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How to Brew a Better IPA

Posted by rdc4687 on 1/24/2015 at 11:54:31 AM


After posting this on, it was suggested to post this here.  I hope you enjoy! Feedback is always appreciated.

IPA's and pale ales are my favorite styles of beer. In 3 years of brewing, over half of my brews have been in these categories. Luckily, my wife feels the same about the style and actually demands either a pale ale or IPA be on tap at all time. I know, it's a rough life. We frequent local breweries and festivals to sample a variety of beers, but I am constantly comparing my IPA's to the ones I purchase. I am usually disappointed that mine tend to fall just short of majority of these. Perhaps I am too critical of my own work, but nothing I made seemed to be on par.

To further describe what I mean by my beers falling short of "the mark", think of your favorite "commercial" IPA. Personally, I love West coast IPA's. Even though I am on the East coast, they are readily available. Foothill's Hoppyium and Jade IPA, Olde Hickory's Death by Hops, Wicked Weed's Freak of Nature, and Triple C's 3C IPA are some of my favorite. When you drink one of these beers, you are launched on a hop roller coaster from start to finish. The aroma is apparent immediately, a face full of hop flavor after the first sip, smooth bitterness on the back of your tongue. Even once you swallow the beer, your mouth is coated with the pleasant lingering of hop flavor. Even still, when you burp as you often do drinking beer, you may experience another blast of flavor and aroma from your belch. You may think I am kidding, but I am not. I love "hop burps". It is almost refreshing, like your first breath after using mouthwash.

My beers were certainly IPA's, but nothing like what I just described. The aroma was there, but was faint. The bitterness was more astringent. The flavor was there, but fell off in seconds. No lingering, no hop burps, just plain. So how can I brew a beer that is so deliciously packed full of hop aroma, flavor and bitterness that I end up with the "hop burps"? It has not been easy to achieve, but I believe I have crafted beers that could stand up against many of my favorites.

So, what have I learned as a home brewer to improve making this style? A lot. Sorry for the wall of text, but here goes nothing.

1 Hops.
The cornerstone of any pale ale or IPA. All different kinds of hops can give totally different bittering, aroma, and flavor characteristics. We all know this. We also know some hops are better than others at imparting smooth bitterness or strong aromas. But it does take time to discover the combinations that you like. General guidelines I follow:

  • Pick one or two flavor characteristics and stick with it. (Citrus and floral, piney and spicy, or just citrus/piney are just a few examples.) Some favorites are Citra and Amarillo, Simcoe and Centennial/cascade, and Columbus and Chinook. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, but try this out until you get a better idea of what you like.

  • High alpha acid hops are usually best for bittering. But don't be afraid to use them to dry hop or impart flavor. Columbus is one of my favorite hops to dry hop with. Alternately, low AA hops like cascade can be an excellent choice for a bittering hop for some.

  • First Wort hopping. I almost always split by bitter addition between FWH and the 60 min mark. It give a much smoother bittering flavor. So if you plan on using 1oz for bittering, try .5 FWH and .5 at 60.

  • HUGE late additions. Fuck the 45 and 30 min additions. I use 90% of my hops at 15mins and under. Usually 10 and under. In a ten gallon batch I may add 2oz at 15, 2oz at 10, 4oz at 5, and 6oz at flame out. A lot of brewers are now using a "no-boil" method for IPA's, so only FWH and flame out additions.

  • Hop bursting. As sub section of big late additions, hop bursting is an excellent example of this. Imagine a 100 IBU beer with only 10-15 ibu's coming from the bittering hop, and the rest coming from the last 15 mins of the boil. I used 2.2lbs of hops in a 10gal beer using this method. It was amazing.

  • Hop Stand/ whirl pool/ hop back. Huge late additions are a total waste of money if you do not let the hops impart their flavor and aroma. Without getting into the technicalities of these methods, in any set-up you can get the most out of your late additions by just WAITING. Don't freak out when you stop the boil "oh my god I am going to get an infection if I don't cool it and transfer it immediately!" Give it the occasional stir and just let it sit for 20 mins. You will thank me later.

  • Dry hopping. Duh. But how can you get the most out of dry hopping? Try staggered dry hopping. Even up to 3 different 4 day periods. Try dry hopping toward the end of fermentation. The aroma can change by dry hopping a beer that is still fermenting. I am also a HUGE fan of dry hopping in the keg. I use nylon bags and just let them float in the keg. It can give a subtle fresh aroma that can last through the whole keg without imparting off- flavors.

2 Grain.
While less important than hops, grain cannot be ignored. Depending on the style of IPA you wish to make, the grain bill will likely vary a lot. So I will just a few things:

  • Dude, easy on the caramel/crystal. An IPA should not taste like a sour patch kid. Bitterness and a cloyingly sweet finish. Seriously, 5% or less of the grain. "But DrNafario if I do that, my beer won't have any malt flavor or mouthfeel." Wrong.

  • Which brings me to my next point. Feel free to use an alternate base grain to add maltiness or mouthfeel. I find a small percentage of most german base malts are perfect for this. 10-20% of Vienna, Munich or even British Marris Otter will do wonders for the flavor and mouthfeel without masking hop flavor with sweetness.

  • Dextrine malt. Adding 2-4% of carapils goes a LONG way. Head retention is a big deal in a hop-forward beer. Bubbles burst and release the wonderful aromas that may otherwise be trapped in your beer.

