Cold IPA is, for lack of a better word, hot.
I mean this in both the literal sense—it ferments relatively warm—and in the figurative sense. For a designation that’s barely two years old, cold IPA is getting a lot of attention.
There are now hundreds of examples on the market; a quick search of a beer-review site can show you just how far and wide the concept of cold IPA has already spread. The style also provokes a lot of discussion among brewers and in the beer media. A recent online discussion among fellow brewing writers turned up five of us all working on articles about it at the same time. So, there is obviously interest in the topic (and, with my competitive fires now stoked, I hope you’ll find this article to be the best and most timely of the bunch).
For those who aren’t familiar, we’ll take a step back and define the style as clearly as possible. Then we’ll review some recipe and process approaches that should put you on the right path toward brewing a great one.
What Cold IPA Isn’t—and What It Is
Let’s start with what cold IPA is not—it’s not just a new name for India pale lager (IPL). The latter is basically just an IPA fermented like a lager, while cold IPA has other requirements.
Shaun O’Sullivan, brewmaster and cofounder of 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, describes IPLs as “essentially, repurposed IPA recipes with their complex malt structure but brewed with a lager yeast.” Cold IPA, on the other hand, is more closely related to West Coast–style IPA and to ale-lager hybrids such as altbier, Kölsch, and California common.
It’s also not another rendition of Brut IPA—remember those?—though it shares some similar goals in terms of body and flavor. And it’s definitely not another entry into the hazy/juicy pantheon. In fact, Kevin Davey, brewmaster at Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Oregon—and the acknowledged progenitor of the cold IPA—often says it is the “antithesis” of New England–style IPA.
That’s what it’s not. So, what is it?
Cold IPA is a dry, crisp, clean IPA that hearkens to a type of IPA that was fully hop-forward—that is to say, it showcases both the bittering potential of hops as well as their flavorful oils against a spartan grist backdrop. That grist often is heavy on adjuncts such as corn or rice, which lighten the body and leave more room for the hops to shine. It typically uses lager yeast fermented at warm-ish, ale-like temperatures to drive attenuation without adding a bunch of esters or other fermentation characteristics. The end result should be a low final gravity and a clean, snappy, brisk finish. That’s why Davey at Wayfinder describes theirs as “wester than West Coast.”
Wayfinder Original Cold IPA—previously named Relapse, first brewed to honor the 30th anniversary of heavy-metal label Relapse Records—features a big citrus-and-pine hop aroma, high bitterness (70+ IBUs), and medium-high ABV (about 7 percent). Its grist is about 30 percent rice, and the rest is pilsner. (Notably, the beer impressed our judges and editors alike two years ago, becoming one of Craft Beer & Brewing’s Best 20 Beers in 2020. Want to brew your own version? See “Recipe: Wayfinder Relapse IPA,” beerandbrewing.com.)
Obviously, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and other variations exist. For example, Mitch Steele, brewmaster at New Realm in Atlanta and author of IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, goes for lower IBUs and slightly lower strength; his collab with O’Sullivan at 21st Amendment, called Rice Cold, got a Mexican lager yeast and checked in at 6.8 percent ABV.
However, the upshot is the same: This beer is a clean, crisp hop showcase.
For a new style—not yet a category defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) or Brewers Association competitions—there already is a surprisingly high degree of consensus about what a cold IPA should taste, smell, look, and feel like. That near-consensus makes it easier to discuss how to build a recipe for your own take on the style.
Let’s start with the grist
Every brewer with whom I spoke encouraged the generous use of corn or rice. Steele recommends 10 to 20 percent; at Wayfinder, Davey goes higher, at 20 to 40 percent.
For my money, straddling that range feels perfect, at least as a starting point. Getting 20 percent of your gravity points from adjuncts ensures a high level of fermentability and a light, brisk mouthfeel. No need to do a cereal mash, unless you just want to—these can come in the form of flaked or torrified products, or syrups.
