Some occasions call for the stronger stuff, and there is bang-for-buck value to be found in store fridges these days. Consider the success of New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger brands, especially its imperial IPA, whose various iterations have scorched the sales charts while many other craft brands have taken a beating. No wonder that many other breweries are now working to get onto store shelves their higher-strength IPAs, often in the range of 9–10 percent ABV and available in large, 19.2-ounce cans.
It’s as if the wider public is discovering what hopheads have known all along: Drinking strong, hop-forward beers can be really fun—and the best examples cram ample hop character into a dangerously drinkable frame for an addictive experience.
So, what’s the secret to brewing a strong IPA so drinkable that people keep wanting that next sip? There are a wide variety of answers to that question because brewers across the country are solving the problem from a wide variety of directions. Still, some guiding principles emerge.
Different Approaches, Common Threads
Whether hazy, soft, and sweet, or lean, crisp, and bitter—or any number of permutations on those spectra—brewers are tackling these double and triple IPAs in different ways. Many brewers are less concerned with whether it’s “hazy” or “West Coast,” simply striving for a particular flavor profile and using the proper tools to achieve it, all with an intentional approach to keeping it in balance at higher strength.
At Atlanta’s Monday Night Brewing, brewmaster Peter Kiley says he doesn’t define Space Lettuce—a gold medal–winner at the 2022 World Beer Cup in the Imperial IPA category—as either “West Coast” or “New England.” Instead, he explains that it has the clarity and bitterness of the former, working in partnership with a softness and sweetness more reminiscent of the latter.
Other IPAs are more clearly identifiable as belonging to one of those camps, such as Nose Goblin from Ghost Town in Oakland, California. This is the imperial IPA that won gold two years running, in 2021 and 2022, at the Great American Beer Festival. Nose Goblin follows what head brewer Justin Burdt calls a preference for crisper, more bitter IPAs.
Yet for Weston Shepherd, production manager at Mast Landing in Westbrook, Maine, Pantless Thunder Goose—a 2022 World Beer Cup gold medal–winner for Juice or Hazy Imperial IPA—is a piece of the brewery’s over-arching drive to show just how differently hop flavors can express themselves.
Specific steps vary, but among these award-winning brewers there are common areas of concentration:
- dialing in sweetness with your grain bill and mash
- selecting the best hop varieties and deciding when it’s best to add them, for the target flavor profile and sweetness-versus-bitterness balance
- healthy fermentation for sufficient attenuation
When asked for one key focus that bonds all high-ABV IPAs at Brooklyn’s Other Half, cofounder and brewmaster Sam Richardson says, “fermentation, fermentation, fermentation.”
Of course, all these decisions and their impacts are interconnected.
Sugars, Grist, and Mash
The grain bill is the first place to tinker with how to achieve your ultimate goal of more sweetness or bitterness to balance that booze.
At Monday Night, Kiley says the relationship that matters most for their stronger IPAs is the one between residual sugar and ethanol. “We jokingly say we want to hide our alcohol, and one of the great ways to hide it is with leftover sugar,” he says. As do many brewers of big IPAs, Monday Night adds some dextrose to kick up the strength, yet they don’t attenuate the beer to full dryness—Space Lettuce, which clocks in at 8.1 percent ABV, finishes at 3.8°P (1.015).
Ghost Town also includes some dextrose in Nose Goblin, to the tune of 6–8 percent of fermentables, alongside a “super simple” grain bill of pilsner malt, Burdt says. In keeping with their West Coast take, they avoid crystal or Munich malts, which add sweetness and body. Instead, they’ll get some perceived sweetness from fruit-forward dry-hop aromas, while the high gravity also adds some body. The goal of Burdt and team is to get a beer like Nose Goblin super-dry, shooting for 1.5°P (1.006). He mashes at 147°F (64°C) for 30 minutes to optimize fermentability. The dextrose goes in at whirlpool, when “it’s hot enough to sanitize it and mix it in, but not boil it and potentially caramelize it,” Burdt says.
At White Lion Brewing in Springfield, Massachusetts, brewmaster Mike Yates and assistant brewer Chris DeGassero also stick to lighter base malts. “Ease up on the high-Lovibond character malts,” Yates says. “The higher ABV and increased malt bill will already bring plenty of sweetness to the table, and we want to try [to] keep that body relatively light.” They also aim for a lower mash temperature, around 148–150°F (64–66°C), to keep the body drier.
