Beer: Morgan Horse DIPA
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Imperial IPA
Kegged On: 7.31.14
Appearance: pale golden orange, hazy, ample head, good retention
Smell: grapefruit, citrus, peach, soft mellon fruit, dank, pine
Taste: zesty grapefruit, orange, citrus, soft peach, melon, pine, mild finishing bitterness
Mouthfeel: light body, medium carbonation, soft, crisp finish
You know when you have a goal in mind that you probably couldn't fully describe to anyone but a few of your imaginary friends (they're the only ones that get you, anyway) — you just know that you'll know when you get there? In previous years, I couldn't describe exactly why my IPAs kept falling short of what I wanted them to be. I just knew there was something else I wanted them to be. No matter how good I felt about them after a solid brew-day, or as they went through fermentation, a week or two after bottling, some slight disappointment would creep in. Maybe they were getting closer, but they weren't where I wanted them to be. And I wasn't even sure how to describe where I wanted them!
After much work and brainstorming and espionage, I think now I might be there — or at least, past the point where subsequent refinements will be almost unnoticeable to anyone less anal retentive than myself. I may not have the Ark of the Covenant in my personal possession per se, but at least, at last, I found the convoy of Nazis trying to make off with it, and I'm even reasonably confident I'm riding on the roof of the very truck they have the Ark inside. #metaphors
I don't think anything is ever beyond improvement, believe me. I'm not talking about perfection yet, not by a long shot — ie, a level of purity defying any further improvement. In this case, I'm just talking about meeting certain expectations. Expectations that, a year ago, I wasn't sure I'd ever meet. I was looking to get my IPAs to a certain level, make them drink a certain way, with a certain flavor profile, and not completely dive off a cliff after the first two weeks. Having a very good feeling about this batch from the start, I waited for my first pull off the keg until I was sure the beer would be properly conditioned, resisting the urge to sneak early tastes. I'm glad I did. With that first glass, I had one of those rare moments where, in spite of my overwhelmingly cynical nature compelling me to constantly be disappointed in everything, I found I had hit my goals. After a couple of sips, I burst out laughing.
Of course, I've been pretty happy with all my IPAs this year, to the point where most of the time I'd rather have one of my own than something from the average bar or bottle shop. If that sounds super snobby, or this whole post already sounds pretentious, consider that homebrewers have an advantage in catering things to their specific preferences, not to mention the advantage of freshness (provided you can drink the whole batch fast enough). Realistically, the improvements in these beers have been fairly incremental from batch to batch, and Morgan Horse IPA, an 8% just-imperial using Simcoe and Amarillo with a dash of Columbus, might just be me getting all the small things right, all at once. The batch previous to this (which I never wrote up, so I'm kind of lumping into this post) was pretty close to the best IPA I've brewed previous to this one, though it used hops I enjoy more: Mosaic, Galaxy and Amarillo. I loved the Azacca IPA I did in the spring, also enjoyed the Shrunken Heady I did, and the year's first IPA was also tasty as hell. My IPAs have been getting consistently better with almost every batch. Such a trackable progression gives me a lot of confidence. So what have I been changing?
The first big change I made to my process may still be the most important thing differentiating all these IPAs from previous batches. I started kegging, and immediately fixed up a rather elaborate set-up to better emulate the process a brewery would have. The beer gets transferred into a secondary keg fitted with two stainless steel filter screens over the dip-tube to prevent it from clogging. I'll usually do a first-stage dry-hopping at the end of fermentation in the primary, then transfer to the initial keg about a week and a half after brew-day. The second-stage dry-hops go into this keg, loose (the filters over the dip tube are much more effective than trying to constrain the hops themselves) for about five days. After five days, I'll cold crash in my keezer for another day or two, then do a keg-to-keg transfer into a serving keg. Perhaps I could just drink the beer off the first keg, but I like that this roughly emulates what a brewery would do (very few breweries would package their beers with the hops still in there, and my goal was to go at this from the same playing field). Theoretically, also, this gives me the chance to use the dry-hopping keg as a brite tank and clear the beer a bit more, though they've still been pretty hazy for the first couple weeks. (I used gelatin to clear my IPAs a few times, which helped. Then I sort of forgot about it).
