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 IPAthis 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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