Brewing IPA, Part 1: 3 Steps to Hop Mastery

I’ve always been fascinated by hoppy beers. Looking back I’m pretty sure the main reason I started homebrewing was to replicate West coast classics like Fresh Squeezed IPA and RPM IPA at home. Unfortunately when I tried to copy the big aroma and restrained bitterness I loved, the beer was usually terrible! Instead of citrusy I’d get grassy. Instead of fruity I’d get woody. The hard lesson? Brewing a good IPA was way above my current skill level.

The first problem I had was just a lack of basic skill. That’s the easy, more mechanical aspect of brewing, like avoiding high dry hop temperatures. The second problem I had was much harder to solve: limited experience with ingredient selection and deployment. That’s the really hard stuff that takes years of first-hand brewing experience. I didn’t see a quick fix in sight, and brewing good IPA started to feel less and less attainable.

Brewing IPA with purpose

It’s a good thing I really enjoy brewing! Learning to brew next-level IPA felt like a fun project as opposed to an impossible soul-crushing task. Luckily I was able to draw some parallels from the projects I’ve worked on in my professional life as a chemical engineer. Working with nano materials and biologics is surprisingly similar to brewing a complex, technically sound IPA! In both cases it’s about the long game, focusing first on gaining technical competence in order to produce something novel. I wanted to bring that patient approach to this IPA project.

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a lot of smart people. In thinking about their problem solving methods I was able to adapt some of them to brewing IPA (or any style). Conceptually it’s pretty straightforward: start by testing a lot of things (hops) using consistent methods, and slowly improve while working towards the end goal. In true chemical engineer form, here’s a flow chart describing my thought process:

A 3 step flow chart for brewing IPA with purpose

Basically each of the arrows in step 1 represent a single hop beer. In step 2 the best flavours from the single hop beers are tested together, and recipe ideas slowly evolve to get closer to the final vision. Consistency in the base recipe and brewing methods will become more important as I get further along in the process.

Is this fun or just work?

Brewing is supposed to be a fun hobby, but I had a goal in mind. Working with some structure and purpose was important! These steps are all intuitive, and I bet most brewers would say they’re doing something like it. I don’t think the exact steps matter as long as each batch has a purpose. If it “fails” will I still learn something? What is failure? Or success?

Brewing IPA: Discovery (Make a lot of beer)

I’m a naturally curious person anyways, so the Discovery phase was a natural fit for me! On a normal day I enjoy brewing simple SMaSH-like beers just for the learning opportunity. In the early days of this project I settled on a simple recipe for single hop beers based on Maris Otter Pale Ale malt and a small amount of flaked oats for haze and mouthfeel. Gigayeast Vermont IPA was (is) my go-to yeast based on the reviews I read, and it’s pedigree as the yeast from one of the most famous New England IPAs.

This simple recipe allowed me to brew single hop IPA batches with a predictable (and tasty) malt background.

The first hop that really blew me away in this series was Nelson Sauvin. Here was a beer with a delicious combo of delicate fruits like grape and apple, without any harder resiny or herbal notes! A lightbulb went off in my head as I discovered a signature flavour. I was hooked on this simple approach, and set to work testing single hop beers as regularly as I could manage.

Brewing and reviewing single hop IPA

Fast forward a couple years and I’ve trialed loads of new (to me) hops, including already-famous ones like Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, Amarillo, and Simcoe, and newer ones like Hallertau Blanc. Some of my results were completely unexpected because they didn’t match what I’d read online! I also ran into some mysteries, like what was that unpleasant herbal aroma in the “C” hops I kept tasting? Also, why is Galaxy so boring? I started to realize that hop flavour is influenced by a lot of brewing parameters, and can change dramatically from one beer to the next.

The table below summarizes some of the most significant hops I trialed in the Discovery phase for this project. I was still working out the kinks in my evaluation process, which means there’s a mix of hopping rates and sampling points in all of these. Having said that, the major lessons hold up well when I look back on this table.

