Hop headbangers

Turning up the volume with triple IPAs

About 15 years ago, something began to happen to the India Pale Ale, or IPA: The most popular beer style in America began getting bigger. The change was subtle at first, but eventually the boosted alcohol and hop levels were substantial enough to merit recognizing a new style of beer—the imperial, or double, IPA.

Now, even this high-alcohol, robustly hopped style is being outdone by another—the triple IPA, currently one of the hottest things bubbling in American brew kettles. Sierra Nevada, Knee Deep, Device, Track 7 and many other breweries are all making triple IPAs.

These aggressively hopped, almost wine-strength palate-burners are about the easiest sell there is in California’s hop-crazed beer market. Jeremy Warren, the founder of Knee Deep Brewing Co. in Auburn, says he plans to make hop-forward IPAs the foundation of business at a new brewery, called Revision Brewing Co., which should be open in late summer or fall.

Triple IPAs are nothing new in concept; they simply contain more of everything that makes IPAs so popular—namely ethanol and alpha acid, the bittering component in hops. Most triple IPAs measure 10 percent to 12 percent alcohol by volume and range at the very top of the detectable bitterness scale, generally containing 100 to 120 international bittering units. IBUs, as they’re usually called, are a measurement of a beer’s alpha acid content in parts per million.

While traditional IPAs—and even double IPAs—are currently the backbone of many breweries’ inventories, triples often come in small-batch, seasonal releases. That’s because, for many breweries, they are too expensive to brew regularly. They require large quantities of barley and hops, both of which are costly to buy in the increasingly crowded beer market.

“You also get really high beer loss, which adds to the expense of the beer,” said Steve Dresler, brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. He explained that the large amounts of ingredients used to make a batch of double or triple IPA act like a sponge, soaking up the beer and reducing the amount of liquid that makes it to the keg, can or bottle. “If you’re adding hop pellets or dry hops, you can get 25 to 30 percent beer loss.”

Sierra Nevada’s Hoptimum is billed an “imperial” IPA but at 10.4 percent ABV it certainly falls into the defining limits of a triple IPA, Dresler says.

Bigger may be better to a point in the land of IPAs, but eventually, big is just dumb. Ryan Graham, owner of Track 7 Brewing Co., says he appreciates double and triple IPAs made with some degree of restraint, elegance and balance. He says out-of-control hop-bomb beers were particularly trendy several years ago, when Flying Monkeys Craft Brewery, of Ontario, and Mikkeller, based in Denmark, both released beers containing more than 2,000 IBUs—both arguably stupid beers, since humans can reportedly not detect a change in bitterness much past the 100 IBU level.

The flavor of hops, though, is very distinct, and this, says Santa Rosa beer writer Mario Rubio, author of the blog Brewed for Thought, is why IPAs are so widely appealing.

“They’re very seductive to the new beer drinker, because you don’t have to be familiar with beer to know if something is hoppy,” he said. “It’s really easy for that to amplify—you like something, so you want more of it.”

Graham feels that more recently, brewers of even the heaviest-hitting IPAs have found ways to impart restraint, balance and subtlety to the style. After all, he says, there can be a lot more to triple IPAs than just bitterness and booze.

“Making these beers is about balancing the hops you use, not just getting a huge IBU count,” Graham said.