The rise and fall of Brut IPA, as told by its creator

The craft beer narrative has been built around creative and experimental brewers driving flavour and style innovation. The last thirty years have seen beer style development progress at an ever-accelerating rate as brewers try new ingredients, combinations, techniques and style blends. This has created a rich landscape for beer drinkers, but what does it mean for beer styles such as Brut IPA that barely have a chance to become established before brewers adapt and experiment and drive the experimentation further?

Just over two years ago, the Brut IPA emerged as a style and quickly spread across the United States and to other countries. One of the early commercial versions in Australia was from Melbourne’s Wolf of the Willows, with versions being produced soon after by many other breweries. It was a style that created excitement and seemed full of the promise for longevity…but disappeared as quickly as it came.

In this week’s Beer is a Conversation podcast we chat with John Holl about his conversation with Kim Sturdavant, and what the rapid evolution of beer derivatives means for style for the broader beer market. Below is a summary of John’s conversation with Sturdavant about the origins of Brut IPA.

A beer on Social Kitchen kegs

(Social Kitchen and Brewery)

The Brut IPA concept came about as a result of experimentation but, ironically, may also have been killed off by experimentation, according to its creator Kim Sturdavant.

Sturdivant told John Holl on the Drink Beer. Think Beer. podcast that his inspiration for Brut IPA came about after he had been playing with enzymes with the view to dry out his Triple IPA.

“I was dumping amyloglucosidase into the fermenter for a triple IPA, which is a trick I got from Cellarmaker [brewery]” Sturdavant told Holl.

“And they were using it in Imperial Stouts and things as well to get the abv just way up there.”

Sturdavant said that as he experimented, he found he was pushing up against the law of diminishing return in higher ABV beers.

“One of the things is that if the abv creeps up, I think much above 6.5%, you start getting sweetness from the flavour of the alcohol of the beer,” he said.

“I think brewers were making these beers and not calculating that they were actually going to finish at 0 degrees Plato and then end up with these 8% examples that didn’t really taste any different than a crisp West Coast IPA.”

As a result, he decided to go smaller.

“I think the first one I did was right around 7%, and then I quickly figured that out and started to really shoot to get it between 6 and 6.5% to get them as perceivably dry as possible in addition to [actually] dry.”

He said he was looking to a new approach to IPA, and named the first batch Hop Champagne. The new style immediately grabbed the attention of other brewers, who asked to replicate the style.

“I was excited that they would and said if we all call it the same thing maybe it’ll get some attention and we’ll have a beer style that’s native to San Francisco,” Sturdavant said.

Sturdavant said that from the beginning each brewer had their own approach to the style, and even he changed the techniques moving the enzyme addition from the fermenter to the mash, which changed the flavour.

Listen to the full conversation on John Holl’s Drink Beer. Think Beer. podcast.

While Sturdavant had a very clear idea of what he intended for the style, the Brut IPA style never crystallised broadly. Its popularity saw it entered in brewing competitions judged under a category of ‘emerging IPAs’, with allowable abvs up to 9%.

“And that’s I’m like ‘no no no, it can’t, that’s a hard no’,” he told Holl.

“For me, right off the bat, the things that define it are really dry and the abv can’t be above 7.5% but it should really be below 7% and it needs to be as pale as possible. You don’t want it to be orange.”

Interestingly, Sturdavant didn’t feel the style needed to be clear.

“Almost all the ones I put out were at least partly hazy,” he said. “I didn’t want to put even finings in them, I wanted all the hop character I could get.”

Sturdavant said other than that, the hop profile, intensity, aroma and flavour should all be associated with an IPA.

Holl noted that in a short period the ‘style’ came to be hybridised, prompting him to ask if the style ever had a chance to get a hold in the mind of beer drinkers.

“I don’t think it did,” Sturdavant replied.

“I think by the time anybody could really dial it in and make a really good one en masse that a lot of people had access to and were talking about, there were enough bad ones out there that people had already decided that the style was dumb.

“They didn’t wanna make ’em anymore, and the consumers weren’t that interested in them, so it kinda died, I think.

“I think at the moment basically nobody makes them and there are memes out there being like, ‘Thank God this thing’s dead’.”

Even Sturdavant, who had since moved on to brew at California’s Pacifica Brewery, hasn’t made one in his new job.

“No. I’ve been here about three months and my number one goal right now is to make things that sell fast and that I think are what a market like Pacifica wants, which I believe is going to be lots of IPA and a really good pale lager for the people who want some easy-drinking things,” he explained.

“I wanna keep the IPA game here West Coast and Hazy, basically, because I want ’em to move fast.”

You can also read John Holl’s article and interview with Sturdavant on the style, written at the peak of the style’s growth.

Social Brewing and Kitchen, where Sturdavant developed the style, closed suddenly in March this year.

Learn more about making a Brut IPA

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