The other day, a beer unleashed an all-out blitzkrieg on my palate. It was a Triple IPA from a well-regarded brewery that shall remain unnamed. But it was an over-saturated syrupy mess. The hop burn was so intense that acid reflux kicked in, and the semblance of what was some citrus appeared briefly then vanished without a trace. Of course, users on Untappd gave it world-class ratings, averaging 4.51 out of 5, with riveting reviews like “Holy balls” and “Dang.” But I didn’t really know what to think. What am I missing? Am I jaded?
There are IPAs, Double IPAs, and then there are Triple IPAs. While the latter two are characterized by increased hop and malt quantities, the dividing line truly comes down to alcohol. After 7.6 percent ABV, an IPA is considered a Double, and after 10.6 it becomes a Triple. It’s a general rule of thumb, but plenty of brewers release Triples as Doubles, and vice versa. The thing is, as a beer gets bigger and more hops, malt, and what have you are added to the recipe, flavor gets lost in an astringent sea of sugar and alcohol.
In the push to make bigger, bolder IPAs, brewers have to navigate making something drinkable while alcohol levels soar and balance becomes a tightrope walk. The end goal is a full-flavored hop bomb, but somewhere along the way, integrity of flavor often gets sacrificed. Harsh alcohols distract from hop flavors and aromas, and the dense concentration of fruity hops exudes a gooey, gummy bear-like sweetness. Long boil times lead to thicker textures, and beer turns into stew.
Simply put: Brewing a Triple IPA of any standard is tough. There are so many variables that it’s a fragile feat. All of which begs the questions: When does a beer become too much? Can we get the purest essence of hops by simply going bigger? And if not, what the hell are Triple IPAs trying to achieve?
To Infinity and Beyond
Co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company Vinnie Cilurzo created the first Double IPA in 1994 with the Inaugural Ale at California’s Blind Pig Brewing Co., where he was working at the time. He brewed another one upon request in 1999 for Vic’s Double IPA Festival at the Bistro, a pub in Hayward, Calif. That beer was Pliny the Elder, and the world fell in love with the hop-centric style, inspiring brewers to push the limits of the IPA. In 2005, Cilurzo upped the ante and brewed Pliny the Younger, the first Triple IPA the world had ever seen. The coveted annual release hovers around the 10.5 percent ABV mark, and, by most accounts, it’s a balanced beast of a beer.
By the time BeerAdvocate and RateBeer got to it in 2010, Pliny the Younger was considered the best beer in the world. These days, people still line up in droves to get their hands on it. The proof is in the pudding: Fans can’t get enough hop juice.
But the Triple IPA bandwagon is becoming bloated, and heavy-handed brewers are turning into unhinged mad scientists. Violent hopping has birthed beers like Icarus Brewing’s “Oat Fluffed Thrash Bash” and Flying Monkeys Craft Brewing’s “Sparklepuff: Galaxy Starfighter Defender of the Universe.” The names and can art are just as absurd as the beers themselves.
The Balancing Act
The Beer Judge Certification Program, a worldwide network of beer judges and the top authority in beer style classification, doesn’t even recognize the Triple IPA as its own category. It stops at Imperial/Double IPA, describing the style’s flavor as having ”high to absurdly high hop bitterness, although the malt backbone will generally support the strong hop character and provide the best balance.” The same rules essentially apply for a Triple IPA. But when dealing with extremes — or making something with an “absurdly” high amount of anything — the waters get choppy, whether it’s trying to make a 5 percent ABV IPA that’s full of flavor or a 10 percent Triple IPA that doesn’t taste like Drano.
Brewers have told me that Triple IPAs can accommodate a higher level of flavor. This school of thought seems to imply that more sessionable beers are less flavorful, but there is undeniable truth to the fact that bigger beers by design incorporate more ingredients and variables. And when there’s a bigger swing, there’s a chance of a bigger miss.
Beer is about balance. When a beer’s alcohol content increases, a tug-of-war between sweetness and bitterness ensues, making harmony an uphill battle. Striking the sweet spot has forced brewers to implement unconventional ingredients in their Triple IPA recipes, and that’s where I feel things start to get a little sketchy.
Since Triple IPAs require so many hops to combat the intense malt and yeast flavors, these beers tend to lean bitter, so brewers sometimes add non-fermentable sugars, like milk sugar (lactose) to up the sweetness.
Increasing the amount of hops in a recipe equals a sh*t ton of plant matter. So, many brewers switch to hop concentrates to hone in on the desirable flavors they hope to juice out of the hops.
That’s where lupulin comes in. Lupulin is a yellow powder found on hop leaves that house the vast majority of hop oils, which contain a lot of the plant’s flavors and aromas. Yakima Chief Hops, one of the biggest hop suppliers in the world, created a way to remove lupulin from hops using liquid nitrogen to freeze hops, shatter them, then separate the lupulin from the plant material.
For some, like me, the gut reaction to learning about lupulin is skeptical. If you’re only using a fraction of the plant, won’t you lose out on some nuance? There are other hop extracts out there, too, most of them falling into some hop-based equivalent of hash oil, usually in liquid form and dispensed through a dropper or syringe.
When syringes come into the picture, the style begins to feel like a real departure from traditional brewing — a stride away from the grassroots ways of making full-flavored beers. I understand that less plant matter makes for a better liquid yield, and this is not exclusive to Triple IPAs, but when extracts show up in the style, the hop amplification begins to resemble that whipped cream the barista put on your latte without asking. Where’s the essence of the original thing? Where is the love?
Arguably, it’s in the hops. Triple IPAs are a style made by hopheads for the hopheads (albeit often with hop-derived products rather than the real thing). For curmudgeons like me, Double IPAs are the final frontier of balance, and anything beyond that is the product of a “look-what-I-can-do” mentality.
But just like there are different flavors of ice cream, there are different beers for different beer nerds. So touché, hopheads. Enjoy your Death by Chocolate Cake. I’ll stick with my croissant.