Beer Department: Get to know a style: Double/Imperial IPA

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I had so much fun writing about hefeweizen last month I thought I’d keep the train rolling with a profile on another beer style: the vaunted Double IPA, also known as Imperial IPA. This style of beer is distinctly American in origin and has been winning over devoted hop lovers for the better part of the last 30 years.

To start, let us understand that the terms Double IPA (DIPA) and Imperial IPA (IIPA) are interchangeable. Some breweries use one term, some the other. Some will use both terms to distinguish between multiple beers in their lineup that both fall under this style category. Any distinctions that may be drawn between the two are merely marketing jargon. For our purposes here (and for the purpose of entering beers into a competition) these terms are redundant. Both terms refer to the bigger, badder brother of American IPA. In traditional IPA, the abv will range from about 5.5 to 7.5% and the IBUs should range anywhere from 40-70. DIPA, by contrast, can have alcohol levels from 7.5% to 10% by volume and IBUs that can go from 60-120. Like I said, bigger and badder. But something very interesting happens when you ramp up the ingredients to go from IPA to DIPA. While DIPAs have more IBUs (quantitative measurement of isomerized alpha acid, which imparts bitterness), they also have a much stronger malt sweetness that actually offers better balance than most IPAs. If you find IPA to be too bitter, don’t let the big numbers scare you; try a DIPA. That’s really the hallmark to great DIPA – balance. If you can strike that magical balance between all the constituent parts of DIPA, everything else is gravy!

Double IPAs first appeared on the West Coast in the mid-90s from brewers that were looking to satisfy the growing consumer demand for more hops, more alcohol, more extremes. Russian River Brewing Co. was an early contributor to the style and Stone Brewing Co. lays claim to rolling out the first year-round DIPA, aptly named Ruination, in 2002. What started as a simple extension of an existing style has taken on a life of its own. DIPAs are among the most highly sought after and revered beers in the world. There are a couple of world class examples included in my recommendations this month that warrant your immediate attention. DIPA has also become a bit of a blank canvas that has allowed brewers the world over endless opportunities to experiment. While a strictly traditional, old school DIPA has a simple, clean malt bill so as not to distract from the traditional American hop varieties and is fermented with clean American ale yeast, that’s just the template. Adventurous brewers have played around with malt bills, the yeast used to impart different aromas and flavors, and hopping schedules to change how the hops manifest themselves in the finished beer. The biggest leap forward that has supercharged the diversification of DIPA in the last 10-15 years, however, has been a massive acceleration in the number of new hop varieties that have been bred and introduced to the market. These hops, grown the world over, offer a dizzying array of aromas, flavors, and levels of bitterness that would’ve been unthinkable to the guys at Stone back in the late 90s. There really is a DIPA out there for just about everyone, even if you think you don’t like them.

As I said, the key to the myriad variations of DIPA, whether old school standbys like Bell’s Hopslam or New England-inspired DIPAs like Nightmare Brewing’s Exposure, is balance. Without the superb balance that makes each sip feel like walking on a razor’s edge, all the other experimentation and creativity are for naught. If you add too many hops too early, you risk creating a beer that’s astringent. Add hops too late or too little and you’ll wind up with an overly sweet disappointment. If you don’t carefully control fermentation, you’ll have a beer full of hot fusel alcohol notes. Get too creative with the malt bill and your beer will taste unfocused, muddled, and boring. It might even come off chalky or chunky. But if you manage to find the right combination of hops added at the right time, balanced against the right malt bill for those hops, with immaculate attention to detail in the brewhouse, you’ll have created something truly special and worth sharing.

When evaluating the wide world of DIPAs (and there are plenty, we’re happy to make recommendations) you should ask yourself a few questions. Is this beer balanced? Is it drinkable? Do I find myself wanting to drink more? Does the appearance, aroma, and flavor entice me? If the answer to any of these is no, then you’ve found a less than perfect DIPA. When you find one that ticks all the boxes, however, the results are magical. Happy exploring! Cheers!

-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®

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