  • Do NOT use random recipes to create an IPA of that style. Just because you brewed an awesome red ale, does not mean the same grain bill will work for a red IPA. A good stout does not make a good black IPA, etc. This goes back to the first point. Sweeter ales usually do not blend will with hop forward beers.

3 Yeast.
California I Ale yeast. Seriously. It is a no brainer for any IPA style. It is very clean and will accentuate the hops. Tired of Cal I? Try any other high attenuating, dry, clean yeast. Pacific Coast, Headwaters, Cal V, English, British, San Diego, and East coast are some good choices. However, some of these will give off more fruity esters which I find distracting. In sumation, Cal I.

4 Water.
I was very resistant to diving into water chemistry. Pun aside, every time I read about it I just wanted to go chug a beer. Finally with the help of a fellow home brewer, I adjusted the water on a simple brown ale. Wow. It really does make a difference. I will just scratch the surface of this topic for the purpose of this style.

  • Sulfates aid your beer in retaining hop character. For me this was the missing link. Gypsum is dirt cheap and it only takes a little to get huge results.

  • $25 bucks will get you a brewing water test for a baseline, or look it up online for your area. Worst case,assume you have distilled water as a baseline build your water from purchased distilled water.

  • Look up some hoppy beer water profiles, use your base line, and add enough Gypsum to get to about 200ppm of sulfates. CaCl will also help by boosting calcium content.

Don't believe me? Ask Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River, brewer of Pliny the Elder:

"Adding sulfate via gypsum in both your mash and boil is a great way to get more hop character out of your beer. The calcium also aids in a healthy mash and in yeast flocculation. This can be beneficial for dry hopping, since you can achieve less yeast in the beer while the dry hops are in contact with your beer."

5 In general.
No one thing will suddenly make your beer great. Just like brewing in general, it is the culmination of everything.

  • Don't let IBU calculations stop you. A range of things like contact time, temperature, and boil gravity have an impact of the utilization of a hop. It may tell you this beer is going to be 110 Ibu's, but really it ends up being more like 60. Experiment with how your own perceived bitterness compares to the calculated and adjust accordingly. I just brewed a beer rated at 220IBU, but tastes more like 90.

  • Don't stress about the "style" or category it fits into. "Is this a pale ale? IPA? Double IPA? or Imperial IPA?" Well shit I have 46Ibu's so I guess I am in the IPA category, but it only has 4.9% ABV… It's your beer call it what you want. Even if you are submitting it for judging, do you really think they can tell if it has 40 vs 60 IBU? What does it taste like to you?

  • As with all beer, control your fermentation temps. Esters are sometimes desired in IPA's, but the smell and taste of banana's are not.

  • Use whirlflock tabs or irish moss to help with the break. If you IPA tastes good, better make it look good too.

  • Buy hops in bulk. Save yourself some money. Seal them up and freeze them in between brew sessions. When you have accumulated a bunch of left overs, combine them all in to super awesome crazy IPA.

  • Use a hop spider. It is just easier and cleaner. Wont clog pumps or siphons and will keep the trub to a minimal level. You can also dunk it up and down during the hop stand for better aroma.

  • Drink it fresh! but not too early. IPA's benefit from a good cold conditioning.

  • ENJOY YOUR WORK! and don't be so self critical, it is more fun that way.

Hopefully this is helpful to some of the newer brewers, and maybe even some of the advanced brewers. These are just the things I have picked up on the way in trying to brew the best IPA's I can. I would love to provide some input for your recipes and will be glad to share some of mine. Thanks to everyone who has helped me in the past from/r/homebrewing[1] .

Edit: formatting 

Edit 2: Changed comment about water baseline. Thanks u/sufferingcubsfan.

Tags for this post: IPA, pale ale, FWH, hop burst, hop stand, west coast

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I like it now as well!

The only thing I "disagree" on is the yeast section, tons of yeast alternatives than California I Ale yeast, especially for English IPAs or Belgian IPAs. Yeast is such an important variable, I feel like you could have spent more time talking about it.

Great post man, hope to see more sometime! I'd love to have a "walkthrough" type deal of you formulating an IPA recipe and then making it.

posted by UnsungSavior16 on 1/26/2015 at 11:43:25 AM

I am with @UnsungSavior16 on yeast. Many of the craft brewers making highly-lauded and sought after American IPAs use yeasts other than Chico. Some notable examples include Firestone Walker, Stone, Port, and The Alchemist.

Other than that, great write-up!

posted by chino_brews on 1/26/2015 at 03:46:36 PM

Solid advice, to be sure, but..

I hate Chico, boring as all get-out. The other recommendations are, IMO, a better bet. Also... TYB VERMONT!

I'm also not convinced Irish Moss makes for a clearer beer, I suppose an xBmt is warranted.

Nice article. Cheers!

posted by brulosopher on 1/26/2015 at 04:40:20 PM

I do use a lot of yeast other than Cal I. After many recommendations, I went ahead and ordered some Vermont yeast. I am still sticking to my guns though. Boring or not, for most situations, it will deliver. Again that is my opinion (as is this entire article). I do look forward to trying the Vermont.

About the irish moss, I only said that because I wasnt sure if everyone knew what Whirlflock tabs were. It does make a difference IMO, but is pointless if you use gelatin.

Lastly, I really like your work brulosopher. I'd love to toss some ideas for an xBmt.

posted by rdc4687 on 1/26/2015 at 06:50:54 PM