’ll tell you what’s fascinating: Minnesota’s Surly Brewing is making one. Boston’s Sam Adams has brewed several. New Belgium, Devils Backbone and Boulevard are also fiddling with the nascent style. No longer do trends slowly carbonate. They’re full fizz from the start. “I’ve been brewing for a long time, and I’ve never seen something become so ubiquitous, so quickly,” Gillooly says.

Later, Sweetie

Social Kitchen brewmaster Kim Sturdavant evaluates a brew. | Photo by Kelly Puleio.

Beer styles constantly mutate, none more so than the India pale ale. It emerged centuries ago, an outgrowth of British brewers preventing spoilage with lavish hopping. The byproduct—bitterness—became a defining trait, weaponized by modern American brewers battling big beer and, later, each other.

The sweetly malty East Coast IPA gave way to drier West Coast versions, which doubled up hops and alcohol. In time, IPAs were soured, smoothed with wheat, infused with grapefruit, hit with habaneros and, at last, turned as cloudy and juicy as a glass of OJ, fruit purée amplifying the effect. “There are a lot of times I go to a bar and I just want the beer-flavored beer,” says Social Kitchen brewmaster Kim Sturdavant. He’s seen new-school IPAs colonize Bay Area tap lists and consumer demand. “Right now, people go into a bar and they’re like, ‘Do you have any hazies?’ ”

Sturdavant has never been a trend chaser, preferring to stake tasty new terrain. Several years ago, he brewed a triple IPA and, to lessen sweetness and amp approachability, added amylase enzyme. “It basically turns everything into glucose,” he says. Yeast devours easily digestible sugars, giving saccharinity the heave-ho. This lit up Sturdavant’s brain like a Roman candle. What if he plunked the enzyme into a standard-strength IPA to create a dry, effervescent beer as pale as a teenage goth?

Last November he released Hop Champagne, calling the IPA an “extra brut”—the second-driest Champagne classification. “I didn’t make this beer as a reaction to the hazy beers, but rather as a cool alternative,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to take the IPA championship belt back to the West Coast.”

Maybe so, but you just can’t put a beer back in the keg. Fellow brewers from Cellarmaker, Triple Voodoo and Magnolia visited Social Kitchen to sample his invention. “They were like, ‘This is really cool. Mind if I make one?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. If we all call it the same thing and keep it consistent, maybe it will become a trend,’ ” he recalls.

Creating a style required codification, so Sturdavant set three rules: A brut IPA should be as light as possible, bone-dry (aided by the enzyme) and taste really delicious. He shared his methodology (and a growler) with his colleagues at a San Francisco Brewers Guild meeting, the brut IPA an open book for anyone to insert another page. “The spirit of the way he shared it was so good that people wanted to be a part of it,” says Magnolia’s Cantwell.

At Magnolia, brut IPAs are a plaything as malleable as Play-Doh. The experimental Bombay Bubbles contained corn to further lighten body and color, with Citra hops providing tropical pop. The brisk Bombay Brut takes a citrusy and melon-like approach, while Bombay Blush incorporates Pinot Noir grapes. “Beyond an outgrowth of the New England IPA, it’s more of a quasi-parallel development, as I see it,” Cantwell says.

Among certain West Coast brewers, hazy IPAs were a hard sell verging on heresy. Haze traditionally signified flaws, not high art. “You can’t underestimate the number of old-school brewers disgusted by New England IPAs,” Gillooly says. “The first time we did one, we kind of gave ourselves the fish eye.”

A fellow Drake’s employee introduced Gillooly to the brut IPA, which resonated with his brewing philosophy. “At Drake’s, we like to keep our beers on the dry side,” he says. His first brut IPA, Trocken (German for “dry”), was so well received that he set about perfecting the style’s tightrope strut.

A Brut IPA at Social Kitchen. | Photo by Kelly Puleio.

