New Trends in IPA: An Interview with Mitch Steele, Stone's Former Brewmaster

Like IPAs? You’re not alone! According to the Brewers Association, IPAs accounted for less than eight percent of the craft beers sold in 2008. But as of August 2015, 27.4 percent of beers sold were IPAs. That’s a huge amount of growth, and the popularity of IPAs will only continue to rise. According to the 2016 Craft Brewers Conference, the IPA category is projected to grow to one-third of the nation’s total volume of craft beer by the end of 2017.

The bitter brew has grown to new, different, and stronger heights. To dive deeper into the popular style, I spoke with two amazing craft brewers. First: Mitch Steele. Until his departure on June 30, Steele was the head brewmaster at Stone Brewing. He is the author of “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale.” IPAs account for more than 50 percent of Stone Brewing’s sales!

What are some of your favorite hops to brew with and why?

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That’s a loaded question. For the past several years, I’ve really liked Citra. I think it’s a wonderful hop. We have done a lot of work with Australian and New Zealand hops, like Galaxy. Stone is doing a collaboration brew with Heretic and Beachwood, and we’re using a new hop called Idaho 7, which I think has a lot of potential; it’s a new American variety. It’s got a lot of really nice citrus and piney character to it. Centennial has been one of my favorites. We’re doing a pilsner using Sterling in it, which I think is an absolutely wonderful hop.

Mitch IPA
Photo via Thomas Cizauskas

Do you think the overall growth in the industry and better drinkers’ palates have affected the popularity of IPAs?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s all anybody drinks, by and large. I think people have gotten used to the taste of hops in their beer, and they enjoy it. It’s an acquired taste; I don’t think it’s any different than coffee. Most people don’t like them the first time they try them. At this point, craft is becoming — I don’t want to say mainstream, but a lot more popular than what it had been, and I think people are embracing the hop character. We’re always looking for new flavors to get out of hops, and I think that’s a big part of it.

What are some of the latest trends you’re seeing in IPAs?

Two things right now really stand out. No. 1 is the fruit IPA thing — the IPAs with added fruit, which only makes sense, because a lot of these new hop varieties that are out there produce flavors that are reminiscent of peach, pineapple, and grapefruit. So, to actually augment the hop flavor with a fruit, it’s not new, but it’s really taken off within the past year.

The other one would be the whole New England IPA, unfiltered IPA, really opaque versions of IPA. They’ve really gone to another level. There’s a lot of debate among brewers as to whether it’s a good thing or not. Most brewers are trained that you’ve got to have a clear beer when you serve it in the glass. This kind of flies in the face of that. You can’t deny the popularity of the beer.

What do you like about single-hop beers and that trend?

We do a lot of single-hop beers in small batches. It’s a great way to really understand how a particular hop works in a beer, because so many beers are brewed with blends of hops. If you really want to get a feeling for what the hop is all aboutyou’ve got to brew a single hop and do something fairly intensely hopped.

Do you have an overall philosophy in brewing IPAs? Has it changed or morphed over the years?

Yeah, I think it has evolved since Stone. I think a couple things have changed. I think the amount of hops used in a dry hop has gone up across the board with all brewers. It used to be that if you were using three-quarters of a pound of hops per barrel, you were dry hopping pretty aggressively. Now, there are a lot of brewers who are using two pounds per barrel on a regular basis. That’s kind of something that I’ve embraced. By using four or five different varieties of hops as flavored hops, if you do run into a crop issue with one of them, or the beer sells a heck of a lot more than you anticipated, and you can’t get one of the varieties, it’s a little easier to make a substitution than if it’s a single-hop IPA or one or two hops in the IPA. For me, the past four years have been about discovering new hop varieties and putting them in our beers. That’s been our main focus. In the past, it was, ‘O.K., what hops can I get?’ And I’ll build our beers around that. And now, it’s like, ‘O.K., I want to build a beer around this hop.’

What do you love about IPAs?

I like being challenged with the flavor. When you get an IPA that just captures that really brilliant intense hop flavor and hop aroma, it’s liquid gold to me. I love hoppy beers. They don’t have to be IPAs, but I love IPAs because I know I’m always going to get a pretty intense hop character, and that’s going to teach me something.

What would you tell homebrewers out there who are interested in brewing IPAs?

Minimize crystal malt usage in the recipe. Sweet IPAs aren’t as drinkable as dry IPAs. The other thing is, when the beer ages, the crystal malt corrodes, and the flavor totally masks the hop character. I would say it’s O.K. to use hops that aren’t traditionally used in IPAs and have some fun with that; that’s how we discovered Sterling. It’s considered a noble-type hop, and we threw it in an IPA and it’s just absolutely incredible.

You’re going to learn something either way, whether it turns out great or not.


Next week, I’ll speak to Jeremy Raub, one of the founders of Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.