Everybody’s Gonna Pay… An IPA Q&A

Starting this week, Troll Toll will emerge from the darkness and make it’s way to stores and taps across the state. To commemorate the arrival of this legendary beast, I took a moment to again chat with Shawn Vail, Head Brewer here at Lakewood Brewing Co. As our most elite hoperative and a troll hunter of some repute, I knew he was the man to teach me the ways of vicious Troll Toll, and his bitter IPA brethren. Beware the night, man, for the Troll Toll cometh…
Let’s start right at the beginning. What makes an IPA?
The India Pale Ale is a historical British style. It basically came about because they were shipping beer to India with the technology of the day. The British knew if you put more hops into the beer it would preserve it better, and that higher alcohol beers just inherently survived long trips better. So from that, they took their pale ales, put more hops in and made ‘em higher alcohol. Around this time was also the advent of pale malt, which is what most people use as their base malt now, which allowed the color to be a bit lighter as well.  So all of those individual advancements combined and sort of informally made a new style. It wasn’t really until the early 1800’s that the term ‘India Pale Ale’ was coined. So when craft brewing started back up in the United States, we were picking and choosing styles to recreate and just sort of ran with it. That’s why there are two very different styles in a British IPA and an American IPA. American IPAs are a little less malty, more bitter, definitely more hop aroma and characteristics. There are a whole lot of styles within the American IPA category and there is a lot you can do with them.
It’s kind of fascinating to me to think the style was born out of necessity more than anything, and was really only codified after the fact as a matter of happenstance. And, today’s craft brewers keep iterating on it. Explain to me some of the stuff that’s evolved since that time.
American craft brewers… We keep inventing new styles. (laughs) Last year the Beer Judge Certification Program put out a new style list for things like American IPAs, double IPAs, and the rest, and under the American heading they had several different specialty styles. White IPAs, Rye IPAs, Red IPAs, Black IPAs, Belgian IPAs, to name a few. And there are some that don’t have official categories yet, like triple IPAs. Basically, if you can think of it, you can make it.
I hear ‘West Coast IPAs’ thrown around a lot, and I’ve heard Troll Toll be described as one. I’m curious about what that is and what puts Troll Toll in that category.
So it’s interesting because, at least categorically speaking, there’s no real distinction between West Coast and East Coast IPAs. There aren’t two separate categories for them. When I was coming up in brewing at Stone, there were debates about East Coast vs West Coast, where the East Coast were a bit more malty, and the West Coast were more bitter and “dank.” The talk died down for a couple of years, then places like The Alchemist started making Heady Topper, what people are calling ‘juicy’ IPAs… Where it’s not so bitter and more of the fruit flavors coming on the back end, and are keeping them hazy and whatnot. Officially, there’s not any real hard and fast designations. What makes Troll Toll a little bit more of a West Coast IPA is it’s more piney and “dank” character where it’s not just fruit in there. It’s got a whole bunch of flavor, but me personally, I like that pine/resin note in my IPAs as well.
Putting aside the question of specific styles for a second, what makes a good IPA? Like, philosophically, what do you need in an IPA for it to be an IPA?
That’s a really subjective question. (laughs) My palette is bent towards bitterness so IBUs don’t really faze me- I do like to have that bitter bite. It kind of depends, honestly. You usually see things leaning either towards some sort of mix of fruity and piney, and less of the spicy or herbal tastes. You don’t usually see those too often in super popular IPAs. I like to really taste it after that first sip, but I grew up drinking IPAs so my tastes are definitely skewed. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that to someone who’s trying IPAs for the first time… I’d definitely recommend something a little easier to drink.
So you’re kind of disappointed if an IPA doesn’t stay with you after you drink? Kinda want them to fight you on the down a little?
Nah, I wouldn’t say disappointed. If it’s a super clean hit that gives you a great flavor and it’s done, that’s not necessarily disappointing. I just do enjoy tasting it afterward. When I think about my list of favorite IPAs, I think Sculpin is the only straight up IPA I have on there because I really do like a lot of bitterness, which you usually only get from double IPAs. Avery’s Maharaja is freaking delicious. I’ve only had it once or twice but Heady Topper was very good. The Plinys are great as well, and both versions of Ruination are delicious as well. I guess if you want an answer to why I made (Troll Toll) a West Coast IPA, it’s because a lot of the IPAs I enjoyed growing up were from the West Coast and I love the hop notes you find in them. Granted, that’s what I had easy access to, but still.
So what hops are we using in Troll Toll? What are you putting in to hit that platonic ideal of an IPA?
So we use 7 different hops for Troll Toll. That pine note is Simcoe, probably one of my favorite hops. We used CTZ for bittering, and the late addition and whirlpool hops were Chinook, Cascade, Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra and Lemondrop. I primarily featured Simcoe, Citra and Amarillo. Those are the top three in the mix.
So why Simcoe? Why give it the nod to be the forefront of the brew?
I mean, like I said, it’s probably one of my favorite hops.
(laughs) You gotta show your work though! You can’t just say “because like it!”