Alexandria Gray, production manager and assistant brewer at 7venth Sun in Tampa, says she thinks about what path will best get her where she wants to finish gravity-wise—for example, in their Mangrove Double IPA. At 10 percent ABV and with an OG of 21°P (1.088), the beer finishes around 1.011. For the softer and juicier approach, she says, “the two best options for us are to build a recipe with a significant amount of flaked oats—that gives the beer all those delicious beta-glucans that boost the body and leave a smooth, residual sweetness to help bolster the alcohol—[and] add maltodextrin toward the end of the boil or in the whirlpool, again, leaving you with a nice residual sweetness post-fermentation.”
Water matters, too, directly affecting mouthfeel and how sweetness is perceived. “One of the things that helps that relationship of ethanol and residual sugar is also your ionic concentrations of chlorides or the absence of sulfates,” says Kiley at Monday Night. “Both of those have a large role in the perception of flavors, especially the body of the liquid on your palate.”
Chlorides add to a fuller body and the impression of softness, while sulfates instead add a kind of structure that can highlight bitterness. “Both being in tandem with each other is important,” Kiley says, “but really, chlorides could be a big help when you’re trying to sneak in more ethanol and you don’t want to have too much residual sugar.”
Likewise, Gray at 7venth Sun says they like to employ a higher chloride-to-sulfate ratio in their higher-alcohol IPAs. “Don’t get me wrong, the sulfate is still high,” she says. Yet the chlorides “will aid … that ‘pillowy’ mouthfeel that adds complexity to the final product.”
Hops and Bitterness
Against the canvas of the grain bill—whether soft and full or light and lean—hops also provide powerful ways to balance residual sweetness and alcohol.
First among them is bitterness. Because brewers these days typically add fewer hops to the boil and much more to the whirlpool and fermentor, IBU estimates—the expected isomerization of alpha acids based on heat and time—are not as useful or precise as they once were. However, they can still get you in the ballpark. It can be helpful to think about what range of IBUs makes sense for your target flavor profile. Brewers taking the hazy route seem to hover in the 20–40 IBUs range, almost totally derived from whirlpool additions, though there are always exceptions. Meanwhile, drinkers tend to expect more bitterness from a beer with a clearer look and crisper profile, be it inspired by the West Coast style or even the throwback “American IPA,” which may feature some caramel malt and thus want more bitterness for balance. Break down where those IBUs will come from.
For Nose Goblin, Burdt says they often do five hop additions:
- They mash-hop with whole-cone hops.
- They sometimes add first-wort hops using their main flavoring hop.
- They do a bittering charge—typically with hop extract—at 60 minutes.
- They add a flavor/aroma addition at five minutes.
- They add upward of two pounds per barrel to the whirlpool at 180°F (82°C), which Burdt says is key to packing in extra hop flavor.
“My goal is to get 50 percent of the IBUs from the boil and the other half from the whirlpool,” Burdt says. At Monday Night, Kiley also recommends including some hot-side IBUs to provide backbone to the bitterness. Whirlpool hop additions, meanwhile, have become industry standard.
Dry hops are pivotal to these beers, and they contribute more than aroma. They add subtle bitterness and body, and they can increase the perception of sweetness, so they have a lot to say in the complex interplay of flavor and mouthfeel, and thus in the question of balance. Success hinges on a range of choices, from hop selection to hopping rate to the timing of hop additions, as the brewer dials in just how much sweetness and how much bitterness—all while steering clear, ideally, of unwanted astringency, which can also amplify the perception of alcohol.
Brewers often speak of the “sweetness” of certain hop-aroma profiles, seeking either to limit, balance, or amplify that trait. Burdt’s go-to hops for Nose Goblin are Mosaic, Simcoe, Strata, Nelson, Citra, and Columbus—all effective for his desired balance of fruit-forward sweetness and dankness. Meanwhile, to achieve the tropical-fruit notes in Mast Landing’s Pantless Thunder Goose, Shepherd likes a combination of El Dorado, Mosaic, Kohatu, and Taiheke. At Equilibrium in Middletown, New York, cofounder and brewmaster Peter Oates says he finds El Dorado a bit too sweet for these stronger IPAs, but he loves Citra for contributing to Equilibrium’s own target flavor profile (which they describe as “rainbow melon”).
At White Lion, Yates and DeGassero say they like how Columbus seems to cut through and balance sweetness, while they find combos such as Citra-Mosaic helpful for adding sweeter fruit flavors. They name El Dorado as a hop that potentially contributes too much perceived sweetness—but Yates says he “wouldn’t stress too much about it. I definitely find it interesting to combine varieties, so they don’t come across as one-dimensional—for instance, the pine/resin of Simcoe with the orange/citrus of Citra.”
