The IPA has remained one of the most popular and proliferated beer styles in America for the last five to ten years, and while the reasons behind that might be beyond those that still haven’t acquired the taste for hoppy beers, it’s easier to see why, as someone that desires some form of hop-forward beer to be in the fridge at almost all times: there’s actually a ton of variation under the umbrella of “hop-forward ale.” The amount of hop varieties available to brewers these days is greater than ever before, which has broadened the spectrum of aromas and flavors that can be derived from one of the four core ingredients of beer. Not only that, but creative brewers have been innovating with hopping techniques: double dry-hopping and triple dry-hopping can lead to more overt aromatics, and adding large amounts of hops late in the boil and fewer early in the boil leads to softer, more fruit-forward hop flavors. Newer hop varieties have presented brewers with new possibilities as to what flavors can be coaxed out of beer, and using products like lupulin powder can lead to explosive aromas without the more vegetal aspects of dried hops or fresh “wet” hops mixed in. Fruited IPAs, sour IPAs, hoppy variations on sour beer styles, and other deviations from the West Coast style of IPA further illustrate how the style has broadened and acquiesced to the desires of both beer brewer and beer drinker.
So with that much variety, and therefore choice, how is one to assess the landscape of modern IPAs and other hop-forward ales? By tasting some of the most renowned hoppy beers available in Richmond. In order, we tasted Hardywood’s Tropication, Tröegs’ Nugget Nectar, The Veil’s Raindropz, Triple Crossing’s Double Falcon Smash, Ballast Point’s Sculpin, The Answer’s Piece of the Action, Bell’s Hopslam, Hardywood’s Great Return, and The Veil’s Frozen Ocean. The panel was made up of myself, RVA Mag president John Reinhold, RVA Mag beer writer Amy David, and Matt McDonald, the beer buyer for Joe’s Inn, The Broadberry, and The Camel. We felt that bringing in a beer-savvy mind outside of our circle would do some good in providing a different perspective on the state of hop-forward beer, and Matt certainly knows his stuff, which you can tell just from looking at any of his draft lists. John did the work of putting together the panel of beers that we tasted, taking care to include a good amount of local beers, along with a few curveballs in the form of some well-known beers from out-of-town breweries.
We as individual beer drinkers came into the tasting with our own preferences and experiences, which certainly influenced our thoughts on each beer that we sampled. I am a fan of hoppy beers with a lot of aroma, and bitterness that’s not too overwhelming. Citrus and tropical fruit flavors are some of my favorite aspects of hop varieties such as Amarillo, El Dorado, Citra, Galaxy, and Mosaic. John is a big fan of smooth, high ABV IPAs with tropical fruit characteristics, so he’s a Citra and Mosaic enthusiast. Amy is much the same, although she prefers her IPAs easy-drinking and not crazy hoppy — also a proponent of Citra-hopped beers. Matt’s preferences are a little more traditional: big, chewy West Coast IPAs, although he does like brighter, juicer hop character when it comes to double IPAs. His favorite hop is a classic IPA hop, Centennial, prized for its pine and bitter citrus characteristics. With all of that in mind, the difference in our opinions on each beer may still surprise you.
Matt and I ended up liking The Veil’s Frozen Ocean, the last beer of our blind tasting, most. It had basically everything that each of us like in a double IPA — a vibrant aroma bringing to mind tropical fruit in general, and for me, passionfruit in specific. The taste was bright, juicy, and fruit-forward with notes of passionfruit, peach, mango, and virtually no bitterness to speak of. One might have thought Matt might steer more towards Ballast Point’s Sculpin or Hardywood’s Great Return, but he sided with a juicy DIPA. John and Amy ended up enjoying Triple Crossing’s Double Falcon Smash most, which set itself apart with an aroma boasting notes of honey, peach, and subtle floral characteristics. There wasn’t much bitterness to speak of, and we all enjoyed the peach and citrus flavors of the beer, along with the smooth and somewhat rich mouthfeel, and its drier finish. While Amy prefers easy-drinking beers that aren’t overly hoppy, she liked an eight percent double IPA most. While John correctly guessed the identities of Tröeg’s Nugget Nectar (as did I), Ballast Point’s Sculpin, and Bell’s Hopslam, it was a surprise for some panelists to discover that those distinctive beers did not jump out to them during the blind tasting.
Although the three out-of-towners (Nugget Nectar, Sculpin and Hopslam) did not receive uniformly low ratings, the group did favor local beers on average. There a few factors that likely had something to do with this, one being that local beer is almost guaranteed to be fresher than anything from out of town. While there’s nothing unsafe about consuming beer that isn’t fresh, consider the hop. Hop oils, which carry the bittering and aromatic qualities that make hoppy beers hoppy, are fairly volatile. They break down quickly, and the wonderful attributes that they contribute to beer go with them, meaning that a three month-old IPA is not even close to being the same beer that the brewer intended you to experience. Refrigeration of course helps, and there are debates on exactly how fresh an IPA should be (extra green IPAs are considered “hop water” by some), but the bottom line is that hop-forward beers are best fresh.
Another factor to consider, regarding the group’s general favor of the local selections, is the fact that most of them are somewhat stylistically different from the non-locals. The selections from Tröegs, Ballast Point, and Bell’s deliver more aggressive aromatics and flavors, utilizing more traditional hop varieties for the IPA style. Hardywood’s Great Return also has a more traditional American IPA flavor profile. Hardywood’s Tropication, The Veil’s Raindropz and Frozen Ocean, Triple Crossing’s Double Falcon DIPA, and The Answer’s Piece of the Action generally delivered softer, fruitier aromatics and flavors. All of those beers utilize newer hop varieties and new hop-derived products, along with some creative applications of technique. Frozen Ocean’s huge tropical aroma and flavor are due to the use of a new, quickly-growing-in-popularity hop by-product called lupulin powder, which is essentially just the leaf and lupulin-containing oil of the hop plant isolated from its more vegetal stem, which is normally included in dried pelletized hops. Lupulin powder seems very effective at creating extra-vibrant flavors and scents, without some of the more herbaceous and vegetal qualities of hops. Dry-hopping is by no means a new technique, but the penchant that breweries like The Veil and The Answer have for double or triple dry-hopping beers is fairly new. Combining that kind of dry-hopping with little to no hops used for bittering (the epitome of this being The Veil’s 0 IBU IPA series—IdontwanttoBU, et al.) creates a remarkable kind of imminently drinkable single or double IPA.
A few years ago, the natural evolution of the now-classic American IPA might have seemed to trend ever upwards in terms of IBUs (International Bitterness Units), brewers striving to create the most resinous, earthily bitter hop bomb imaginable. Here’s the thing though: that’s been done before. The “juicy” IPA, or more specifically the Northeastern-style DIPA, is in a way contrarian; a subversive inversion of the last thirty or so years of IPA brewing, a hops-arms race centered on aroma bombs instead of bitterness bombs. That’s not to say that the enjoyment of one style of IPA makes one diametrically opposed to another style. Some of us on the panel enjoy both more traditional and more experimental IPAs, although we generally rated the softer, more aromatic beers higher when tasting them. Maybe it’s just that when presented in contrast to one another, our selections’ differences were thrown into sharp relief, and had the order of the samples been different, our opinions may have also been different. The point is, the landscape is changing, and as brewers continue to innovate and adapt to new technology and agricultural advances, it will continue to grow and flourish as the scope of what beer makers can do with the hop broadens. It’s an exciting time to be a beer drinker in Richmond, Virginia.