He added hops late in the brewing process, where they contribute aroma and flavor, not bitterness. “They have to be less bitter because you have no balancing sweetness,” he says. “If you throw 70 IBUs at the beer, it’ll just be hop water.” After numerous trials, the Drake’s crew cracked the code for the rice-lightened Brightside, a highly effervescent, fragrant beer reminiscent of citrus, pine and white grape skins. It was bottled in August, the first brut IPA to see broad distribution—a scant nine months after Social Kitchen’s Hop Champagne. Too soon? “We’ll be a good test monkey,” Gillooly says.

Bubbling Up

Beers once evolved slowly and organically, a product of agricultural availability, native yeasts and know-how. The rise of the internet, in particular Twitter and Instagram, means information and ideas spread faster than fighter jets, everything amplified by a fear of missing out on the next new thing. “I read an article on brut IPA not long ago and I got a little bit of a ‘whoa’ factor,” says Michael Memsic, co-founder of Boulder, Colorado’s Sanitas Brewing. He observed hazy IPAs’ ascent from the sidelines, consciously avoiding the juicy fray. “We’re unofficially, or officially, anti–New England IPA,” he says.

Sanitas isn’t allergic to experimentation. It packs sour wheat ales with peaches and seasons stouts with cinnamon sticks. Hazy IPAs just cut against his core, the style “not true to beer.” Brut IPAs, though, better align with his brewery’s ethos—a regular IPA, just on an enzymatic diet. This summer, Sanitas released a brut IPA seasoned with Germany’s honeydew-scented Huell Melon hops. It was consistently a top taproom seller, a promising harbinger for the future. “If it’s a style that continues to turn into a trend, cool, then we’re at the forefront,” he says.

There’s company ahead of the curve. Tiptoe through Untappd, an app for rating and registering beer, and you’ll spy scores of brut IPAs sporting fanciful puns. Michigan’s Lansing Brewing made Sham Pain Brut IPA, and San Diego’s Groundswell did the Christal Extra Brut IPA. Arbor, Rohrbach, Tampa Bay and Iowa have all released—wait for it, Guardians of the Galaxy fans—I Am Broot.

This winter, Surly Brewing Co. will enter the brut ring with Liquid Stardust Sparkling IPA. Surly started playing with amylase enzymes in late 2015 because its on-premise liquor license permits only beer sales. “People renting out the space always request Champagne,” director of brand development Bill Manley says of weddings and New Year’s Eve parties. So brewers fashioned Frisson, a drily fizzy strong lager fit for flutes. Its success (Frisson is a beer-hall best seller) inspired more experimentation and led to the enzyme-aided IPA dubbed DAF—Dry as F*ck.

The IPA was well received, even though the elevated bitterness somewhat clashed with the dry character. “The more we started thinking about it, the more we saw that there were lessons to be learned from hazy IPAs,” Manley says. Low bitterness and mammoth fruitiness increased the style’s user-friendliness, but the sweetness and round, juicy mouthfeel discouraged from drinking, say, a six-pack. “You’re trying to find all the things that are really exciting and accessible about New England IPAs, but adding that extra factor of drinkability and a different mouthfeel,” he says, “that was really attractive.”

Rich Ferrell from Sam Adams. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

Those epiphanies paved a path to Liquid Stardust, sold in Surly’s winter variety pack. From conception to canning, the whole process was on fast forward. “Brewers are looking at the market getting tougher and realizing they need to be proactive,” Manley says. “You need to be out in front with what people want.”

Hazy IPAs’ popularity is partly fueled by its ephemerality. Drink fresh! Drink now! Packaging-focused breweries, especially ones with large distribution footprints, struggled to decode shelf stability for beers filled with floating matter such as yeast and hops.

Rich Ferrell was part of a Sam Adams team that brewed 30 or 40 test batches of what became its New England IPA, pushing and pulling every conceivable brewing lever. “It was a huge challenge,” says Ferrell, the head brewer at Sam Adams Boston Brewery.

