Jono Galuszka gets the dirt on the latest IPA style to hit the shelves.
The Malthouse’s annual West Coast IPA Challenge always throws up talking points, usually focused on who was the worthy winner, or if brown IPA will take off. But the heated debate after this year’s challenge was different. Never has an entry provided so much debate about what IPA can, or should, be than Garage Project’s Party and Bullshit.
To understand the beer and why it was such a controversial entry, you have to get up to speed with 1990s hip-hop. Party and Bullshit is named after The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut single, released in 1993. Known to his mother as Christopher Wallace, but better known by his various stage names – including Biggie, Biggie Smalls and BIG – he was a leading figure in the American East Coast hip-hop scene. West Coast hip-hop was initially the more mainstream, but East Coast artists, with their own style, soon made their way into the mainstream.
The situation soon became akin to a gang turf war, with rappers from either coast calling out opposing MCs in diss tracks. The media played it up and fans started taking sides. Biggie was the focal point on the East Coast side, while Tupac Shakur was the more prominent of the West Coasters. Both were killed after being targeted in separate drive-by shootings in the late-1990s.
There were no gats being pulled at the West Coast IPA Challenge, but people – myself included – were shocked when we saw Garage Project’s entry. The phrase “West Coast IPA” elicits images of clear beer, burned-orange in colour, a tight white head, and bracing bitterness after a one-two hit of pine and grapefruit.
Party and Bullshit well and truly failed that description as soon as it came out the tap – it looked like banana puree. In fact, it wasn’t a West Coast IPA at all. It was a style that, like Biggie Smalls, has multiple names – Vermont IPA, New England IPA and East Coast IPA. Despite the different names, the style does have common denominators: a focus on heavily hopping as late in the brewing process as possible; using English-style strains of ale yeast instead of the typical American ones; and judicious use of adjunct grains like oats and wheat. The end result should be intensely fruity and not as bitter as West Coast IPAs.
Party and Bullshit is not the first East Coast IPA from Garage Project – they’ve made some as collaborations – but it is the first of theirs to hit the New Zealand market. Co-owner Jos Ruffell says they have been lucky to travel to lots of different countries and collaborate with other breweries, including a few in the United States. All across the US, they found brewers making East Coast IPAs.
“We were excited by that and thought people would be interested in trying those beers. We knew that [Party and Bullshit] would put us out of the running, but this year we’ve released Lupus the Wolf Man and Los Lobos. For us to simply stump up with another classic West Cost-style beer, we couldn’t get excited by that.”
The most alarming thing about East Coast IPAs is how they look. While most of the beers at the challenge were clear, Party and Bullshit was anything but. Google “East Coast IPA” and you will get a slideshow of beers which look like they have more in common with hefeweizen than a hop bomb.
The emphasis on hopping late, both in the boil and in the fermentation tank, means much more hop matter in the beer post-boil. Oats and wheat put more protein in the beer, further adding to the murkiness. The English-style strains of yeast used in East Coast IPA are harder to get to drop out of the fermented beer than American types. One of those ingredients on their own may give a light haze; all three, especially when no finings are used, combine to create a trademark murk.
The trade-off, for Ruffell, is worth it. “The beers are more hop flavour-forward, rather than bitter and hoppy. It doesn’t have that sharp bitterness that you might get from more traditional American IPA. When someone opens a can of Party and Bullshit, and that someone is sitting a couple metres away, I can smell it from where I am sitting. The aroma is filling the room.”
But not everyone is a fan of East Coast IPA. Greig McGill of Brewaucracy had his first experience of the style in the United States earlier this year. He hadn’t heard of the style until fellow traveller, beer writer Geoff Griggs, sent a photo of one back to someone in New Zealand and was told about the style in the reply.
McGill says he tried as many as 60 East Coast IPAs. There were plenty that were nothing special, but some which were especially bad. “The cloudier they looked, the worse they got. The ones that appeared to be trying to be cloudy had the biggest issues. They seemed a bit unfinished and floppy.”
He was especially confused at people raving about the Milkshake series produced by Pennsylvania brewery Tired Hands, where the IPAs had flour added to them to make them cloudy. “They have a monster reputation. Those beers were just bad and phenolic. We were getting horrible flavours. You would get to the bottom of the glass and there was sludge. We were all appalled.
“All around us people were saying the beer was incredible; I’m shaking my head saying ‘the emperor is naked’.”
One of McGill’s big worries is that the style may be used as an excuse by some to hide bad brewing processes when making beers that should be clear. “How long until someone sees an East Coast IPA and applies it to a pilsner? The answer to that should be ‘in the sea, now’.
“There are breweries when, anytime they put out something – even awful – there are massive fan-boys around; people convincing themselves to like it. I really hope this East Coast thing is a bad idea, as I worry about the damage it is going to do along the way with people using it as an excuse to release bad beer. I was hoping this thing wouldn’t come to New Zealand, but people are wanting to say ‘we are cool, we look cool’.”
He expects East Coast IPA to go the way of another IPA spin – black IPA. It is still relatively easy to get a black IPA, but they are certainly less prominent now than they were a few years ago. Everyone proclaimed to love them, but then you get down to it and you either get one that’s black but tastes like an IPA, or an IPA with roasty character. For the most part, black IPAs are pretty awful.”
But with East Coast IPAs like Heady Topper topping “best of” lists, surely there is something to the style. McLeod’s head brewer Jason Bathgate, a Vermont native, says East Coast IPAs can taste amazing. One of the key elements is conditioning the beer – sitting it cold in a tank, which encourages solids to drop out from the liquid – for long enough after fermentation to get enough of the yeast out before packaging.
Many East Coast IPAs are not filtered or fined, as doing so could strip out hop aroma and flavour, so conditioning is the only place to get yeast out. When large quantities of yeast die in a beer –in the fermenter, or, say, a can – you can get off-flavours like socks or meat.
“There is always going to be a little bit of yeast in suspension [in an East Coast IPA], but not enough that you could pitch the beer into a homebrew and get it fermenting,” Bathgate says. “You have to let it condition because you can’t serve that much yeast. Saying that, it’s their god-given right as brewery to do whatever they want. It just really desponds me when people are trying to put something out that misses the mark.”
The response to Party and Bullshit since the West Coast IPA Challenge has been almost universally positive. With cans appearing on store shelves after Beervana, plenty of people have had a chance to experience a different kind of IPA. Ruffell says he expects some haters – “it is quite easy to brew a beer that offends nobody” – but Bathgate is happy people are giving it a go.
“I know New Zealanders like that brilliant, crystalclear beer, but hey, there is something to be said for a different taken on IPA.”