Last summer, San Diego brewery Green Flash began releasing fresh batches of its signature West Coast IPA to the European market, brewed and bottled at Belgium’s historic Brasserie St. Feuillien. Meanwhile, Stone Brewing Co.—the SoCal powerhouse known for its unapologetically hoppy IPAs—announced plans to open a two-acre brewery and restaurant complex in Berlin, where it will turn out brash, aggressively bitter ales for distribution across Europe.
The signal is clear: the West-Coast IPA has gone mainstream, crushing palates not only across the U.S., but also in strongholds of old-world brewing that previously viewed American beer as an abomination of good sense and taste. These days, IPA obsessives around the world can rattle off names of hops varieties the way oenophiles and vintners geek out about grapes. But it wasn’t always this way.
The history of West Coast-style IPA—an ever-evolving style loosely defined by its bracing bitterness, intense hop aromas, and higher-than-average alcohol content—plays a critical role in the growth of craft beer in America, and the gradual embrace of increasingly in-your-face flavors. It begins with a pale ale, and an American-grown hop called Cascade.
Anchor Brewing and the Influence of Cascade Hops
In 1965, at a time when craft brewing hadn’t yet been coined as a term, a Stanford graduate named Fritz Maytag bought the small San Francisco brewery Anchor. Maytag wanted to make an English-style pale ale with American hops, making use of the almost-forgotten British technique of dry-hopping. “What the English discovered was that if you put hops in the beer as it was aging [instead of in the boil], you could get the aroma portion of the hop into the beer, but you wouldn’t get any of the alpha acids that create the bitterness,” explains current Anchor brewmaster Mark Carpenter.
Fritz Maytag at the Anchor taproom in 1974. (Photo: Anchor Steam)
A hops-farmer friend of Maytag’s suggested that he use a new Oregon-grown variety called Cascade, which was developed by the USDA breeding program at Oregon State University and released in 1971. The San Francisco brewer took his advice, adding an enormous amount of Cascade into the brew kettle; then, he added an additional dose during dry-hopping for good measure. He called his new beer Liberty Ale to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride.
Along with the throwback practice of dry-hopping, Maytag drew inspiration from Ballantine India Pale Ale, first brewed in 1878 by P. Ballantine & Sons Brewing Company in Newark, NJ. Ballantine was the only pre-Prohibition American example of the India Pale Ale style to survive into the last few decades of the 20th century, but it gradually disappeared from shelves and taps when the brewery fell into decline in the 1970s. For Maytag and other West Coast brewers, proximity to working hop farms offered an opportunity to remix the style with a newfound sense of terroir, deploying locally grown Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, and Chinook hops (to name a few) to imbue their beers with pungent aromas.
Whether people loved it or hated it, they couldn’t deny the novelty of Liberty Ale’s intense flavor and citrus-floral bouquet. “When we first tasted that beer—and when I say ‘we,’ I mean other beer enthusiasts and home-brewers—we had never tasted anything even vaguely like it,” recalls Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. “We knew what hops smelled like, but we’d never really had a beer that smelled so strongly of hops. Even though it’s not very strong, Liberty Ale can certainly make a claim to being the forerunner of the modern American IPA.”
The Evolution: Sierra Nevada and Blind Pig
Five years after the release of Liberty Ale, in 1980, Sierra Nevada brewer Ken Grossman decided to make a pale ale using whole-cone American hops, including Cascade. “[It was] definitely the hoppiest beer of its time when introduced,” he says. Carpenter remembers the early reaction to these bold new brews: “When we first made our Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada first made its Pale Ale, people thought they were so hoppy, they were just off the charts. Well, now, if you taste our Liberty Ale it seems quite mainstream. But it’s not the Liberty Ale that’s changed, it’s people’s acceptance of hops.”
It’s not the Liberty Ale that’s changed, it’s people’s acceptance of hops.
After Grossman and Maytag blazed the trail, a Northern California brewer named Vinnie Cilurzo decided to crank the hops volume up to 11. In 1994, he brewed Blind Pig Inaugural Ale, marking the birth of the Double IPA, and—perhaps more significantly—the dawn of the American craft-beer scene’s “bigger is better” ethos. “In the mid-1990s, this was the hoppiest beer I had ever tried,” says Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing Company. After starting Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula, CA in ’94, Cilurzo took his existing IPA recipe, doubled the hops, and raised the malt bill by about 30 percent. “We aged it on dry hops and oak chips for a year and continued to add additional dry hops throughout the one year of aging,” explains Cilurzo. “I had the beer stored in these giant 100-gallon coke syrup canisters that came from Knott’s Berry Farm.”
