Jun 29 2016

The Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree, and the Freedom in IPA Meaninglessness

Throw shade towards the IPA “style” as much as you want, it has already conquered craft beer.

It is the flagship for most American breweries, and not having an IPA in your year-round portfolio seemingly borders on insubordination. And to further the sprawl and creep from this style, it isn’t limited to merely American and Imperial IPAs. There are red, black, white, brown, Belgian, rye, fruit, fruit peel, and session IPAs, as well. Tart IPAs are beginning to surface now, as well. (In full disclosure, I am brewing a tart IPA with a local brewery in the coming weeks so, yeah, I’m part of the problem, too.)

When any base style, or color I suppose, can be turned into an IPA, is anything an IPA anymore?

Given that rather nihilistic introduction, you’ll understand why I wasn’t immediately excited about an all IPA festival. The yearly “holiday” of IPA Day that occurs each summer only furthers the notion that history is written by the victors. I’m not a conspiracy guy and IPAs, which I really do enjoy, are not a virus leeching diversity from rows of tap handles, but their growth over the years is something that I have watched with some concern.

And if you are a west coast coaster reading this, you might scoff at an east coast IPA festival, and you have a point. Although after spending a week in San Diego last year, I was left a little underwhelmed by the state of IPAs there. While the finest IPAs do come out of the west coast, the number of unbalanced and Chinook-the-throat-destroyer beers that composed much of the rest of the west coast scene was saddening.

While IPAs have become the vanguard of experimentation for a lot of the American brewing scene, I think the first casualty is drinkability.

“What? Cool, you’ve added a new fruit/hop/grain/yeast to an IPA. No, I don’t want another pint. Honestly, I’m going to struggle to finish this one.” – Me

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

So, Saturday, June 25th, was Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree, which was a beer festival focusing solely on IPAs. Including Starr Hill, there were 16 Virginia breweries pouring at least two IPAs each. This netted out to over 50 IPAs with 33 from other breweries and 21 from Starr Hill alone.

The gig was broken into two events for me, as there was a homebrew component the night before, and then the festival the next day:

 

Homebrew Jambeeree

The Homebrew Jambeeree was a Pro-Am Competition for Starr Hill and homebrewers were asked to make IPAs which could be English, American, Speciality, or Double versions. The top 25 entries would be invited to the brewery for a private tour, and the best of show winner would brew their beer with Starr Hill for this year’s GABF.

I made the top 25, which is honestly not much of bragging point, but the thrust of the tour and gig was about celebrating the spirit of homebrewing, the backstory to many a pro brewer, and letting that group geek down with the pros and industrial equipment. I had done a Pro-Am with Starr Hill back in 2010, too, so I wasn’t really worried about the actual competition and I was happy to see someone else get a chance.

Starr Hill Hops Cooler

Starr Hill Hops Cooler/Cavern

Starr Hill Brew Deck

Starr Hill Brew Deck

 

Starr Hill Bottling Line

Starr Hill Bottling Line – Yeah, You Like That

 

The tour was great and the brewmaster, Robbie, and QA Manager, Jason, were energetic and happy to answer any questions that the group had. Starr Hill has gone through lot of changes in the last few years and as the previous brewmaster left, they’ve spent a lot of time reformulating old recipes and upping their quality control game. The hard work shows, and the multiple beers I had during that afternoon were crisp and without flaws. These guys care and they are doing right by themselves and their consumers.

Starr Hill Tasting Room

Starr Hill Tasting Room

In the end, I was not one of the top 3 brewers for the competition, but I knew that would be the result as the beer I brewed had been an experiment with Idaho 7 (now “The Golden Hop”?) hops and the London III yeast strain. That one came out mysteriously mild, but I’ve run through the process and recipe in the subsequent Hoppy McHopface blog post.

 

Starr Hill IPA Jambeeree

Cutting to the chase, I was on the fence about attending the IPA Jambeeree, but it was definitely worth my time. Since it was, metaphorically, in my backyard, I knew a lot of the people and brewers there, and it was fun to talk shop and shit (mostly shit) with those friends. The weather was perfect, and there was a far amount of variety in beer from the participating breweries.

Starr Hill's IPA Jambeeree

Starr Hill’s IPA Jambeeree

The only disappointment for the day was the number of breweries that kicked their kegs very early in the event. I showed up late at 3pm (2 hours after it started, 3 after the VIPs got in), and three or four major players in Virginia brewing were already out of all of their beers and many of the other breweries had already pulled tap handles. Perhaps they misjudged the demand, or maybe they were truly slammed with drinkers, but it would have been nice to see everyone get a chance to try those beers.

I think my ability to enjoy the event was due to the meaninglessness of the term IPA. Taking a deep dive with a style is helpful if you are trying to wrap your head around the parameters of the category and improve your evaluation skills. That could have been done to a degree here, but the diversity of IPA types was impressive. There were double and triple IPAs, but also the Belgian and Black IPAs that you’d traditionally expect, beside fruit and rye IPAs, that many breweries are adding to their quivers.

In a strained parallel, the assumption is that Belgian brewers don’t set out to brew a double, or a tripel, or a quad. They just make beer. Some are pale, and some are dark. Some are dry and phenolic, while others gravitate towards malt and dark fruits. There’s a huge variability on the ABV side, as well. I think styles are important to guide some expectations, and they equip us with a language to evaluate and enjoy beer, but I don’t think a brewer needs to have a style in mind. Just a vision of what he or she wants to create. 

