Could India Pale Lager be the answer to building a better Imperial NZ IPA?
New Zealand produces some world class IPA’s, and I’m a stalwart fan of them. From the laid-back English styles to full on American inspired hop bombs, and the stronger they get the more I’m compelled to seek them out.
For me nothing beats a good Imperial IPA. The lush hop aroma that creeps up the nose, and the maelstrom of flavours as the hops fight back and forth with the malt across the tongue. But all too often, that same sticky malt sweetness that forms the backbone of these beers can be their downfall.
If the hops are out of balance, or not quite enough, or if the beer has just been sitting on the shelf a little too long that balance can topple, the hops lose the battle and you suddenly have a beer that’s just too cloyingly sweet.
Wwhat’s the solution? For many brewers it’s leaning on imported American hops. Their dry and sharp piney flavour can better combat sweetness and I have no particular qualms with that. As much as I love our local New Zealand hops, the more pungent and tropical character that they express is always at risk of blowing up into an overly squishy tinned-fruit-salad quality when applied to stronger (and in-turn sweeter) IPAs.
So it’s entirely reasonable that brewers source the hops they need in order to get the beer I want. But even utilising these imported hops, many strong IPAs always seem to be teetering on the verge of going becoming too sweet.
So is there another way?
There’s an alternative strong, hop-driven beer that I think might have what it takes to solve the problem. The seldom seen, but often excellent India Pale Lager. It’s a style that’s hardly ever produced here, and the fact that it has ‘lager’ in the name may be a large factor there.
It isn’t a fashionable term to be using when advertising to the craft beer consumer base. Especially since those potential buyers have been significantly conditioned over to believe lager is bad. That isn’t an unjustified position, since lager more or less exclusively represents the ocean of mass-produced, boring beer that occupies sports bars and bus shelters alike.
IPL is not that beer. It might share some important taxonomic features, primarily colder fermentation and conditioning temperature. But beyond that and a few optional differences in the malt, the IPL is put together much like an IPA. But how does that help a strong, hop driven beer from turning out too sweet?
The colder, slower ferment with a high-attenuating yeast means less heavy, sweet flavour compounds being produced, and if the ale malt is also replaced with something like pilsner, the combined result is a drier, more neutral malt flavour. That might sound a little dull, but consider that in a beer style that’s all about the hops, that extra dry, blank malt canvas is able to expose and showcase those hop flavours like nothing else.
Without the sweet taste of the ale malt and vigorous fermentation to compete with, the hops break through like never before, resulting in a flavour that can be quite transformative. I would challenge anyone who’s tasted a (fresh) bottle of Parrot Dog’s sublime 2015 green hopped IPL Kakapo, to disagree.
These beers have been gaining popularity in the US for a while now, and have already gained significant praise for pushing the boundaries that usually constrain big, hoppy beers.
Here in New Zealand, only the first few tentative steps have been made, with a special release here and there, and very little interest from the craft community. I thought that if anyone would have thoughts on a daring new type of IPA it would be Luke Nicholas of Epic Brewing, so I asked him about the style, and why it saw so few releases locally.
“We would love to introduce some lagers, but you can’t use the word lager. There is no value in that style of beer. If you put IPA or `hop-something’ on the label and don’t talk about the fact it is a lager, then you can get away with it. It’s just where the market is at right now. Not sure when it will change, but it will change.”
Hearing that gave me some hope that the dawn of the New Zealand IPL might not be so far away. Whether that comes to pass sooner or later will depend significantly on drinkers attitudes and willingness to try these releases when they come around.
For anyone interested in exploring the style, there are only a few options available at the moment. Epic themselves have one of the few recurrently available releases that could fall into the IPL category with their ‘Larger’ imperial pilsner. The (still available as of July) special release ‘Hoptical Illusion’ from Liberty Brewing, while not strictly a true IPL, very effectively demonstrates what switching to a pilsner malt can do for a hop driven beer.
Boundary Road has an IPL in a six pack, although having tasted it recently I can’t really say it does much to show what the style can do, and if Townshend ever brew their Scissor Jacks again then that’s a superb option. Just remember to look past the word lager when craft IPLs come around in the future and give them a fair shot. You might just discover something wonderful.