“We don’t believe the world needs another IPA.”
Bold words, and only a week or so after IPA Day, but there they are, written in plain English on the back of the bottle. When craft beer’s most prevalent style is, was, and continues to be IPA, who has the chutzpah to make such a controversial statement? An anti-hop activist? Somebody who can’t stand a hefty IBU? Quite to the contrary; it’s a group of people who love Humulus Lupulus, love its aromas and flavors. They are people who wish to showcase the qualities of the hop in the best way possible. The IPA, they believe, is a poor vehicle for such a showcase.
Who are these renegades who dare shun the popularity of the IPA and what alternative do they suggest? AC Golden Brewing Company, the brewery-within-a-brewery at Coors, is the company and its IPA-slaying weapon is the latest in the Colorado Native line-up: IPL.
IPL? What’s the L stand for? If you’re not an astute beer geek, here’s a quick primer: IPA = India Pale Ale, IPL = India Pale Lager. It’s the yeast that separates the two. Whereas the traditional IPA uses a top-fermenting yeast, the IPL uses a bottom-fermenting yeast. That’s the scientific difference but what does that mean on the practical level? Glenn “Knip” Knippenberg, co-founder and president of AC Golden, explained it to me over a few beers (poured straight from the tank) this past Wednesday when I visited the AC Golden facility.
According to Knip, ale is a showboat, always trying to be the center of attention. Lager, on the other hand, sits back and lets other ingredients take the limelight. With ale yeast, there are fruity esters and fusel alcohol flavors that compete for attention and diminish the effect of hops and malts. But lager yeast is chill; it lets hops shine through. Unless you’ve had an IPL (from any brewery) you really don’t know what hops taste like. After tasting Colorado Native IPL, I tend to agree.
We visited several tanks at the AC Brewing facility, drinking our way up from very young IPL to the fully-developed final product. We drank it when it was less than a day old (low-to-no alcohol with 100+ IBUs of astringency oddly balanced by sickly sweetness) and up through the maturation process as the bitterness gave way to the herbal and pine-y flavors of the hops and as the saccharine quality subsided to more muted and appropriate levels. Until, eventually, we came to the finished beer.
Colorado Native IPL is a bright, clear, golden yellow liquid with a fluffy white head. When I stuck my nose into the glass, I found the aroma to be quite mild, my nose-hairs weren’t singed by the fumes often found in typical IPAs. IPL’s hops smell softer, rounder, herbal, spiced, and with a hint of pear. But tasting IPL is when one really sees the light. Hop flavor? Check. There’s citrus, there’s pine, there’s everything that’s expected in an IPA. Bitterness? None. There’s perhaps a snap up front but it quickly subsides. Aftertaste? Nonexistent. You taste IPL when you drink it, not half an hour later and after you’ve brushed your teeth. It’s anything but a palate-wrecker, it might even be a palate-cleanser.
The un-enlightened beer geek may drink IPL and grunt, “needs more hops.” With 62 IBUs courtesy of Chinook, Centennial, Cascade, Nugget, and Crystal, IPL features plenty of hops—it just doesn’t feature any corrupting ale flavors. And, coming in at 6.5% ABV, it’s the most alcoholic “session beer” one can hope to taste. IPL goes down dangerously easy.
I’m convinced: the IPL is better than the IPA. I’m not going to stop drinking IPAs, I still like them, I just like IPLs better. So, if they’re so good, why don’t we see more IPLs on the market?
For one, they take more time and money to make. However, what defines the craft beer movement is that the brewers don’t take short-cuts. The beer speaks for itself; it’s worth the extra effort.
IPAs are more traditional than IPLs but when has that ever limited the American brewer? We’re the country that took the old English IPA recipe, doubled it, made it black, made it white, made it sessionable, and put Brettanomyces in it. Why not put a lager yeast in it, too? We’ve done everything else.
Is it fear of failure that keeps IPLs out of the taprooms? It’s possible. Knip said it took years of R&D to perfect IPL (the bad batches they sent off to an ethanol plant to be distilled down). It’s not so bad to fail when you have Coors backing up your project, it’s a bit more detrimental when you’re a small, independent brewery with your life savings on the line and the choice is either to dump a ton of beer and, simultaneously, dump a ton of money or to serve a sub-standard beer and risk a public backlash (so, maybe be a little less snippy and a little more constructive when writing your beer reviews; you don’t realize how much stress, toil, and worry went into the making of your beer). But, in the end, the risk of failure is inherent in all businesses; it’s to be mitigated, not feared.
I issue my challenge: Let’s see the letters “IPL” on more tap handles. Sam Adams is doing their part with Double Agent and small Colorado breweries like Lone Tree Brewing Company have included an IPL in their seasonal offerings but, despite all that, it’s still but a burgeoning beer style. AC Golden’s latest offering will surely bring IPL to the forefront (at least in Colorado) and I hope other brewers take notice. In this era when there’s talk of “craft vs. crafty,” of macrobreweries copying microbreweries, I say turn the tables—independent breweries should be inspired by AC Golden’s IPL and try the style for themselves. Colorado Native IPL is already a fantastic beer but, if it can help kick-start a surge of IPLs on the Colorado market, the local beer scene will be all the better for it.