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The rise of the incredible, edible IPA

From tacos to milkshakes, food flavors are being cooked into an unlikely beer style: the India pale ale.
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Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

It’s late summer in Arizona and Jon Buford appears to be in his usual state: beard long and scraggly, eyes bright, one hand clasped firmly around a glass of beer. But this particular beer seems to have the Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. founder especially excited.

“Look at this,” he says, lifting his glass so the butterscotch-hued liquid inside can catch the light. “That is waffle color to a T. And you can totally get the batter and the maple. I would drink that with breakfast.”

“I would pour that on my breakfast,” the patron next to him chimes in.

The beer they’re talking about is Leggo My Ego, a double IPA the Gilbert, Arizona-based brewery released that afternoon. It’s unlike anything Wilderness has previously done: First, it’s a New England IPA, a substyle known for its turbidity and juicy hop character. It’s also been double dry-hopped with Simcoe and Belma—the latter chosen, Buford says, for its distinct strawberry aroma, which the brewers felt would go well with the waffles. Oh, did I forget to mention the waffles?

Leggo My Ego is no random pun: More than 100 waffles, composed of a special egg-free batter and formed on a single waffle iron, joined the hoppy wort in the hopback and dissolved inside the liquid on its way to the fermenter. Days later, grade B maple syrup joined the party, and a wholly new spin on IPA was born.

Not that we should be surprised: Of the hundred or so recognized beer styles, few have undergone as many evolutions as IPA. From earthy, woody English IPAs to brashly bitter West Coast IPAs and cloudy, juicy New England IPAs, with black and white and red and Belgian and fruit-infused varieties popping up all along the way, the style is constantly being shifted, updated and riffed upon.

Dropping whole waffles in an IPA is truly different, but Arizona Wilderness is by no means alone in infusing hoppy beers with actual food and food flavors. Fieldwork Brewing Co.’s Coconut Milk double IPA tastes like a smoothie thanks to toasted coconut and heaps of lactose. Brew Gentlemen’s Creamsicle Smoov-E mimics the citrusy ice cream treat with lactose, oats, vanilla beans and 30 pounds of oranges, clementines and Meyer lemons in the brew. Then, of course, there’s Stone Mocha IPA, a copper-colored coffee- and cocoa-infused beer that would be as welcome in a Starbucks as in a brewery taproom.

These aren’t simple tweaks on basic recipes; these are IPAs built to mimic the flavors, aromas, even the texture of familiar dishes. These are culinary IPAs.

Arizona Wilderness brewed Leggo My Ego, an IPA with waffles and maple syrup

Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

Hop of the Food Chain

The common thread in these food-flavored IPAs is hops, specifically the addition of vanguard varieties like Citra, Motueka, Mosaic and others with kaleidoscopic flavor profiles that run from lime and berry to mint and mango. Those hops enable brewers to engage other ingredients like lemons, coffee, chocolate, vanilla and more. “That’s the point of what I’m doing: It’s about exploring and pushing the boundaries of hop combinations and hop profiles and how they interact with other flavors that are commonly found in food,” says Jean Broillet IV, head brewer and co-owner of Tired Hands Brewing Co. in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

Broillet dives deep, conjuring versions that literally taste like complex dishes. On Cinco de Mayo, he’s serving Taco Hands, an extreme carnitas taco-inspired IPA made with flaked maize and taco shells, cumin, coriander, pasilla chiles, cilantro, lime zest and lime juice that gets another boost of citrus from mojitolike Motueka hops. That one’s brewed with Cellarmaker Brewing, as is PhoMoMoCoe, which combines the herbal and orangelike notes of Mosaic and Simcoe hops with Thai basil, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, chiles, rice noodles, hoisin sauce and sriracha for a recreation of Vietnamese pho.

We can only expect that the breadth of these plate-inspired pints will expand as new hops are engineered. And innovative varieties are always on the horizon, according to Bill Elkins, who manages craft brewery accounts in the Western U.S. and Canada for Hopsteiner, a company that develops, grows and sells hops. He says that within Hopsteiner’s hop-breeding program, the first thing that drives the potential release of new varieties is agronomics— meaning hops have to be grower-friendly, resisting both disease and pests while exhibiting good cone structure and yield.

Regardless of aroma or flavor, a hop that’s going to make it to The Show has to be a viable crop. After that, however … “Our goal is to find a hop that’s different,” Elkins says. “We’re looking for mint, menthol, earth, spice, jam, bubblegum, grapefruit, lemon, Juicy Fruit, pineapple, tea; things that are pretty unique and will come through in a beer so brewmasters are able to make things that are interesting and are not ‘me too’ beers.”

