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The age of the rotating-hop IPA series is upon us

Drinkers' demand for what's new + a burst of experimental hop growing = so many rotating IPAs, it'll make your head spin.
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IPAs and double IPAs brewed with rotating hopsFirestone-Walker’s successful Luponic Distortion series has only existed since March 2016, but the brewery has already released four IPAs under that umbrella with a fifth on the way. Finback canned its first in the Oscillation series of double IPAs in late summer 2015 and has whizzed through six subsequent versions of it. Burial introduced its Ceremonial IPA in April 2016 and cans a new iteration every month. That’s a lot of hops flying around in a short amount of time, and drinkers are lapping it up.

For definition’s sake: A rotating-hop series is a singularly named beer (Luponic Distortion, Oscillation, Ceremonial, etc.) that uses new, sometimes not-even-named-yet hops with each release. Great Divide just announced a new rotating-hop IPA, Hop Disciples, slated to be available January through April and brewed with a new hop annually (this year it’s Idaho 7 hops). And Foothills will release a new IPA series called Craft Happiness, with a new recipe and a new charitable cause each month beginning in February.

It’s a golden era for these rotating-hop IPAs from breweries both large and small, though the series violate one of the core “rules” most brewers are taught: consistency.

“When we went to brewing school, the rules were consistency and reproducibility and we were told there’d be a consumer backlash if you didn’t pursue consistency. They basically branded that on your head,” says Firestone-Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson.

From Brynildson’s vantage point, that’s flipped. Drinkers now demand not just a quality beer, but one that they haven’t yet tried.

“The craft beer drinker for the most part is super attention deficient, always looking for what’s new,” he says. “They’re bored with what they’ve had before. We saw the effects with Opal and Wookie Jack; they’re beautiful beers and sales weren’t dropping off a cliff but things were starting to slug off. We were seeing older and older bottles of those beers on the shelf. I felt like people were saying they love them, but [they] don’t drink them.”

Beer drinkers’ near-unslakable demand for new beers, especially IPAs, is one part of the rise of rotating-hop series IPAs. The other is an increase in experimental hop growing (the breeding and cultivation of new and hybridized hop varieties).

“I think there were always people who wanted to try new things, but the biggest change from 10 years ago is the explosion in new hop growing,” says Bob Malone, who works in special operations (a.k.a. pilot brewing) for Great Divide.

Great Divide Hop Disciples IPA six pack

Courtesy of Great Divide

The recognition of those two factors led directly to Finback’s Oscillation series, each version of which is brewed in a 60-barrel batch and generally sells out from the brewery within a weekend. A small amount makes it into local New York distribution. “You start drinking things with the same hop profile and it’s nice to switch it up,” says Finback co-founder Basil Lee. “In terms of anything super exotic or experimental, it was to see that we’d be able to brew with it in the Oscillation series but not be committed to it in a large quantity.”

Hop purchasing is also an issue for a larger brewery like Firestone-Walker, but in a different way. Firestone-Walker is so large that if it wanted to brew a new year-round IPA with experimental hops, brewers would need much more than a supplier could provide.

“Take Luponic Distorition number four. We used hops from South Africa that would never have made their way into a brewery of our size’s regular portfolio because there just aren’t enough out there,” Brynildson says.

It’s the rare trend that works for breweries both big and small (Brynildson gets to play with small-scale hops; Finback doesn’t have to commit to a truckload of cans for a beer name they’ll only brew once). But does it work for drinkers?

It seems to. The key: keeping a series’ individual beers close enough to each other so as not to alienate fans. When Oscillation began as a draft-only series, for example, it encompassed all types of IPAs including black IPAs and double rye IPAs. Finback quickly dialed it in, and now the recipe is fairly specific: “They’re kind of like iterations of the same idea,” Lee says. “We were always infatuated with IPAs that are definitely softer and have bitterness, but it’s a bitterness that goes away for an easy-drinking, more hop fruit-forward hop flavor than a bitter bomb.”

Oscillation’s ABV stays between 8 and 8.5%, and is generally brewed with the same pale Pilsner malt base. What changes is the make up of its dry-hopping, or the hops that are added after the wort’s boiled so they contribute hop aroma and flavor without much added bitterness.

“Generally, we use three hops for dry-hopping Oscillation. Sometimes it’s really Simcoe-heavy Oscillation; sometimes it’s Citra-heavy Oscillation; but we try to incorporate one or two really popular hops like Mosaic or Citra or Simcoe and then play around with another,” Lee says. “It’s crazy how much the flavor can change just by adding a little El Dorado or something.”

It’s likewise streamlined at Firestone-Walker: “What we’re trying to accomplish [with Luponic Distortion] is a beer that has essentially the same weight, balance, bitterness, body, color, so the foundation and bones of that beer are the same. Really all we change is the dry hop. The hope is that our fans are confident that they’ll get that same drinkability, weight, things they like about it and then they can enjoy the ‘new’ beer in terms of aromatics.”

Despite similarities from version to version of these series, drinkers are going to have opinions and preferences on which version is best. Brynildson says Firestone-Walker doesn’t have any plans to bring back past versions, but there’s hope at Finback, which spun out Oscillation version three into its own beer, Moss, and which may do the same for melon- and pineapple-forward Oscillation seven.

Whatever you do, no matter which previous version you like best, please don’t hang on to it, brewers beg. You’ll be drinking months-old beer, which will never taste as good as a fresh batch.

Drink them fresh, learn about some new hops and don’t overthink it, advises Finback co-founder Kevin Stafford. “Personally I think there’s been way too much, for better and for worse, thinking about beers in some ways. Just enjoy the beer when it comes out; it’s a fleeting moment and hopefully for 15 minutes, that beer gives you some pleasure.”

One Comment

  • Will says:

    I’m surprised to not see Night Shift’s Morph mentioned here. A great example of rotating hops with some really experimental ones

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