IPA, IPA, or Would You Prefer an IPA?

Illustration: five IPA bottles.

Derbyshire brewery Thornbridge seems to have gone on an India pale ale (IPA) brewing spree of late. We asked head brewer Rob Lovatt… Why?

Thornbridge has a strong claim to being the original British craft brewery (def. 2) that begat BrewDog, and thus The Kernel, and all the others. Its flagship beer is Jaipur, one of the earliest British takes on the highly-aromatic American approach to IPA that has dominated the last decade, and Halcyon, its 7.4% imperial IPA, has also become something of a classic. Surely that’s enough top-rated IPAs for one brewery, right?

Well, apparently not, because last night we enjoyed Huck, their new (to us) double IPA, and in the last year they’ve also produced Bear State (West Coast IPA), AM:PM (session IPA), Wild Raven (a black IPA that was among the first to appear in the UK), and Valravn, an Imperial Black IPA. Some of those are clearly quite distinctively different but there are at four beers fighting for more or less the same turf — light in colour, between 5.9-7.4% ABV, and aiming to deliver big hop aroma.

Thornbridge isn’t alone in this — BrewDog seem to be turning out endless new IPAs, for example, each of which leaves us wondering what was wrong with the last one.

So, we asked Rob to help us understand the motivations. Here’s what he had to say stitched together from several emails and slightly tweaked for style and clarity.

B&B: Jaipur has a strong claim to being the original ‘new wave’ British IPA and Halcyon isn’t far behind in terms of reputation, so why has Thornbridge felt the need to produce so many other IPAs in the last year or two?

There are various reasons. First, IPA sells! As much as I love Germanic styles, nothing sells better than an IPA. It’s somewhat depressing as there are so many beautiful beer styles out there other than IPA, but that’s what the customer seems to demand.

Secondly, we are at a size where we can secure the best quality hops in large volumes and the hops we’ve secured this year are the best I’ve used to date, so myself and the team are keen to explore different hop combinations. there is a lot of skill to using hops well and I think Huck is a great example of hop blend which creates a real flavour hook.

And then there’s the fact that the craft market has changed: customers are always demanding something new. Here’s a good piece I read on the subject recently. It is challenging as we always want to brew the best beer for our customers [rather than constantly experimenting] but once we get a really winner like Huck it will stay part of the range.

You mentioned that Jaipur is a classic beer. One thing we haven’t done here is dumb down our most successful beers in order to appeal to a broader audience. It’s still at 5.9% and around 60 European Bitterness Units. I don’t think every brewery can say that.

B&B: But can you imagine a situation where either Jaipur or Halcyon get retired? Do they still sell as well as they used to?

They are both big sellers and they’re still showing growth in sales year-on-year. Of course there’s always the risk a new IPA will steal sales from an existing one but offering a broader range results in much better overall sales.

B&B: How do the new IPAs you’re brewing map onto sub-categories of the style? What specific kind of IPA is Huck, for example? Was there a particular beer from another brewery you were inspired by? Or is it just what it is?

In terms of colour, with Huck, I didn’t want to go blonde as we already have Bear State and Halcyon which are very pale.

Sierra Nevada Torpedo is a beer I really enjoyed and I suppose you could say it was loosely based on that. The hop blend is completely independent of any beer I’ve ever drunk, though — I just had a feel for what would work.

The ABV of 7.4% obviously helps in terms of duty but I do also believe the most drinkable Double IPAs are in the 7-8% range. Once we start getting towards 9% the drinkability is compromised and it’s difficult to brew them so they’re not too chewy in the mouth.

* * *

That clears it up a bit for us but also makes us realise how much we rely on broad style distinctions when it comes to understanding a brewery’s range — this is their IPA, this is their porter, and so on. The problem is that the sub-categories, such as West Coast IPA, don’t instantly convey anything to us. So how do we choose? There are worse problems to have than trying lots of IPAs until you find the one you like but there is a communication challenge here.

We enjoyed Huck, by the way, which we bought from Beer Ritz at £3.18 for 330ml. It’s very bitter, rather dry, without the caramel stickiness that some IPAs have at this strength, though we didn’t get much fruitiness from it. We’d probably choose it over Halcyon just as, these days, we tend to choose BrewDog’s cleaner, lighter-bodied Jackhammer over the jar of jam that is Hardcore IPA.

Disclosure: we’ve had various dealings with Thornbridge over the years but no gifts/samples/freebies since 2014.

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