One could make a strong argument that the most American of modern craft beer styles is the India pale ale (IPA). Unbound by centuries of brewing tradition and despite its historical origin overseas, our nation has embraced and celebrated the classic IPA style and its derivatives like no other. Through sheer commercial force, we have made it our own.
Several reasons exist for the American penchant for those bitter, juicy flavor-bombs known as IPAs, not the least of which is the amazing success of the domestic hops market. With the vast majority of hops grown in the Pacific Northwest (specifically, Washington state), the US produces about 40% of all commercial hops worldwide. In addition, the hops we do produce—and continuously tinker with the Punnett squares thereof—produce a multitude of rich flavor varietals, from subtle to strong to downright dank.
Cross these facts with our business spirit and willingness to experiment, and the somewhat narrowly defined styles of English IPA and East Coast IPA have flourished into dozens of substyles and specialty American spin-offs: West Coast, New England (hazy), fresh hop, single hop, dry-hopped, session, rye, white, black, brut, Belgian, wild, double/imperial, milkshake. However, one currently emerging style has quickly attracted unique attention, that being the cold IPA.
Cold IPAs are so new that stylistic guidelines are still fuzzy, and governing bodies such as the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) do not formally recognize the style as distinct apart from the umbrella category of “Specialty IPA.” In essence, a cold IPA is an American-style IPA fermented at cooler temperatures than ale yeast traditionally operate best. The effects tend to tame the style quite a bit; if an IPA is a first-press LP played on a quality home sound system, a cold IPA would be like listening to it through the wall from the next room. For a style that begins brash and in some cases can touch on some pretty extreme flavors, this moderation is not always a bad thing.
Before proceeding, a necessary clarification: Cold IPAs are not the same as the similar style of India pale lagers (IPL), which tend to be brewed with colder-acting lager yeasts. Although still a young beer style, some formal guidelines are found for IPLs that steer them in the direction of moderately to strongly hopped lager styles and brewing techniques, with the emphasis on a lighter, smoother lager body that forms a familiar canvas for any tangy hops additions.
IPLs have their own merits, aside from the colder-style aspect. They are genuinely cleaner than IPAs, with the characteristic lager yeast producing that smoother, fruitier profile with a lighter body than traditional ales. They are definitely a crossover style for craft beer, and one that merits its own consideration, but they play within their own flavor sandbox separate from true cold IPAs.
If an IPA is a first-press LP played on a home sound system, a cold IPA would be like listening to it through the wall from the next room.
In contrast, cold IPAs often still use an ale yeast (although some brewers use lager strains or a hybrid) and have recipes that are usually tuned to retain much of their hoppy character profile with a smoother malt base, sometimes darker, sometimes straw pale. The result is often closer to a blonde ale or Vienna lager style than might be recognized as a more modern ale hop-bomb, with a subtle dryness and depth that still allows the hops flavors through but without the sharp or puckering nature.
For instance, take Denton County Brewing‘s new Kickflip Cold IPA. “One of the main things is to make a super drinkable beer (IPA) that is not just a heavy dry-hopped pilsner, but to really make an IPA that’s balanced, still hoppy and crisp/clean on the finish,” says owner and brewer Seth Morgan. No stranger to a wide variety of IPAs on their rotating menu, Kickflip stands out with a subtleness that belies the skills within this sophomore brewpub just a block from the downtown square.
DCBC’s Kickflip pours only slightly darker than a European pilsner, with a medium body that is packed full of grassy hay and herbal notes. Missing is much of the piney, resin sweetness from a traditional West Coast IPA, but the DNA is still there as the balance leans to the clean, sweet honeysuckle side—which throws it back to a European lager style. Brewed with a clean-fermenting lager yeast, it was allowed to naturally rise to a fermentation point in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, which is far outside the comfort zone for lager brewing.
This beer is most definitely hoppy enough to be an American IPA, although your first impression will not be the blast of strong, bitter, citrusy flavors you might expect. Morgan wanted to avoid the sticky, sharp piney nature popular in West Coast variations, although future batches may incorporate more of that profile as the recipe evolves. (One of the advantages of the brewpub business model is this batch-by-batch experimentation that production brewers locked into a product’s commercial flavor profile cannot easily vary without repercussions.)
Cold IPAs are beginning to show up everywhere, and a spectrum of stylistic preferences is just beginning to fill out. The common denominator tends to be a softer, gentler take on the hops expressions instead of the knock-out punch of teeth-scraping bitterness, the medicinal funk or the acrid, lactic citrus. The body of these brews also tends to tap the brakes, not as rich or smooth as lager styles but light for ale expectations, making them popular and highly sessionable.
I am genuinely excited to see where this style goes, and how it progresses as the market embraces it (or not). It is a true stylistic revolution on par with beers like altbier or the California common, and those don’t happen very often.