Beyond the choices of times and varieties, there is also the choice of form, from whole cones (increasingly rare) through T-90 pellets (industry standard) and on to products such as extracts and Cryo (increasingly popular). Such products can be useful tools for reducing vegetal mass, limiting vegetal flavors, and improving yield.
Then there is the question of when to dry hop. For Space Lettuce, Kiley says they add the first dry-hop addition—all Cryo, derived from Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe—when the beer is at about 75 percent of expected attenuation. The Monday Night team has decided that sitting on hops too long doesn’t help a beer, so they drop hops relatively quickly. They add a second dry-hop addition of Mosaic and Citra Cryo once the beer reaches terminal gravity.
For Pantless Thunder Goose, Shepherd says they add most of the beer’s hops on the cold side. “We’re not isomerizing alpha acids, and we’re still getting bitterness from a decent amount of hops in suspension. Plus [as they oxidize,] the hops’ beta acids are perceived as bitter to the drinker.”
Avoiding hop burn and vegetal flavors is key to achieving drinkability in these big IPAs. At Mast Landing, that means limiting contact time, not over-hopping, and splitting the dry hops into multiple additions. Extra conditioning time can also help smooth out any edges.
“Fermentation, Fermentation, Fermentation”
The best-laid plans for grain and hops go awry, however, without a healthy fermentation.
For a higher-strength IPA, you want an attenuative yeast strain. Even if you don’t choose the most attenuative strain—perhaps it’s a house strain, or you’re prioritizing reined-in esters or a pillowy mouthfeel—you will still need an ample, healthy pitch to cleanly chew through that gravity.
“Make sure you’re pitching enough to compensate for the increased sugar,” says Yates at White Lion. “Always use more yeast for higher-ABV beers.” At Other Half, Richardson recommends a yeast count at least 50 percent higher than you would use for mid-strength IPAs.
It’s no surprise that fermentation—supplemented by thorough oxygenation and an awareness of data—is a major area of emphasis at the home of Voodoo Ranger. “More than malt bill, brewhouse operations, hop variety, or dry-hop technique, the most important factor to making high-ABV beers is effective yeast management,” says Matt Gilliland, brewing innovations specialist at New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado. “The yeast strain itself has to be capable of fermenting to a high ABV in a higher-IBU environment without producing off-flavors or losing viability. Pitching rate has to be exact and include factors for viability and vitality. Wort aeration is critical. It has to be exactly in the correct ppm of oxygen in solution, or the fermentation is doomed from the beginning.”
At Monday Night, with Space Lettuce, Kiley says they use an English ale strain and start fermentation at 66–67°F (19°C). It stays there for two days, then they allow it to rise slightly to complete fermentation and clean up diacetyl—but not too high, or there is a risk of accentuating the ethanol. “These lower fermentation temperatures … help to make more gentle alcohol,” he says. “If you get hot, you start stepping toward [fusel notes].”
Burdt takes a similar approach with Nose Goblin, but they start even cooler with the Chico strain—White Labs WLP001 California Ale is their go-to. They knock out at 60°F (16°C) and ferment at 62°C (17°C) until the gravity has dropped to 5°P (1.020), “at which point I’ll bump up the jackets to 67°F [19°C] and let the beer finish off.”
Nose Goblin gets a cooler fermentation than other Ghost Town IPAs, which normally ferment at 66°F (19°C), Burdt says. However, for these higher-ABV IPAs, the lower temperatures help keep fusel alcohols and esters in check. “We can hit 9.5 percent all day long with aromas and flavors of alcohol,” he says, but they don’t want to rush these beers. Going low and slow, they give them about nine days to reach terminal gravity.
Gray at 7venth Sun brings the process full circle while talking about fermentation. Going back to the foundation, she talks about building your grain bill properly to work toward the level of attenuation you want from your yeast. When you’re building a big and bold yet dangerously drinkable IPA, fermentation is paramount—yet even with the healthiest yeast, most finely tuned temperatures, and healthiest pitch rates, you still need malt and hops selected and used with intention.
Anyone can brew an imperial, double, triple IPA just by going bigger. Yet only by having a clear idea of your goal and understanding how all these elements depend on each other—grain and mash choices, hops and how they’re used, and a careful, healthy fermentation—can you be sure to brew one that drinks as easily as one on the lighter end of the spectrum.