One such variety being tested (which counts among its parents classic grapefruit- and pine-filled Cascade) smells and tastes, according to Elkins, like rich strawberry jam, red licorice and black cherry cola. Another, when rubbed, gives off the unmistakable aroma of Creamsicles. And then there’s variety 06300 (hops that are still considered “experimental” get a letter or number designation) that Elkins says is the most unusual variety he’s ever encountered, exuding aromas of orange, chocolate and coconut. A majority of the brewers have incorporated it into dark ales heavy with chocolate malt, no doubt aiming to capitalize on its dessertlike qualities. But 06300 and the rest of Hopsteiner’s unnamed varieties are still considered experiments; it will be several years before any of them hit the global hop market, if they do at all. The whole process, from the day a hop is crossbred to the day it’s named and commercialized, can take between seven and 10 years. A decade from now, what flavors will we find in hops—and what ludicrous new beers will brewers make with them?

“Every time a new variety comes across my desk, it conjures up images of something food-related. Something that isn’t beer. That’s the point of doing sensory analysis: What does this taste like? What does this remind me of?” Broillet says. “Every experimental variety has the potential, in my mind, for something even more exciting.”

Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

The Great Milkshake-up

Broillet isn’t the only brewer who found he could use new hop flavors to connect IPA to food. As Broillet pushed the boundaries of the style with a focus on cuisine, Henok Fentie of Swedish gypsy brewery Omnipollo was tweaking the style into new territories by focusing on a different aspect entirely: texture.

“I’m very fascinated with trying to create something that’s dry but creamy,” Fentie says. “Those two things sort of don’t go together, because you need to add a lot of ingredients or sweeteners to get a creamy aspect in general. So the idea of brewing a creamy IPA, where drinkability is key, and trying to add this aspect of thick, rich mouthfeel is something that was really interesting to me.”

Fentie’s experiments in texture eventually led him to brew Magic 411, an IPA that incorporated strawberries, rhubarb, vanilla and lactose, paired with heaps of Mosaic and Citra hops. This was the first of Omnipollo’s “smoothie IPAs” and many others soon followed, including Magic 4:21 (brewed with raspberries, vanilla and lactose sugar), Magic 90000 (made with vanilla, lactose, almond flour, crushed pecans and bilberries, a cousin of the blueberry) and Abrahadabra (brewed with oats, wheat, lactose, berries and Citra hops). These beers created a splash with their unconventional flavors and cloudiness; of course, they weren’t without their critics.

“At one point, one of them said they were tired of ‘these damn milkshake IPAs,’” Fentie recalls. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we just brew a milkshake IPA?’”

And so he did, combining forces with Broillet and Tired Hands to craft what has become the most beloved and wellknown example of a food-focused IPA: Milkshake. Brewed with green apple puree (added not for flavor but for pectin, which thickens the beer to luscious levels) as well as lactose, strawberries, vanilla beans and a double dry-hopping of Citra and Mosaic hops, the creamy IPA was an instant hit. Tired Hands has since gone on to craft a rotating series of milkshake IPAs that may be the best domestically brewed examples of what can be accomplished when food flavors and hops combine. Broillet even brewed a Zucchini Bread Milkshake IPA with brown sugar-rubbed, baked and pureed zucchini, plus cinnamon and vanilla. The flavors vary, but each succeeds, he says, by tapping into comfortable, almost childlike memories of flavor.

Brewers incorporate ingredients like strawberries and vanilla into their food-inspired IPAs

Photo by Ed Rudolph | Styling by Jill McNamara

Meal in a Glass

It should be noted that culinary IPAs are something completely different from the grapefruit-, mango-, pineapple- and other fruit-flavored hoppy beers that have stormed shelves recently. Brewers of the culinary IPA aren’t just dropping in a single ingredient and claiming they’ve created something new. “I’m not brewing a pizza IPA and tossing a frozen DiGiorno in the boil,” Broillet says.

These beers, like the foods they mimic, are constructed from the ground up, layered with flavors and crafted with clear intent.

“A milkshake existed before I brewed a milkshake IPA, and a milkshake isn’t necessarily just one flavor. You can’t just make a milkshake out of one ingredient,” Broillet says. “In the more exciting IPAs, we’re riffing off pretty complicated culinary ideas or practices. We’re tapping into something that already has a pretty complicated history or design, and then applying those sensibilities to a badass IPA that would hopefully taste pretty good on its own and then is accentuated by this secondary structure.”

The culinary IPA succeeds by fusing the ingredients so many beer geeks prize above all others—hops—with the foods and drinks we recognize and love. And as growers develop more hop varieties with ever-expanding spheres of flavor, even more drinkers will come to experience the joy of getting a buzz off a hoppy liquid waffle.

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