CentennialDistinct orange blossom, floral quality. Ripe sweet orange/lemon citrus quality pre-dry hop. A little “flat.” Works best when complemented by other varieties.
SimcoeGreat full hop experience that can serve as a base for other accent hops. Lots of depth. Citrus/evergreen/pine all evident. None. Very good hop!
Nelson SauvinVery nice aroma and flavour. Delicious combo of delicate fruits (grape, apple, etc.). Would be awesome complemented with a tropical or fruity hop in a 50/50 ratio.None. Very good hop!
MosaicPungent, complex fruit flavours. Pineapple/citrus and tropical, mango-like flavours all combine for serious depth. Would be great with Nelson. Hot-side only flavour is notably piney. None. Very good hop!
CitraPredominantly sharp citrus impressions. Doesn’t square with my experience tasting commercial Citra-only beers with tropical qualities. Different usage maybe? A bit 1 dimensional, but has lots of interesting flavours to contribute. Less pungent than Mosaic. Would be good in combination with other varieties.
AmarilloNice fruitiness. Not tropical. Apple in the finish, but indistinct fruit upfront that I struggled to identify.Only a fraction of the pungency of the really aromatic hops. Maybe a 4/10.
CascadeMild aroma, strong-ish orange citrus flavour, with floral character evident after full carbonation. Maybe 5/10 pungency.Overall a nice beer, but I catch hints of an unpleasant “raw” hop oil typical of “C” hops.
GalaxyReminds me of a mix of Cascade/Columbus – citrus and earth with some pine. Citrus is more grapefruit than orange. The fruit shows a little more depth after a couple weeks – maybe better in smaller doses or as a combo?A little unremarkable for such a rare hop, but still good. Has that “raw” hop oil quality I didn’t like about Cascade.
Hallertau BlancBeautiful soft fruit flavours – grape and melon – that remind me of a fruit salad. Not aggressive like other hops, which is a nice change. Moderately pungent. Similar fruitiness to Nelson. Makes a great summer sipper. Good base for decorating with Mosaic or Citra?None. Very good hop!

It took me a long time to compile this list! I was still brewing other beer “for fun” while I was working on it, but it shows how long it can take to learn enough to brew unique IPA. As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Get to work!

An IPA recipe takes shape

I brewed single hop beer for so long, and collected so many tasting notes, that I started to get a little antsy. After all, the mission was to layer all these together! I don’t think brewing any of these batches was a waste of time – it simply takes a lot of time and effort to learn.

When I looked back through my notes, the hops I liked the most – Nelson, Hallertau Blanc, Mosaic – were similar in 2 main ways:

  1. Softer fruit flavours that weren’t aggressive or resiny
  2. An elevated complexity that took some time (and a few pints) to fully appreciate

This really crystallized the qualities I wanted. I still loved Nelson Sauvin (even as it got more expensive and popular) and had the general idea to anchor the recipe around it.

Equally clear is that I didn’t want the beer to be milkshake-y. The thick mouthfeel and green hop character of a super-fresh dry hopped beer are popular traits in 2020, but the most extreme examples are too much for me. I don’t want a clear beer, but it’s not going to be thick. I also want the hop character to be refined and well developed, with no green harshness.

The final vision for the recipe

Balanced impressions of delicate fruit, including grape, apple, melon, and blueberry, are layered together to create a complex wave of hoppiness from start to finish. Big aroma. Restrained bitterness. Mysterious but elegant. Hints of honey-caramel sweetness support the delicate hop bouquet and present a lightness on the palate that invites another sip.

The Next Frontier: Hop Combinations

Even though I had a good understanding of hop flavours, and how to achieve my goal, I wanted to look at a few more varieties. I still hadn’t hit a true “tropical” for example. At the same time I recognized the need to start testing hops together – after all, Nelson and Hallertau Blanc might be all I needed!

I planned for a mix of single hop and dual hop batches for my brewing activities going forward. In my mind it looked like a big, hoppy battle royale! Here’s my process diagram redrawn to include only the hops I liked from the table above:

A 3 step flow chart for brewing IPA with preferred hop varieties

These are the hops I’d move forward with to create layered complexity. The standout in this list is Mandarina Bavaria – I hadn’t actually tested it alone. Call it cheating, but after tasting Hallertau Blanc I had a lot of faith in the Hop Research Center Hüll! They create some amazing hop varieties so I gave Mandarina Bavaria a pass to the second round.

A few final hop varieties

I generated a list of a few final single hops using brewery websites, hop supplier descriptions, and single hop beer reviews. I’m sure it’s not exhaustive, but I did the best I could! At this point I was really only looking at hops that might fit the vision of the recipe. These are the hops I came up with:

  • Delta
  • El Dorado
  • Idaho 7
  • Azacca
  • Cashmere

Early hop combinations

In the same spirit I brainstormed what combinations might be interesting based on what I knew so far. Would the complex fruitiness of Mosaic pop against the lemon-citrus of Centennial? How would the orange signature of Mandarina Bavaria mingle with the grape-apple of Nelson Sauvin? These are the combinations I was curious about:

  • Centennial-Mosaic
  • Nelson Sauvin-Mosaic
  • Simcoe-Mosaic
  • Nelson Sauvin-Mandarina Bavaria
  • Nelson Sauvin-Hallertau Blanc

Let the brew-off begin!

I was all set to start down “Phase 2” and get serious about figuring out this recipe. It was time to brew, taste, and brew some more (and give some beer away to the neighbours)!

The next post lays out the details of the recipe I’ll be using for the next round, as well as the tasting notes from the first 7 beers in the series.

Thanks for reading!

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