Cilurzo filtering Blind Pig IPA at Blind Pig Brewing Co. in June 1994. (Photo: Vinnie Cliurzo)
While Cilurzo’s brews draw rabid crowds these days, beer drinkers weren’t exactly clamoring over Blind Pig when it was first released. “There was no demand for IPA back when I started Blind Pig in 1994—not a 92 IBU [International Bittering Units, a measure of hoppiness] India Pale Ale like ours was,” Cilurzo remembers. “And that goes even more so for a Double IPA like our Inaugural Ale that was measured at 120 IBUs. We did find a small market for our IPA, though, and little by little people who were already drinking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Liberty Ale found our IPA, and it was these customers that kept us afloat.”
Over time, craft-beer drinkers became more accepting of hops, and a demand for the style emerged. “About ten years ago, if you were at any single bar in San Francisco, one of these four beers was on tap: Racer 5 from Bear Republic, Brew Free or Die! from 21st Amendment, Big Daddy IPA from Speakeasy, and Pliny and Blind Pig from Russian River,” says Jesse Houck, brewmaster at L.A.’s Golden Road Brewing. “It wasn’t a thing to have 10 different IPAs on tap, but every bar at least had to have one of those four.”
San Diego and the Hops Arms Race
Down in San Diego, craft breweries like Stone, Green Flash, and Ballast Point saw this hop-head market emerging (local brewpub Pizza Port released its foundational Swami’s IPA in 1993) and began pushing the envelope even further with double- and triple-hopped IPAs. “Stone really upped the hops level,” says Carpenter. “It became almost like a chili-eating contest—somebody came out with 75 IBUs, and another brewer came out with 85 IBUs, and so on.”
It became almost like a chili-eating contest—somebody came out with 75 IBUs, and another brewer came out with 85 IBUs, and so on.
While many notable beers emerged from this scene—Ballast Point Sculpin, Alesmith IPA—few had the influence of Green Flash’s flagship West Coast IPA. By trademarking the term in 2011 and emblazoning it across bottles in giant letters, the brewery effectively codified the regionality of the style and made it instantly recognizable to drinkers across the country (and beyond). Eagle Rock Brewery’s Jeremy Raub explains, “Green Flash West Coast IPA was a really over-the-top double IPA, which was the brewery’s way to say, ‘This is how we do it on the West Coast.’ It was just over 8% ABV, resinous, and hoppy. It had more malt body, and it was ‘dank,’ as people like to call it.”
With the name becoming synonymous with that dank, almost weedlike aroma, brewers from coast to coast began naming beers West Coast IPAs, even if wasn’t a style defined by the Brewers Association. “I can’t put my finger on an exact year, but if I had to guess, I would say the West Coast-style IPA really took off around 2010 for the mainstream consumer,” says Cilurzo. That was the fateful year that Cilurzo and his team poured 40 kegs of Pliny the Younger, the brewery’s triple IPA, in 8 hours.
If I labeled an old shoe and sugar water “craft IPA” I could sell 3 “old shoe” kegs a night
— Bartender Rant (@BartenderRants) April 12, 2014
The market was getting competitive within the West Coast and beyond, which meant that brewers had more pressure to differentiate themselves from the IPA crowd. With the race to brew the most extreme hop bomb reaching its natural peak, they began to capitalize on people’s love for hops in new ways. On the East Coast, Dogfish Head brewmaster Sam Calagione had already set his IPA apart in 2003 through a brewing method called continuous hopping, inspired by the way that chefs season food while they’re cooking. Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada developed the Hop Torpedo tool, which facilitated dry-hopping with whole-cone hops. Finding innovative ways to get hops into beer emerged as one way to push the genre forward; finding different hops varietals was another.
Hop torpedo. (Photo: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)
To feed the appetite for innovation, growers began cross-breeding to develop new hops varietals that had characteristics of everything from melon to peaches. Houck explains, “We’re moving away from almost 100 years of agriculture where hops were bred for the macro-producer, to the last 20 years where these farms are breeding specifically for the craft brewer in mind, because they’re getting a higher price point.” These days, says co-founder of Golden Road Brewing, Tony Yanow, “people are looking for juicier, fruitier, pinier, more resiny hops. Everyone tries to outdo each other.”
