Recent affinity for hops that impart tropical flavors of melon, pineapple and passionfruit seems to have brewers on island time. Coconut, typically an ingredient reserved for darker stouts and porters, has become a more common addition to IPAs and double IPAs as summer approaches.
The key, most brewers say, is to weave fruity hops with the flavor and aroma of real, unsweetened coconut, none of that extract stuff. (“In the past I’ve done coconut extract and it does come off very suntan lotion-y,” as Denver Beer Co. head brewer Jason Buehler puts it.) Trendy hop varieties like Mosaic and Citra lay a hop baseline of orange marmalade and tropical fruit over which the coconut can riff, ultimately creating a pina colada or fruit smoothie effect.
One of the first widely available coconut IPAs was Stone Brewing’s R&R IPA, a collaboration with homebrewers Robert Masterson and Ryan Reschan, who won the brewery’s 2013 American Homebrewers Association competition. Now, Robert Masterson is the brewmaster at San Diego’s Resident Brewing, where he makes a yearround coconut IPA called Vacation.
“I wanted to take what we did at Stone but make it the beer that I wanted. The Stone version ended up more bitter with not enough coconut flavor for me, not enough tropical notes. I wanted to make it how I wanted to make it,” he says.
Lately we’ve also spotted hoppy coconut beers from Chicago’s Hop Butcher For The World (Watch For Falling Coconuts pale ale); San Diego’s Belching Beaver (Great Lei Pineapple and Coconut IPA); San Francisco’s Almanac (Tiki IPA with pineapple, mango, coconut and rum oak spirals); NYC’s Finback in collaboration with Miami’s J. Wakefield (Smooth Beats Miami coconut IPA); Berkeley, California’s Fieldwork Brewing (Coconut Milk double IPA with lactose); Chicago’s Half Acre (LA Looks IPA with coconut butter); Denver Beer Co. (Maui Express coconut IPA); Columbus, Ohio’s Wolf’s Ridge (Howling Moon double IPA with coconut, Driftwood session IPA with coconut, Desert Isle-PA pale ale with coconut and orange); among others.
We’d likely see more of them, according to Fieldwork head brewer and co-owner Alex Tweet, if coconut beers weren’t such a pain to make. When using real coconut, the ingredient’s potential snags are many, from accidentally burning coconut flakes while toasting them to cleaning sticky coconut muck out of brewing vessels.
“When you’re done cleaning the tank, you look like Swamp Thing,” he says. “People love drinking this beer, but we hate making this beer, so we only make it once a year [for San Francisco Beer Week].”
Coconut, like any nontraditional beer ingredient, can also be difficult to bring into proportion with the beer’s other elements. This is especially true of IPAs and double IPAs, where the hops should still shine while allowing the coconut to play a noticeable role.
Tweet says he’s tweaked the hopping on Coconut Milk from being more citrus-forward to pineapple juice-focused, borrowing the dry hopping combo he uses for another Fieldwork beer, Grove Stand.
Likewise, Masterson uses the hops to contribute pineapple and tropical notes that evoke a favorite summertime cocktail.
“Hop selection is based on getting some tropical notes, going back to the pina colada inspiration,” he says. “We’ve ways used Citra but have played with Mandarina Bavaria and Amarillo as well. We’re hoping to get more on the citrusy side, not grapefruit but orange or orange marmalade, the sweeter side of the citrus, not the bitter.”
At Denver Beer Co., Buehler layers just a bit of Citra underneath the dominant Mosaic hops for two types of fruit aroma and flavor.
“You get tropical fruitiness from Mosaic and Citra gives it a nice lemony-orangey background that ties it together,” he says. “I was tempted to go all Mosaic because that hop aroma and flavor goes perfect with coconut, but I thought it wouldn’t be deep enough with just Mosaic.”
Brewers say there’s a misconception that coconut is a sweet ingredient that will automatically balance the hops’ bitterness. Not necessary so. All the brewers I spoke to use unsweetened coconut; some toast it, others leave it as-is. For Maui Express, Bueller uses untoasted coconut added post-fermentation, which allows the alcohol in the beer to leach out the fruit’s inherent flavor. He describes it as “raw coconut, more of a whole food, natural-type flavor.”
Wolf’s Ridge brewer Chris Davison does toast the coconut he uses for a version of Howling Moon (which won People’s Choice at Fat Head’s Celebration of the Hop festival last year), but says that its sweetness is mostly an association with desserts or sweet drinks in people’s minds. Coconut is actually not a terribly sugary ingredient.
“We’re using unsweetened coconut, so while there’s obviously some sugar in the fruit or nut itself, it’s not a ton. It’s like working with vanilla bean, there’s a perceived sweetness there,” he says. “It definitely mutes the bitterness quite well, which is a draw for people who wouldn’t otherwise like double IPAs or such a big hoppy beer.”
Many of these hop-heavy coconut beers have been huge hits for their respective breweries; Davison says Desert Isle-PA flies off the taproom’s draft lines, and Resident’s found enough fans of its Vacation IPA to make it a core beer. Coconut is sometimes considered a polarizing flavor, one that you either like or don’t, with little middle ground. Then again, almost everyone can agree that summertime does put island escapism on the brain.
“To me, it’s the whole idea of Maui Express was that it’s a way for us in Colorado or Denver to transport your mind to the tropics,” says Buehler. “It’s tropical, fruity, refreshing … makes you want to be outside.”
Three to look for
Wolf’s Ridge Howling Moon with Coconut
Sweet breadiness, like Crescent rolls, controls this double IPA’s aroma, with toasted coconut, vanilla and caramel accenting the edges; hops read as a fuzzy, overripe orange. The sip introduces way more coconut with a smooth, toasty quality that segues into a sweet, bready finish flecked by spicy, woody hops.
Denver Beer Co. Maui Express
This new coconut IPA’s aroma is 95 percent dank, resinous, sticky hops, like fresh, wet lawn clippings; the other five percent is a rich, almost fatty tropical note similar to coconut oil. That duality echoes on the tongue, where bold IPA leads the charge; sticky cannabislike hops cede to some pineapple hop notes that connect beautifully with the coconut. It’s mild up front, finishes with a burst moist coconut shavings like the ivory innards of an Almond Joy bar.
Hop Butcher For The World Watch For Falling Coconuts
Rich, sweet coconut, pineapple and honey combine with a rummy hazelnut quality to give this coconut pale ale something like an upside-down cake aroma, sprinkled with hop-derived grapefruit. The bitter-leaning sip, though, indicates that this is clearly a pale ale first: Grassy, citrusy hops flow alongside sweet coconut and pineapple, finishing with a bit of parsley.