There’s no coasting on successes nowadays. After reading about brut IPA, Ferrell brewed several variations. His 10-barrel batches—not a small amount of liquid—vanished in mere weeks. “With a New England IPA, you can maybe have one or two, but a brut IPA is so, so drinkable,” he says. “Brut IPA embraces what made hazy IPAs so accessible while avoiding what is so divisive. It delivers nice hop aroma and flavor but not at the cost of drinkability.”

Ferrell’s brut IPAs, including a rosé version infused with Zinfandel grape juice, remain taproom exclusives. There’s no immediate plan to can or bottle one, although he allows that “brut IPA is more naturally set up to survive in a package.” If the time comes, his recipes and techniques are ready to rock—perceptions, that is. Instead of enzymes, Ferrell used an exhaustive brewing regimen to naturally activate enzymes and break down sugars, letting yeast chomp, chomp, chomp away. So what’s the right way to make brut IPA?

Recipe for Success

The initial stylistic edict from Social Kitchen’s Sturdavant emphasized the use of enzymes and pooh-poohed Champagne yeast, which lends little aroma and flavor and which breweries primarily use to devour sugar in high-ABV beers. Then he read something online about a brewer who used the strain to nix sweetness from his brut IPA. “Maybe it is about Champagne yeast,” Sturdavant recalls thinking, though he hasn’t tried the method himself.

There’s no nicely trod road to brewing a brut. “You have to have your wits about you when you’re brewing them,” says Magnolia’s Cantwell. Much as with making a lighter style such as a pilsner, “there’s no place to hide.”

The task lies in finding an accord between minimal sweetness and maximal aroma and flavor, as well as understanding that adding enzymes can add problems. Sturdavant notes that numerous brut IPAs have had off-flavor issues. “There’s not enough nutrition for the yeast,” he says. Think of chomping on an apple versus slurping apple juice; the former is full of fiber, the latter a sugar-delivery vehicle. When the enzyme creates so much sugar, “yeast might want to eat all of it really fast and then crap out,” Sturdavant says.

To ensure yeast health, he recommends dosing beers with nutrients during brewing and fermentation. “Brewers are used to their yeast working great with regular wort,” he says. “Now we’re delving into another realm.”

Photo by Michael Piazza.

Brewers regularly salvage yeast for reuse. Not so with enzyme-laced beer. “You don’t want to harvest the yeast,” says J.C. Hill, Alvarado Street Brewery’s director of brewing, “because if you pitch it into other beers it will super-attenuate.” (Translation: the yeast will eat more sugar than expected, creating a boozier and drier beer.)

Alvarado Street released Champagne Hopi (a nod to the rapper Drake’s “Champagne Papi” Instagram handle) earlier this year, an experiment for both the brewery and sales team. “I didn’t think it would sell very well, to be honest, because everyone is so into juicy IPAs,” Hill says. The brewery makes no shortage of them, canned fresh and sold fast. But the crisp brut IPA sold, and sold well enough to convince Hill to schedule another. “Being a small brewery, we have the ability to pivot when we need to.”

The last few years have seen numerous brewing pivots, as brand life cycles grow shorter each year. Countless breweries have stapled business models to a hazy shooting star. They’ve expanded to meet rabid demand from packs of juice wolves thirsting for double dry-hopped double IPAs.

Forecasting the future is tricky. There may be plenty of tread left on the hazy tires, but the sole certainty is that every trend will eventually go flat. “As soon as the hazy-hoppy-beer-can trend switches, what are breweries going to put in the cans?” Sturdavant wonders. “Are people still going to come to their place?”

The stakes are high, especially if the brut IPA becomes beer’s next big thing. “Once somebody really has a hit with it, they’re going to be the bellwether for the entire style, really,” Manley says. Think of Founders All Day IPA: It defines the session category.

Or maybe, just maybe, another brewer will have a sparkling inkling to steer the IPA into another new direction. Constellations of flavor, and possibility, exist within those three simple letters. “People ask me what’s next for IPA, but it’s impossible to say,” Cantwell says. “I think people are going to do every possible permutation. There are millions and billions of them. I suppose that would imply an extraterrestrial invention, but as more time passes, there is great beer everywhere.”

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