India Pale Ale is blessed with a long and proud tradition that dates all the way back to mid-nineteenth century England. Whereas the crown colonies initially introduced this hoppier varietal, it can be argued that it wasn’t really perfected until the mid-1990’s, in Southern California. It was then and there that renowned brewmaster Vinny Cilurzo serendipitously stumbled upon a formative formula after accidentally adding fifty percent too much malt to his mash. The industrious brewer from San Diego then compensated by doubling the hops in his recipe. The result was a sap-like sud “so bitter it was like licking the rust off a tin can,” according to Cilurzo. Soon after this serendipitous mistake, he coined the tenuous term ‘Double IPA’ to describe the newly minted monster he had just unleashed upon the world.
That was 1994. The bitter beer craze was born. Shortly thereafter, craft brewers up and down the West Coast were incrementally ratcheting up the IBU’s (International Bitterness Units) of their inebriants to see how far down the hop hole one can plunge while maintaining a certain degree of palatability.
The continual amplification of DIPA’s is an endeavor naturally biased toward beer makers residing along the Pacific Crest. That’s because the ingredients responsible for the blasting bitterness, mainly the so-called ‘C-hops’—Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, and Cascade varieties—come from the greater Northwest. Places like Washington, Oregon, and Northern California are brimming with these mystical buds unique for their signature grapefruit and pine tones, hallmarks of the Double IPA flavor profile.
It should come as no surprise that Cilurzo, the man responsible for the origin of the species, went on to open his own brewery in the geographic center of the West Coast. Nor should it stretch credulity to learn that his most celebrated offering, Pliny the Elder, is routinely regarded as the supreme Double-IPA, the gold standard by which all others are measured. He was, after all, there at inception. One of the country’s foremost innovators in the craft beer scene, Vinny and his wife purchased Russian River Brewing Company from Korbel Champagne Cellars in 2002. Since then, Pliny has gone on to win virtually every beer award imaginable, amassing a cult-like following in the process.
Just for an idea of how vaunted his reputation has become, consider this: on a recent trip to the brewery in Santa Rosa, California, I witnessed a bar patron ask Vinny to sign the back of the Pliny the Elder T-shirt he was wearing. Okay, full disclosure — it was actually me who did this, but that’s beside the point. The fact is he’s now a rock star. Think of him as the man who puckered a thousand lips.
But just because Vinny headed north doesn’t mean that San Diego fell off the map. Quite the contrary. The birthplace of Double IPA continues to stand by its lasting legacy of heavily hopped grog. At the forefront of this movement is the world-famous Pizza Port. Although siblings Gina and Vince Marsaglia originally opened their business in March of 1987 as a food establishment, it wasn’t long until insatiable demand for their tasty homebrews required diving headfirst into the brewpub market. By the early 2000s, they were taking home multiple medals from the Great American Beer Festival, thanks in large part to their Frank Double IPA. This hoptastic beast with an 8.1% ABV was universally embraced for its distinct floral aroma and balanced bitterness. It helped to define what this relatively new style of beer was all about.
Around this same time, local favorites Stone Brewing Co. and Ballast Point Brewing emerged on the national scene thanks largely to their masterful line of heavily hopped West Coast IPAs.
As more and more festivals and competitions began featuring separate categories for West Coast and Double IPA’s, it became clear that the style was gaining serious traction within the global beer drinking community. As a result, microbrewers from around the country started seeing the importance of getting their hands on West Coast hops — lots of West Coast hops. All of a sudden, unbelievably bitter beer was being embraced by parts of the country that would have reviled it just several years earlier.
In Austin, Texas, for example, an area traditionally known for light beer and lager, Independence Brewing Company began producing Stash IPA. It’s brewed with three pounds of hops per barrel, including the Cascade and Columbus varieties. “It makes sense to go to the source, and IPA for me is defined by the West Coast,” notes Head Brewer Michael Waters. The beer is remarkably drinkable considering that it boasts a whopping 100 IBU’s (a typical IPA hovers around 60).
Nearby in the Big Easy, beer drinkers conventionally flocked toward flavors that were sweeter and more innocuous, with hop characteristics masked by a wall of creamy maltiness. But even New Orleans has been swept up by the West Coast wave. NOLA Brewing Company has quickly become one of the city’s most popular craft breweries, bolstered by the strong sales of their very own West Coast-inspired Hopitoulas IPA. The beer benefits greatly from three weeks of dry hopping, which produces an end result that they describe as piney and citrusy. Sound familiar?
Take Interstate 10 half a day east from New Orleans, and you’ll end up running out of highway in the city of Jacksonville, Florida, home to Intuition Ale Works. Owner and Brewmaster Ben Davis spent some time in Northern California where he was clearly influenced by the proclivities of West Coast sud sensibilities. Just one sip of his aptly named I-10 IPA reveals his roots. It relies on a “?@!#-ton of Northwest hops” to give it the flavor profile so indicative of IPA’s made on the other end of the transcontinental interstate.
But the migration of mad hops didn’t stop upon the sandy beaches of the Sunshine state. Further north in the vastly under-explored city of Charleston, South Carolina, Westbrook Brewing Company is pushing the envelope as to what a West Coast IPA can be. Brewer and founder Edward Westbrook is continually experimenting with an array of flavors, innovating unique beer that is at once familiar and dastardly deviant. His Covert Hops, for example, has that piney, herbal aroma that strongly suggests the West — as well it should with over four pounds of hops per barrel. Yet it has an initial dark, roasted malt taste for the tongue to enjoy as the bitterness takes hold.
If Edward Westbrook is trying to spin West Coast IPA in his own particular direction, Scott Vaccaro is taking the style straight forward and running with it. Owner and Brewmaster of New York’s sensationally successful Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Vaccaro has earned high praise for his Captain’s Reserve Imperial IPA. What he considers to be the calling card of many craft brewers, this variety of beer is one that he no doubt refined during his stint as a brewer at Sierra Nevada — one of the West Coast’s premiere producers. Just one taste of the Reserve takes your tongue on a three thousand mile road trip back to the rolling redwoods of Vinny Cilurzo’s backyard. Not only has Vaccaro managed to capture the very essence of the Double IPA, he does it so masterfully it becomes clear that a single region can no longer claim dominion over this essential style of beer. The West Coast IPA is now that in name only.
Thanks to the explosion of microbreweries across this fine land, beer enthusiasts (geeks) from all fifty states can enjoy local, hop-laden craft beer from almost any nearby package shop. And considering that the piney, citrusy hallmarks of this variety perish rapidly, locality is no small development. But even if you traveled a very short distance to enjoy your next glass of super hoppy IPA, it’s important to consider the lengthy lineage of this distinct, modern classic. So raise the glass to the West and make a toast to the brewers that brought these fundamental flavors to the mainstream. It’ll taste better that way. And bitterer.