On beer drinkers obsssion with Pliny the Younger, triple IPAs and extra hoppy brews
February has become de facto triple IPA season in Sacramento and throughout California.
About 15 years ago, something happened to the IPA: The most popular beer style in America became 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.
But now, even this high-alcohol, robustly hopped style is being outdone by another: the triple IPA, currently one of the hottest things bubbling in local brew kettles.
Locally, Auburn Alehouse, Device, Knee Deep, Track 7, Sudwerk, Out of Bounds and Berryessa, among others, have all brewed triple IPAs. More than a few are available this week, as midwinter has become the de facto triple IPA season.
“If you trace it backward, you see Pliny the Younger being released for a short time each February,” said Jeremy Warren, the founder of Knee Deep Brewing Co. who is now launching a new brewery called Revision Brewing Co. “Knee Deep was one of the first breweries to do a year-round triple IPA, and in the last few years, we’ve seen more and more on the market.”
And why shouldn’t there be? Aggressively hopped, almost wine-strength palate-burners are about the easiest sell there is in California’s hop-crazed beer market.
Warren says he plans to make hop-forward IPAs, including doubles and triples, the foundation of business at Revision when the company first opens, which should be late this summer or fall.
At Device Brewing Co., owner Ken Anthony says his triple IPA, a popular beer named Basilica, only amounts to about 5 percent of the brewery’s production volume. However, the brewery depends on it. “Part of our reputation has been built on that beer,” he said.
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 triples (not to be confused with the “tripel,” a Belgian style) measure 10 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 beer’s alpha acid content in parts per million.
While traditional IPAs are the backbone of many breweries’ inventories, triple IPAs 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 costly to buy in the increasingly crowded beer market. On top of that, these ingredients act like a sponge, clinging to the beer at the bottom of the fermenting vat and substantially cutting the volume that ultimately goes to keg, can or bottle.
“We lose about two barrels from each seven-barrel batch [of triple IPA],” Anthony said. “It’s really bad. It’s a ridiculously impractical style to make.”
Chris Reeve, a brewer at Knee Deep, which makes a triple IPA called Simtra and another called Hoparillo, says he is considering investing in a centrifuge to squeeze all the beer possible out of these sludgy dregs. “That could get us 5 to 10 percent better yields with each batch,” he said.
Though lots of high-octane beer is going down the drain, plenty is reaching local tap lines and retail shelves—especially right now, as breweries jockey to enter their triple IPAs into such events as the IPA, Specialty IPA and Anything Goes Invitational + Competition, scheduled for February 28 at the Track 7’s Natomas taproom. The 16th annual Double/Triple IPA Festival at The Bistro, in Hayward, took place on February 6.
Ryan Graham, owner of Track 7, says his event will showcase what he considers the most elegant, sophisticated, smartest interpretations of the IPA. He notes that out-of-control hop-bomb beers were particularly trendy several years ago, when Flying Monkeys Brewery, of Ontario, and Mikkeller, based in Copenhagen, 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 level.
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.
In fact, scorching bitterness may even be falling out of favor. “Overly bitter beers aren’t what people want anymore,” Warren said. “Nor are they acceptable. People want great aroma with great flavor.”
Making such a well-balanced triple IPA isn’t easy, though. Reeve says balancing sweetness, booziness and bitterness is the key. “But that gets harder and harder to do the bigger a beer is,” said Reeve, who also makes a quadruple IPA of 13 percent ABV called Hop-D-Ranged. “At those high alcohol levels, you’re at the behest of the yeast, and you can’t always predict whether the yeast will want to make all the sugar we offer it into alcohol or not.”
Santa Rosa beer writer Mario Rubio, author of the blog Brewed for Thought, believes hops, and IPAs, are so appealing to beer drinkers because they are such an easily identifiable flavor. “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.”</p? <p>Rubio says newly developed hop varieties contain lots of aroma without the bitterness, a plus for brewers making triple IPAs. “You can get into the realm of 11-percent IPAs without that searing, resinous bitterness that can really burn you out,” he said. However, he adds, residual sugar can become a problem the higher a beer’s alcohol level is.
“You have a certain fraction of sugar that doesn’t ferment, so when you get up to 10- and 11-percent beers, that sugar starts to get cloying,” he said.
The craft beer industry is booming. Nationally, there are more than 4,000 breweries. California alone has more than 600—and not surprisingly, most of these breweries want to make IPAs. That seems like a good thing for hopheads—but it might not be at all.
Warren says competition for hops is escalating. “Availability is getting tight,” he said. This is especially so for the most coveted, most aromatic new hop varieties on the market, such as citra, equinox and mosaic. Warren says he is lucky and has made contract agreements to buy enough hops to keep his brew vats full for the next five years. “That’s because I have existing relationships [with suppliers],” he said.
Newer breweries without secure buying arrangements may need to sign onto waiting lists for when—and if—large breweries wind up with more than they need.
Device, like Revision, has hop contracts. However, the brewery is growing rapidly, which means Anthony may not be able to buy enough hops to scale up production of all his beers. Some brews will need to get cut, Anthony says, and first to get the ax may be the beloved triple IPA Basilica.
“We make it year-round right now, but the way things are going, we may be put into a position where we have to make it on a seasonal basis,” he said.