Given the diversity of the IPA category and the fact that its tie to India is more than debatable,”IPA” doesn’t mean anything anymore. And, to me, that feels good. Isn’t there some freedom in that? If a brewer wants to use “IPA” as a placeholder to brew whatever beer he or she wants, then they are serving their creativity and I’ll always respect that drive as long as they have the technical ability to construct that vision. Let’s embrace the ingenuity of American breweries and concentrate on taste rather than extremity that only, in the end, creates similarity. 

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Apr 16 2009

Brainstorming the Next Few Homebrew Batches

I’m scheming the next two batches, and I’m circling around a hoppy IPA and sour ale.

IPAs used to live in my wheelhouse. That was the one style I could nail all the time and every time. But the last two I’ve made just haven’t lived up to my expectations. That shit needs to change right freaking now.

This IPA is will be a hoppy affair. Hoptimization at its best. Jamil recently a did show where they were cloning Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. I’m looking that over and I might riff off that and make something along those lines. Maybe tweak the color a little. Maybe lead a bit more with simcoe.

Sour ales take forever to mature (I feel a name coming out of that. Maybe a Peter Pan reference….), so I just need to get that going so I can leave it alone and let it age. I’m thinking about a big sour like a Flanders Brown/oud bruin and then aging it on French wood that has been soaked in a darker wine. This is a good time to be thinking about it, too, since Wyeast is busting out the Brett strains from April to June. They are releasing Roeselare (the Godzilla of brettanomyces), their Trappist blend (an Orval strain) and the brettanomyces claussenii (low-intensity brett. character cultured from English stock ales.)

After that……I’m not sure. Definitely a saison, but those are best brewed warm (80+ degrees) and I will let the warmth of the summer help me with that. I’ve talked about making an Premium American Lager, too. Despite the fact I really, really dislike almost all commercial examples of that, I want to do it just for the difficulty of it. Honestly, brewing something like that seems *less* insane to me than the Coconut Curry Hefe.

Welcome to my world.

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Apr 3 2009

Brooklyn Brewing’s Blast IPA Review

“….the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, ready to remind us… the immense edifice of memory.” – Marcel Proust

Your senses trigger memories. We’ve all felt the power of a single smell or sound which can conjure up entire scenes from the past. And studies show that our odor memory seems to be the most resistant to being forgotten. Images often begin to fade in a matter of hours or days, but smells can trigger memories for as much as a year.

The brewer is an artist working in mouthfeel, flavors and aromas just like a painter works in colors, textures and forms. The most rewarding beers are the ones that offer up complexes and, sometimes, uncomplimentary components. This is part of the wonder of trying beers: seeing what experiences we bring to the glass.

I was set on down this path by tasting a Brooklyn Blast IPA the other day. I had had this beer at a Brooklyn Brewing Beer dinner that was hosted by Garrett Oliver a few years ago. As Oliver explained, it was born out of a drunken 3 am dare between him and the usual suspects of Pizza Port and Russian River Brewing. The west coast vs. east coast rivalry was alive and well, and Oliver delivered something I thought I’d never see: a hoppy Brooklyn beer. Apparently, the brewers loved it so much, that they never released it outside the bar in Brooklyn. It was insanely hoppy and citrus, but remarkably green. In homebrewing, one of the best parts of making a batch is breaking out the hops and smelling the grassy intoxication of the pellets. The aroma of this beer is the closest I ever smelled to hops straight from the sealed bag. This was humulus heaven. Oliver said it was dry hopped with eight different hops, half American and half European. I cannot believe I didn’t hit him up for the recipe later.

When I stopped by Beer Run, once of the beer shops in town with a bar, and saw this Brewmasters Reserve beer on tap, I had to order it again. But it was very different this time.

It was served in a brandy snifter and it was a murky amber color. It looked more like a cider than a beer. It had a meager head which quickly dissipated, but the lacing on the sides of the glass was very impressive as I drank.

There was an immediate hop bitterness that was full and expanding. It grabs your tongue and fills your mouth with some of the greenness I tasted before, but not to the same degree. This time the flavors was dominated a resinous earthy flavor.

The earth flavors ran the gamut of dirt, leaves and dryness, but not quite in the direction of the pine flavors I enjoy from a Great Divide Titan IPA or other beers that seem to have those Simcoe-like influence. And I hesitate to throw in the dirt reference because it is not a bad flavor, but one that I could only describe as such. The taste, and to a small degree the smell, were the heavy, musty smell of warm dirt.

The back note, and this is the one that trips memories, was that of a dry, leafy character. It was multi-colored brittle leaves spinning to the ground on a fall day.

There’s a moment each fall where all the pieces come together. The sky is full of dark, sedan blue clouds that emit just the right type of light that enhances the colors of everything underneath them. The garish leaves are that much brighter and the world seems to be a little clearer for a moment. A stern and searching stare into the coming winter. The air smells like fresh fragile leaves before they turn a wet nesting of decay. And the air tastes, because words are bigger than things, like football.

The Brooklyn Blast captures that moment for me. It is not a beer that I could have more than a few of at a time, but it was very interesting. I think it would be amazing paired with vichyssoise.

It is night and day different from the Blast I had had before, but it felt like Garrett Oliver had done away with the east vs. west thing and taken this back as his own. Another beer on his own terms. I look forward to seeing if, and when, this evolves again.

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