With a big charge of solid adjuncts, however, we’ll need to be sure there’s sufficient diastatic power to complete our sugar conversions. One easy, grist-based solution to this challenge is to use American pilsner or two-row malt. “Only use American malt, never European,” Davey says. “American malts, by default, are what we call ‘hot’ malts. They have a ton of extra enzyme potential and extra protein.” So, fill the rest of the grist bill with American pilsner/two-row, and leave the specialty malts at home. No crystal, no toast.
What we’re producing here, in practical grist terms, is a strong cream ale—or, as Davey puts it, American malt liquor. Bring your original gravity to about 1.065–1.070, using the 80/20 ratio of grain to adjunct, and you should be in great shape.
Now for the hop bill
For hops, we essentially have three questions to consider—bitterness, timing, and varieties.
For an IBU target, from a drinkability perspective, I’m not sold on 70-plus. Let’s consider the gravity-to-bitterness ratio—that is, IBUs to gravity points. Going up to 70 IBUs for an OG of 1.070 creates a 1:1 ratio. That suggests a high risk of creating a harsh beer; tweaking your water chemistry in the wrong direction or getting a particularly raspy/cohumulone-heavy batch of hops could make this very unpleasant, very quickly.
At the same time, we don’t want to go too low; this style is supposed to be bitter, and 20 to 30 IBUs may not provide enough bitterness in soft water or with milder hops. I think 50 IBUs is a better place to start your recipe, and then you can adjust from there based on your tasting notes.
For timing, I’ve had success with one 30-minute addition plus flameout/whirlpool hopping and dry hops. One caveat, though: If you’re using lower-alpha hops for bittering—say, 7 percent alpha acids or lower—I’d move those back nearer to the start of the boil, to get more bitterness without having too much plant matter in the wort. Those green, vegetal flavors can really stand out against such a light malt background. Anyway, most of the hop aroma and flavor is coming from later additions, so there’s little harm done if you boil away the oils on your bittering hops.
As to which hop varieties to use, a majority of commercially available cold IPAs appear to be using classic American “C” hops or their relatives—but that doesn’t mean you need to do the same. This is a great style to showcase Australian or New Zealand hops with their spice-and-citrus aromatics, or some of the new-wave aroma varieties coming out of Germany. (Hüll Melon really shone in one of my test batches.)
Finally, about that lager yeast
As far as what makes a cold IPA what it is, the yeast is probably the most important ingredient. The warm-ish fermentation temperature—typically around 65°F (18°C), compared to 50–55°F (10–13°C) for a typical lager—is going to push the boundaries of your selected yeast strain. It pays to pick one that can handle it.
“If you pick the wrong strain for fermenting warm, you could end up with a hot, sulfury, fruity mess,” Steele says. Thus, our choice should be a strain that guards against that eventuality.
Matt Winans, R&D scientist at Imperial Yeast in Portland, Oregon, has an unequivocal recommendation: “The top yeast strain for this style is L13 Global, which is a species of the Frohberg lager lineage which includes the Weihenstephan 34/70 brewing strain.” Imperial’s version of the strain is comparable to Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager, White Labs WLP830 German Lager, and SafLager W-34/70. This is the workhorse of the lager world, and its ability to ferment cleanly up to 65–68°F (18–20°C) is both well-known and probably what led to the creation of cold IPA in the first place.
That 34/70 strain is what gives my German pilsner such a wonderfully stark, clean background. It does the same job here, clearing the way for the hops to shine. Fermenting it warmer also reduces a trademark concern in this strain—diacetyl—while preserving its clean-fermenting character and pushing attenuation to really dry out the beer.
This is also the strain that they use for cold IPA at 21st Amendment. O’Sullivan calls it “very robust” and adds that even at those higher temperatures it doesn’t produce fruity esters.
Davey himself has said that a Kölsch or altbier strain could work fine for a cold IPA. However, it might add more esters than you want; esters can give an impression of sweetness, which we definitely don’t want here.