Everybody’s looking for the next great hop.
“We have more 3,000 breweries around the United States now, so it’s very hard to be creative or come up with something new when you have that many competitors,” says Carpenter. “There are lots of brewers who are working with the different hops growers. Everybody’s looking for the next great hop.”
For example, many West Coast brewers are now using Nelson Sauvin, a hop grown in New Zealand, to flavor their IPAs. “When Nelson Sauvin hops came out, people were blown away,” says Raub. “They have this Sauvignon-grape characteristic to them.”
The West-Coast IPA Goes Global
Through this boom period for hoppy beers, the distinctly American brashness of the West Coast IPA has almost become shorthand for the craft-brew movement at large. While purists in England, Belgium, and Germany initially balked at the shouty American style, it’s finally making headway abroad. Pubs in London are serving Stone IPA, and new-school UK brewers are emulating the West Coast IPA’s hop-forward character.
Houck neatly encapsulates the audacious mindset of new-school American brewers: “For a long time, European brewers and consumers refused to change. The culture wasn’t to move forward and experiment. And then we came forward—and we Americans didn’t give a fuck, we’re going to do what we want to do—and we created new hop varieties. Now Europeans are creating new hops varieties, and they’re trying to expand their palate and culture. And they’re emulating our beer culture now, and it’s kind of awkward.” And it’s not only Europe—countries around the world have caught the hops bug as well.
When you’re having an ale in Munich made with American hops, the beer world has turned upside down.
Carpenter says that last March, when he was in Munich, he was given a bock from a small local brewery that was “basically an IPA made with American hops.” For him, this was a surreal moment. “When you’re having an ale in Munich made with American hops, the beer world has turned upside down,” he reflects. “Cascade hops are now grown in Europe—in England, Belgium, France. As I said, American styles of beer really are ruling the world these days.”
Ever since Liberty Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale changed the game in the ’70s and ’80s, American craft brewers have run away with the style, developing countless variations on the theme of aggressively hopped ales that all bear the name of IPA. Jeff Gorlechen, cofounder of Sixpoint Brewery, puts it best: “It’s an IPA world right now and we are all just living in it.” These days, it’s consistently the top-selling craft-beer style in America, representing 18.4% of total craft-beer sales in 2013, according to the Brewers Association.
Today, the prevailing obsession among beer nerds is the so-called “session” IPA—dialed down in both alcohol and bitterness to provide a less punishing experience than, say, sipping a Green Flash Palate Wrecker. It’s the natural cycle of things—from street fashions, to culinary trends—to flirt with the extreme before learning to appreciate restraint. In craft beer, it was the West-Coast IPA that pushed us to the brink, awakening taste buds and opening the gates to a brave new world of brewing.
40 YEARS OF INFLUENCE: 10 BEERS THAT DEFINE THE WEST COAST-STYLE IPA
We spoke with the brewmasters at Stone Brewing Co., Golden Road Brewing, Eagle Rock Brewery, Noble Ale Works, and Anchor Brewing about what they considered the most influential West Coast IPAs through the decades. (Full disclosure: We spoke to a lot of Southern California brewers, and less folks from Northern California.)
Here’s what they had to say about the watershed brews along the road to West Coast IPA world domination.
Anchor Liberty Ale
First brewed: April 18, 1975
Where: Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco, CA
Fritz Maytag wanted to produce a dry-hopped, English-style ale—not only that, but he also wanted to create an ale that reminded him of the ales of the Northeast, like Ballantine IPA. “The thing that made Liberty Ale distinctive, and that everyone followed up on, was that it used the Cascade hops,” says Carpenter, who started at Anchor in 1971. “The Cascade hop hadn’t been used as an aroma hop before Liberty Ale. It’s unbelievable how it’s grown from there. It started with West Coast breweries using the Cascade hop, and now you can go around the world and it’s being used—it’s really amazing.” Raub says, “Liberty was the first to start beers down that direction of lightening the malt, and accenting the hop.” (Photo: Anchor Brewing Co.)
