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The problem with Belgian IPAs

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belgian IPA

I love North American hops. I also love Belgian beers (and Belgian-style beers, or American spins on something that shouldn’t be called Belgian at all, as beer writer Stephen Beaumont insists). But smash those together, and what you’re often left with is a beery multiple personality disorder, and it’s not always pleasant. I’m talking about Belgian IPAs.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of the “anything” IPA—black, red, white, wild, etc. Basically, they’re just established styles, like porters or brown ales, dosed with same level of hops as an American IPA. The practice receives its fair share of criticism, largely from purists and drinkers not under the trance of hops. I love hops, therefore, I say you should add more to everything. But even I’m a little bit exhausted by so-called Belgian IPAs.

Now, I’m not talking about overly hopped witbiers (white IPAs) or saisons (farmhouse IPAs). Those, I love. The problematic Belgian IPA either comes in the form of a hoppy tripel or a hoppy golden strong ale. In most cases, the concept’s flawed by design.

The two Belgian styles offer pretty similar profiles: Delicate fruit notes of orange, lemon, pear and apple; spicy pepper and clove; a touch of candy sweetness; and a dry, clean finish. Now, add the pungent pine, sharp grapefruit and scraping bitterness of American hops, and things often take a turn for the worse.

Dank, piney hops simply don’t play well with the sweet fruit notes of a tripel or golden strong ale. Nor does massive hop bitterness, which amplifies the styles’ sharp peppery flavors and drying alcohol, tipping the delicate balance of fruit and spice. Vibrant grapefruit notes? That just adds another loud voice to a once perfectly orchestrated sip.

The solution? Switch up the hops.

Some brewers have figured out how to work with American hops, both classic and new. Based on my experience of having tasted a wide range of Belgian IPAs, the best seem to lean on fruitier, tropical varieties. Denver’s River North Hoppenberg Uncertainty Principle marries pear and pepper with pineapple, orange and grapefruit. Wisconsin’s Ale Asylum Bedlam blends exotic pineapple and papaya with white pepper and bubblegum notes. Both are phenomenal. When it works, it’s wonderful.

With tropical, fruitier and gentler hop varieties—like U.S. Mosaic or New Zealand Nelson Sauvin—the Belgian IPA might have a bright future. But when brewed with classic North American hops, it often winds up a grating, conflicted mess.

So, brewers: When tweaking your next batch of Belgian IPA, please look to the nuanced, fruitier hop varieties hitting the market. Pungent North American hops belong in American IPAs, not traditional Belgian strong ales.

 

Author
Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.

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2 Comments

  • Joe Stange says:

    There is another way to go about it — at least, there is if your brewery is in Belgium. Use less expressive (i.e. “cleaner”) yeast/fermentation that is less likely to clash with aromatic hops. After all, it’s not the yeast that makes beer Belgian. It’s being brewed in Belgium that makes it Belgian.

    American brewers making “Belgian IPA” are frankly cashing in on the cachet of both words.

  • Nate says:

    I agree most Belgium IPA’s are either to malt and have nothing to do an IPA. Or there just hoppy funky IPA’s that have Belgium in them at all. A couple I’ve found I like though: Deschutes Foray-galaxy and mosaic hops. Coronado hoppy daze – not sure on the hops but you get the Belgium in the finish. I love a good IPA and most forms of them. I like the experimentation but as it stands with a Belgium IPA if it’s not good keep it in the brew pub
    Cheers

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