Brut IPAs Are The Bone-Dry, Champagne-Like Beer Hopheads Can't Get Enough Of

Trends in IPAs beget new trends in IPAs. As exhaustion with the bitterness arms race of the 2000s spurred a sea change toward low-bitterness, "juicy" and hazy IPAs, now the ubiquity of those so-called New England-style IPAs has led to the rise of a totally different take on IPAs: the brut IPA.

The brut IPA borrows its name from the wine world; in champagne, brut means very dry. So too with the brut IPA. The trend has only been in existence for about a year or so—too short in beer time to coalesce into a defined "style"—but it has a few hallmarks. It's pale, it's bone dry, it's highly effervescent. In short, it's as close to champagne as an IPA can get. And it's nothing like the fruity, hazy, creamy IPAs that now dominate taps across America.

But it's not just brewers' and consumers' tastes that make a trend happen, of course. Technology and ingredients play a role. Hop growers and breeding programs had to develop the tropical-fruity varieties that are the hallmark of New England-style IPAs, and one California brewer thinking outside the box had to stumble across a new use for a brewing enzyme that would make brut IPAs possible.

That California brewer is Social Kitchen And Brewery's brewmaster, Kim Sturdavant. Last November, he wondered if an enzyme he was using in the brewery's triple IPA couldn't be put to use in a regular-strength IPA. This enzyme—amylase—isn't rare in breweries. It's used to break down sugars from malts into smaller-chain molecules that the yeast can chomp on more easily, which reduces the sugar levels and lessens the malty sweetness of a beer. It renders the beers very attenuated, a brewing term that means the yeast has eaten up most of the sugar in a beer. A highly attenuated beer is therefore dry—with very little leftover sugar—and thin in body. Typically, brewers use this amylase enzyme to help attenuate big, brawny beers (like a triple IPA or a stout) so they're not syrupy, sweet, and sticky.

But Sturdavant wondered: What if he used it in a standard IPA?

"I'd been wanting to make a standard-strength IPA with [the enzyme] to just be as dry as possible, and that evolved into thinking 'Wouldn't it be cool to make it as light in color as possible and keep the bitterness low and make this super refreshing, pale, effervescent beer?" he explains.

When he used the enzyme in that fateful first batch last November, the result was an incredibly dry, ultra-pale, and bubbly IPA Sturdavant called Hop Champagne Extra Brut IPA. When he put it on tap at his brewery, it blew a few minds.

"Our customers were like 'What is this?' They were a little confused, which is probably how most new things start," he tells me. "But local San Francisco brewers were digging it. Seth [Wile] at Magnolia and Tim [Sciascia] from Cellarmaker came in within the first couple days and they were like 'I'm going to make one of these, if that's cool.'"

Word of the brut IPA—a new style of IPA brewed with this common enzyme—spread like hot gossip among not just Bay Area brewers, but brewers all over the country. It wasn't hard to find this enzyme, and it opened up a whole new realm of IPAs for brewers to play with. Many I spoke to said that while they—and customers—like hazy IPAs, they were eager to try their hands at something new.

"I first heard the term 'brut IPA' when I saw a friend in Buffalo at a new brewpub brew one about maybe a month or two ago. I was like 'I don't know what this is, this sounds interesting,'" says Jared Lewinski, head brewer at Cincinnati's Listermann Brewing. "So I looked into it a little bit more and got excited about it, because it's a nice foil to these under-attentuated, super-sweet, hazy IPAs. I'm a little palate tired of those."

John Gillooly, brewmaster at San Leandro, California's Drake's Brewing, thoroughly agrees.

"Everyone loves the hazies, but this is the dead opposite in a lot of ways. It's practically arid," he explains. "I like dry beers in general—we try to keep our pilsners and pale ales really dry— so it was in our wheelhouse that way. But it was a technical challenge for us, to try something new."

Once they set out to brew a brut IPA, one of Sturdavant and other brewers' main concerns was how to balance the hop flavor and bitterness in a beer that has hardly any malt character. Typically, malt sweetness balances hop bitterness; if you brewed a beer with no malt, it would taste like bitter hop water. Because the malts' sugars get eaten up by this enzyme, they'd have to tone down the hop bitterness in their brut IPAs. Sturdavant says it's a balancing act, trying to squeeze as much hop aroma and flavor into the brut IPA without making it too bitter.

"It's a lot about keeping the IBUs [international bitterness units] really low," he says. "A regular IPA is around 55 IBUs. We're somewhere between 22-25 with the brut IPA."

The alcohol in the beer also contributes some sweetness, Gillooly says, but he still has to be careful to keep the hops' bitterness down. He therefore adds his hops at a point in the brewing process where they'll contribute more aroma to the beer while emitting less of their bitterness. Because the malt isn't a factor at all in brut IPAs' flavor, the resulting flavor is pure hops—just what most IPA fans are after.

Given hops' popularity with American craft-beer drinkers, it's not surprising that examples of these aromatic, pale, super-dry brut IPAs have popped up across the country in the six months since Social Kitchen And Brewery first brewed batch one. But California is undeniably ground zero for the trend.

"I can't say if it's the next big thing, but it's got a lot of brewers interested. I do think there is that subtext of 'this is the West Coast responding to New England style.' It's really hit the collective consciousness out here," Gillooly says.

Brewers definitely have their own penchant for the style, and customers seem enthusiastic, too. Drake's first brut IPA, Trocken, was the fastest-moving beer the brewery's ever put on its draft lines, beating out the prior king—a hazy IPA. Bolstered by that success, Gillooly says he plans to put out six-pack bottles of a brut IPA as the brewery's summer seasonal this year.

Thankfully for other brewers, the style's originator, Kim Sturdavant, isn't overly protective of his creation.

"I'm curious to see what other people imagine and create going forward," he says. "I don't see it being, like, a Great American Beer Festival category or whatever, but maybe it fits into a category that could be like 'alternative IPA' where the brut IPAs are competing with black IPAs or hazy IPAs."

Other brewers are more than happy to take the brut IPA ball and run with it. And given that the amylase enzyme can be ordered with just a quick call to a brewery supply company—if it's not in the brewery's toolbox already—the style should be popping up at taprooms across the country this summer and fall.

"This could be a really significant departure from the way we've been doing and thinking about IPAs for a while," Listermann's Jared Lewinski says. "The way that you experience it on the palate is so different from any other IPA I've ever had. ... I know a lot of people in the industry are super excited about this style, and maybe it's because people are getting really tired of the over-sweet IPAs. Plus on the other hand, we don't know where this is going yet."