Well, why not? (laughs) Simcoe… Simcoe has a very unique aroma and flavor that’s very hard to duplicate. I mean, you could say that about a couple of different hops. It’s just a great hop if you want that piney and resin note in there. I wanted to counterbalance that with the Citra and the Amarillo; which are fruity, citrusy hops. I wanted (Troll Toll) to have both sides and to not be one-note. It came together really well. All the elements in it I was really happy with. For it being 116 IBUs and 9.6% it drinks really smooth.
I’m still learning my around IPAs, you know, but I hear people name-drop Simcoe a lot; I hear Citra a lot. I assume they’re big deals. How do you work with these staples in the field and do something unique with the ingredients?
Simcoe, Citra, they’re probably two of the more difficult ones to find. Both are really popular. Unless you have a contract, you can’t really find it out there. A lot of people use them in their IPAs. I like to use a lot of hop ‘staples’ if you will, in IPAs because they have a very unique flavor to them.
I have to imagine these become “staples” because people like them and there’s a lot you can do with it.
Hop manufacturers are now catering more and more to craft breweries. It seems like every year there are new hops coming out. They’re all good hops, don’t get me wrong, and I look forward to using them in the future but there’s definitely this core group that’s stuck around and are used in a lot of IPAs. They just have certain flavor elements that are hard to replicate.
So what was your intent with this recipe? What was the goal of Troll Toll?
I mean, I’m a hop head. I love IPAs, they’re one of my favorite styles. So any time I get the chance to make one, I want to. I made Goatman, I made Hopochondria… I like making IPAs. We’ve done some European styles for the last couple of Legendary Series releases… So I just kind of said ‘I want to make a Double IPA.” And everyone was like “Cool!” (laughs) As far as making it, again, I wanted to use Simcoe, I always enjoy using that. I also wanted to make it a to-style beer, so I made sure I was within alcohol and color and all that kind of stuff. Most of the thought in this went, for me, into the hop selection. Figuring out what hops I wanted to use, how much of each, and when. I mean, the malt is important, sure. To me though, when you’re making an IPA, the malt is a platform for the hops. For Troll Toll, the malt bill isn’t anything super complex, there’s a little bit of crystal (malt) in there to hit color, but it’s just to show what the hops can do.
Jeez, those hops. So demanding. Gotta hog everything to themselves.
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess you could say that.  But hops can add some amazing flavors and aromas to a beer, and they deserve to have a style where it’s all about them.
IPAs are a big deal, this isn’t news. People love ‘em, and drink a lot of ‘em. Why? What is it about this style that makes that happen?
That’s a real tough question to answer, you know? I think part of it is a lot of younger craft drinkers grew up with IPAs as an established style, and so there’s definitely a taste for it. I do know that it is one of those styles that the people who enjoy IPAs are rabid fans of the style. It’s not for everyone, but the people who love IPAs will search high and low to find a great IPA. The good news is that nowadays you don’t have to search too hard.  You can see the same thing with sours right now, people who enjoy the style can get fanatical about it. It’s not something you only sort of like, you know? With both styles you keep seeking new ones out. You just gotta have ‘em. (laughs)
I’ve always been kind of amused with our relationship to IPAs, in that we’ve never done one without a twist. We have a Belgian IPA in Hop Trapp, a Session IPA in Hopochondria, and we briefly had an India Black Lager with Goatman. Troll Toll is going to be our most straightforward IPA we’ve ever done. Talk to me about making, buy your own admission, a relatively to-style IPA in a brewery that doesn’t really do that.
When I came on with the company, we were only brewing Hop Trapp. That’s always been a core beer of ours, and still is. When I made Goatman, I was just really digging on Black IPAs at that point and wanted to make one. After that point, we were looking to add another product to our core line, and I wanted to make a Session IPA because I knew those were coming up. It’s been cool doing a Double IPA without any frills, because it’s allowed me to throw my hat in the ring against what other people are making. I’m making the beer for myself, what I would enjoy drinking, and hopefully other people will enjoy it too, but to see what people think and where it stacks up compared to everybody else is fun.
Constraints are nice, sometimes. Boundaries give you room to be creative. It’s gotta be nice to fit a description without any asterisks, you know?
It’s cool, getting a brew to hit a specific style like with Troll Toll. Most of the stuff I brew I tend to throw wrinkles into. I like doing things I haven’t heard of before, twists on established styles, because it’s creating something new. I like making unique beers. IPAs are a wide-open style that you can do a lot of things with. We have a Belgian IPA over here, we have a Session IPA over here, we had a one-and-done with Goatman and now we’ve got one with Troll Toll. We’re exploring the full depth of what IPAs can be.
Is there still room in the market for plain old IPAs, or does everything have to be big or small or crazy or weird somehow to stand out? Are there too many people doing this?
I mean, I might take this back in 20 years, but there’s always, always room for more. Even if you’re not selling an IPA in the market, you’ve got one on your tap wall. People want them, and breweries will make them. There’s always room for new interpretations. There’s just so many iterations and variations you can do in any style; little differences in water, malt, hops and yeast make big differences. Maybe things taste similar, but never the same.
Like you said, if there’s always some new hop coming out, that just means there’s always something new to test out.
The possibilities are in theory, endless. (laughs) I think a lot of brewers got into this business to create new beers; I know I certainly did. To me, it’s one of the best parts of the job. So when new ingredients come out, it’s always fun to test them out and see what new flavor combinations you can come up with.