Another recent change I've been trying out: English yeast strains for American IPAs. Conan was my go-to for the last two years, but it's a finicky strain to work with, and up until very recently there was no good source for the yeast other than culturing it up from cans of Heady Topper (itself quite difficult to obtain on a regular basis). Following lead after lead as I chased the secret of the great new-wave IPAs, I heard from a couple sources that one of my favorite Green Mountain state brewers was using the Boddington's strain, which is supposed to be London Ale III. And after hearing this same speculation a number of times, I had to give it a try. WWSHD?
Using English yeast strains in American IPAs isn't a totally novel idea — plenty of awesome breweries are doing it (Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, Tired Hands, Cigar City, Three Floyds, Surly, Firestone Walker, Stone), and enough of them are brewing IPAs I love that I figured there must be something to it. While I prefer most styles of beer on the dry side, I also like my IPAs to be soft and silky and elegant, in contrast to the usual bitterness-focused West Coast model of the last decade. The logic behind the choices of these brewers makes sense: an English yeast strain might not attenuate as highly, but attenuation can be worked around, and careful management of the yeast will allow for a mild base of fruity esters to accentuate the brightness of the hops, soften the palate, and give an impression of balance without going overboard on the malts.
It especially makes sense when you're going for an IPA that drinks smoother and softer than the usual. I've been calling this ideal profile in my head the "Rebalanced IPA." I hate dividing up styles into sub-styles always, but there are enough breweries out there brewing this new profile of hoppy beer that I think it's worth considering that it may be a novel and separate approach, utilizing new techniques and a new way of looking at the structure that holds an IPA together. The Rebalanced IPA is as distinct to me, at least, as the old East Coast vs. West Coast IPA concepts.
Anyway, London Ale III seems to help with that balance. It also achieves the sort of saturated, soft mouthfeel I've been wanting for my IPAs. But then again, when it's cooperating, so does Conan. Similar somewhat, different somewhat, probably both with their pro's and con's. LAIII is a huge top-cropper, with a krausen persisting on every one of my brews for days after fermentation was over. Despite that, it starts up very quickly, very aggressively, and attenuates well enough. I've been nudging the temperature higher each time, against my original instinct to ferment in the mid-60's — I'm now thinking it likes it around 68 F, maybe even 70 F. But I'll keep playing around, of course. And soon, very soon hopefully, I'd like to do side-by-side batches with London Ale III and Conan. Gotta keep it scientific!
Finally, the mysterious world of water treatment. Undoubtedly hugely important! My take on this too has been evolving dramatically. But water gets so complicated, and to me, somewhat cryptic, perhaps it's an analysis left for vague unpacking some other time. I will say, for now, that a great place to start is deciding whether you agree with Vinnie Cilurzo's tips for brewing better IPAs. That classic treatment is great for a particular breed of IPA, but I'm fairly sure that a lot of the IPA brewers that I prefer are not, regardless of their starting mineral content, just dumping in some gypsum and calling it a day.
5.5 Gal., All Grain
Mashed at 152 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at 68 F
76.5% [11#] 2-row malt
7% [1#] white wheat malt
7% [1#] Cara-Pils
3.5% [8 oz] Golden Naked Oats
5.2% [12 oz] corn sugar
1 oz CTZ @FWH
2 oz Amarillo hop stand for 45 minutes
2 oz Simcoe hop stand for 45 minutes
1 oz CTZ hop stand for 45 minutes
1 oz Amarillo dry hop for 5 days [primary]
2 oz Simcoe dry hop for 5 days [primary]
1 oz Amarillo dry hop for 5 days [secondary keg]
2 oz Simcoe dry hop for 5 days [secondary keg]
Wyeast London Ale III