California common strains—namely, White Labs WLP810 San Francisco Lager or Wyeast 2112 California Lager—could also work, though they may not attenuate quite as well. I’d stick with the 34/70 varieties, which are widely available.
Ultimately, cold IPA recipes benefit from a “keep it simple” approach. Don’t gild the lily.
If you want, you can use this beer to test out some of your more advanced brewing skills—but whatever you do, don’t take your time. There’s no need for long lagering here; you should finish this off in your standard ale time frame. Except for the yeast strain, treat it like an IPA.
Be sure that your mash schedule matches your chosen ingredients. Davey recommends that you give raw rice or corn a try: “If using a raw adjunct—and I highly suggest you do—it must be sent through a gelatinization rest and boiled. Cold IPA is a complicated beer because of this—but hey, it’s 2022, and homebrewing should and could be harder!”
I don’t know about that last bit—it’s me, Josh, the “keep it simple” guy—but Davey makes a great point about process: If using whole adjuncts, mill them finely and do a cereal mash or decoction. (For tips, see “Cereal Mashup,” beerandbrewing.com.) If that sounds like more work than you want to do, there’s no shame in using pre-gelatinized flakes or syrups in a simple, single-step infusion mash.
Boil as usual. See above about hop timing; if you whirlpool, that’s a chance to add a burst of hops for flavor—and, indeed, that’s become a common choice among pro brewers for all sorts of hop-forward beers, including cold IPAs.
When you get to the fermentor, there are some things to bear in mind. We’ve already discussed fermenting warmer—I recommend the 60–65°F (16–18°C) range, which serves several useful functions. First, it will drive attenuation, which is vital to the profile. Second, it will help avoid sulfur, since vigorous fermentation helps to blow off hydrogen sulfide. (You can also “scrub” beer of sulfur post-fermentation, but it’s easier to address in the fermentor.) Last, we can dry hop warm: When fermentation activity begins to slow, go ahead and add those dry hops.
With this yeast, you might not get much benefit from biotransformation—feel free to try a standard dry-hopping regimen, to see if you prefer it—but a warm, mid-fermentation dry hop does, at least, save time. When activity stops in three to five days, that’s it—we’re done. “Cold crash, fine, and send to the brite tank,” Davey says. “Voilà! The whole process is 17 to 19 days. This is not a lagered beer; it’s an IPA.”
Our last step is to carbonate. Some brewers recommended a somewhat elevated carbonation level—2.6 to 2.75 volumes of CO2. I can see two logical reasons for this. First, given the high attenuation and light body, low carbonation might make it feel a bit too thin on the palate. Bumping up the carb helps to increase the perception of body. Second, it also adds some carbonic bite that helps to accentuate the bitterness and dryness, which are important to the profile.
Finally: Why “Cold IPA”?
I know what some of you are thinking: “Do we really need another variant on IPA?”
Frankly, yes. We do. Cold IPA is both good and coherent as a style.
I’ve used this approach to fermentation—warm fermentations with lager yeasts—before in a variety of styles, and it just works. It creates clean, crisp, dry beers that highlight the flavors of the ingredients. Brut IPA had the right idea but was a challenging method, dependent on added enzymes. Cold IPA takes a simpler path to a similar profile.
The “cold” bit may be incidental, but here’s Davey’s explanation for why he coined it: “Maybe I’m just trying to stick the image in your head of an ice-cold beer, but hoppy as f*ck.”
More to the point: An appellation is warranted because it describes a distinct, consistent beer style. Epic Brewing in Denver was kind enough to send me their Yelling at Clouds Cold IPA, and I’ve tasted a range of local and regional varieties, too. They are all hitting a similar target. With all due respect to the New England style, which has been wildly successful, there is a degree of cohesion around cold IPA that the haze craze struggles to achieve.
Cold IPA is both desirable and definable, and that augurs well for its survivability in the market.