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
First brewed: 1980; 1981
Where: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Chico, CA
“Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was based around the English pale ale recipe, but it used more American ingredients and considered the sensibility of an American palate. Ken Grossman made a conscious decision to make it more hop-forward than a typical pale ale would be,” says Raub. A year after its release, in October of 1981, Grossman started brewing the holiday seasonal Celebration Ale. The Sierra Nevada brewer says, “It featured a field I personally selected of nice young vine Cascade hops, and that was sort of our first really big hoppy IPA-style beer, our Celebration Ale. We made about 100 cases that year, and we’ve been brewing it ever since. We use whole cone hops, and lots of them.” (Photo: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.)
Bert Grant’s IPA
First brewed: 1983
Where: Yakima Brewing Company, Yakima, WA
“The first craft beer using ‘IPA’ in the name. Whether this was a West Coast IPA or not is debatable, but it certainly put the IPA style on people’s radar,” says Steele. Grant helped drive interest in the new beer by putting a colorful label showing the Taj Mahal on the bottle. (Photo: Associated Press)
First brewed: 1993
Where: Pizza Port, Solana Beach, CA
“This was the second hoppiest beer I tried in the mid-1990s. This is a quintessential San Diego IPA,” says Steele. It’s hopped to the extreme with Galena, Centennial, and Cascade hops. Pizza Port adds a healthy dose of dry hops in the finished product and always serves the IPA unfiltered. “Swami’s is more widely available, now that it’s being canned,” says Raub. (Photo: Quality Liquor Store)
Blind Pig Inaugural Ale
First brewed: June 23, 1994
Where: Blind Pig Brewing Company, Temecula, CA
Russian River brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo “is the crown prince of the American brewing scene, whose hoppy beers are the most sought after in the world,” according to Yanow (and many other craft-beer enthusiasts). Blind Pig was the first “double” IPA in existence. Cilurzo says, “I just wanted to make great beer and back when I started with Blind Pig, making a Double IPA was a great way to test our used equipment [at Blind Pig Brewing Co.]. After all, the fermenters were plastic and the brewhouse was a cobbled-together system.” The Inaugural Ale clocked in at a whopping 120 IBUs. “It was not only over-the-top hoppy in flavor and aroma, but also in bitterness,” says Cilurzo. “It was like licking the rust off a tin can!” Cilurzo went on to create a version of Blind Pig at Russian River, which clocked in at 92 IBUs, as well as the cultish Pliny the Younger, Russian River’s triple IPA. “2010 was the fateful year that we poured 40 kegs of Pliny the Younger in eight hours,” remembers the brewer. (Photo: Beer Obsessed)
First brewed: 1995
Where: Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma, CA
“There’s a regionality to IPAs, even within the West Coast—with the exception of Lagunitas. Lagunitas really took IPAs national,” says Mark Carpenter. (Photo: Lagunitas)
First brewed: 1997
Where: Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, CA
Today, Stone is one of the most widely-available West Coast IPAs. Raub says, “I think Stone IPA was a big one that sort of captured peoples’ hearts and minds, because Stone was so bold with their beers and their marketing.” Carpenter adds, “Stone really upped the hop level when they came out with their IPA. At that point, it became almost like a chili-eating contest; somebody came out with 75 IBUs, then another brewer came out with 85 IBUs, and so on.” In 1997, Stone released Arrogant Bastard Ale. On the back of the bottle it says, “This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it.” In 2002, Stone’s Ruination IPA hit the scene; the name refers to the hop monster’s truly “ruinous” effect on your palate.
Pliny the Elder
First brewed: 2000
Where: Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, CA
This double IPA, brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops, is what “many consider this the best double IPA out there,” according to Steele. Russian River originally brewed the beer for the first-ever Double IPA Festival. You might ask, who is Pliny the Elder? “According to our brewing references, he and his contemporaries either created the botanical name or at least wrote about Lupus Salictarius, or hops, currently known as Humulus Lupulus,” says the brewery’s website. (Photo: Facebook/Russian River Brewing Co)
Green Flash West Coast IPA
First brewed: 2004
Where: Green Flash Brewing Co., San Diego, CA
In terms of imprinting the style into people’s mind, Green Flash has been hugely influential—after all, it trademarked the term “West Coast IPA” and slapped it onto its labels in giant letters. It’s also widely considered one of the best examples of the style. “It’s over the top; it’s really a double IPA, when you look at it stylistically,” says Raub. “It’s their way to say, ‘This is how we do it on the West Coast.’ It’s the idea that Americans overdo everything when compared to the rest of the world. And California brewers overdo everything compared to the rest of Americans.”