Is it possible to go too bitter? No. Bitter's the name of the Double IPA game. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019
STORY / Beau Forbes
Hi there, do you enjoy the smell of America? Of sweet, beery FREEDOM? It’s a combination of Pot and Eagle tears. It’s grapefruit skin and a pine tree you just cut down yourself using gumption instead of a saw, tropical fruit being poured into your mouth by Abraham Lincoln from the top of a Hawaiian waterfall.
Do you even know what that means? (I don’t.) So let’s try this: What does freedom mean in terms of American craft beer? If any beer personifies craft beer in America, it’s not IPA, which has historical precedent. It is Double IPA.
A BITTER-FREE HISTORY
In the nascent days of American craft brewing, freedom to brew meant anything that wasn’t a pale lager. And so cutting-edge 1980s craft brewers across the land came forth with...amber lagers! And things were better, but eventually the 1990s came, and craft beer meant something more—something bigger, meaner, HOPPIER. More (cue ’90s graphics) XTREME. Something uncompromising and unconcerned about being a “gateway” beer for someone growing up from the same lager their dads drank. Something bold and new instead of safe and ordinary. Double IPA was like nothing anyone had ever had before. It had as many hops as a Rob Liefeld character had pouches for ammunition. In other words, too MUCH for the mainstream.
The Double IPA, or DIPA from here on out, is an all-American 1990s baby, born in the era of the Macarena and Beanie Babies; Americans tasted some of those first DIPAs while rocking fanny packs and using dial-up internet. The style was actually invented around the same time by two West Coast brewers: John Maier, longtime brewmaster at Rogue Ales in Oregon, and Vinnie Cilurzo, founder of Russian River Brewing Company in Northern California and creator of the legendary Pliny the Elder. Both say they wondered how far they could push IPA, and then pushed it further than that. Pliny the Elder and Rogue’s ‘IIPA’ (which stands for Imperial IPA, another way of saying super big) emerged from the void as a 90 IBU, 8% ABV monsters at a time when most people couldn’t conceive of beer being past 15 IBUs and 5% ABV. Those two beers started a trend that would forever change American craft brewing. Soon everyone was making beer as big and as bitter as they possibly could.
THE LUPULIN THRESHOLD SHIFT COMETH*
For a while there with Double IPAs, things got out of hand (but that’s the whole point). Once the craft beer community fell in love with DIPAs, they REALLY fell in love with DIPAs. The question became: How big can we go? How hoppy, how flavorful, and how BITTER can we make a beer? 80 IBUs? 100 IBUs? 1,000 IBUs? Breweries were whipping out IPA bitterness boosts like “Dragon Ball Z” dishes out power upgrades. For a lot of Americans escaping from the bland food culture of the previous fifty-plus years, bitterness was a new flavor sensation, one they had been shielded from their entire lives.
Here’s the thing: Humans can’t really perceive bitterness past 80 IBUs. Anything past that and we likely don’t even notice; we’ve maxed out what our taste buds can handle. Nonetheless, breweries would brew beers with insane IBU counts and then proudly smack numbers on labels to attract a new generation of hopheads. Bitter was “in,” and craft beer rushed to fill this hop flavor vacuum that nature abhorred.
Things have gone in even stranger directions for DIPAs as the years have passed. Black IPAs (dark ales with IPA-level hopping, sometimes brewed with debittered black malt, which lends a darker color and hint of toasty character) became a thing for a while, then white, red, brown, Belgian, and so on. But through it all, DIPA has remained an American staple. If there is one thing that has defined American craft beer, it has been an irrepressible desire to take an existent style of beer and double the hops. Today, Hazy IPA is probably the hottest trend in craft beer, with the most popular examples of that style typically being Double IPA.
Double IPA’s emergence was a landmark in American craft brewing history, and rightfully so: a completely unique and original American style that has inspired brewers the world over instead of the other way around. As American craft beer evolves, DIPAs evolve with it, becoming whatever they need to be and changing the flavor profile as often as they must to stay relevant. If there is one thing that can be said about Double IPAs, it’s that they have never been boring. Brewing DIPA is always on the cutting edge of style and technical excellence. DIPA is a style that is truly easy to make and difficult to master, and nothing about that looks to change.
Finally, there is one immutable rule about DIPA drinking that should always be followed: Drink it as fresh as possible. These beers don’t stay at their peak long, and when that hop flavor is gone, it’s NEVER coming back. When brewers tell you to “drink fresh,” this is what they mean.
What is a hophead, and where did this term come from? As the old-timey cop would say, “That marijuana is turning all the teenage kids in this neighborhood into Hop Heads!” (The term “Hophead” was used most famously in the legendary, and legendarily bad, 1936 antidrug film Reefer Madness.) Hops and marijuana are cousins in the plant family Cannabaceae and are broadly similar in appearance, hence the term’s likely origin. The word hop was slang for opium; as early as 1915, the term “hop head” referred to an opium (heroin) addict. Today the combined word hophead is still slang for any heavy drug user (typically a heroin or cocaine junkie) but is more commonly used to describe 1) a beer enthusiast in general or 2) a hops-forward beer lover.
A NEW DAY FOR IPA
So, currently in the craft beer world we have two major "intense" IPA style players. There are these huge West Coast IPAs that smack you across the face with their mega bitter hope profiles and high ABVs. And you have the crazy East Coast IPAs (or New England-style IPAs, as they are often called), which are best known for their hazy appearance and juiciness (their easy drinking quality because of the eschewing of bitterness). But what's next for IPAs?
The American Midwest has been making waves lately by brewing a new generation of IPAs that are not as extreme on either malt density or hop bitterness. This IPA style typically has a balanced malt character with depth and complexity AND a hop backbone that is big and bracing. A great example here at Goose Island of this new "emerging coast" is the aptly named Next Coast IPA. Piney hop flavors meet a tropical bouquet from both more commonly used and experimental hops. Add to that a balanced bitterness that blends seamlessly into a smooth medium body with a respectful 40 IBUs and 7% ABV, and you've got a Next Coast IPA.
Want to learn how to brew your own DIPA and taste some of the best commercial examples of the style? We've got you covered.