What’s an XPA?

Riders XPAThe increase in public platforms for craft beer has been a boon to brewers, punters and event organisers alike but time and time again the spectre of Beer Style rears its multiple heads. During Meet the Brewer and Q&A sessions at various beer festivals, many questions are posed regarding guidelines around style.

There are two well-defined camps either side of the argument. On the one hand, a stricter adherence to style guidelines reduces the chances of consumer confusion when it comes to acquiring a palate for certain types of beer experience. A novice drinker can try, say, an American Pale Ale and come to expect certain flavour peaks and hop bitterness when trying similarly labelled beers. On the other hand, a looser interpretation of the ‘rules’ means that brewers can embrace the true artisan nature of the brewing craft.

As has been debated many times by Brews News’ own Matt Kirkegaard, is a ‘session IPA’ in fact a moderately hopped pale ale or an out-of-balance, off-spec IPA? Does this naming protocol help the drinker to determine what a particular bottle might hold or does it confound?

A couple of the newer members of the brewing fraternity have taken up the baton of XPA which began in the US and appears to be gaining favour here. It is perhaps best described by the country’s leading beer journalist, James Smith of The Crafty Pint, as sitting “in the much debated no man’s land between Pale Ale and IPA.”

Andrew ‘Shandy’ Gargan’ began homebrewing in his shed in Melbourne’s Elwood soon after arriving from the windswept hills of northwest Scotland and now masterminds the brew kettle at Riders Brewing Company. A hop-head and one who likes to keep his mind busy with beer history, Shandy lamented the ‘decline’ in domestically brewed American style pale ales that were not what he thought they could be.

“I looked at many APAs and thought them a bit subtle in sub 5% form and then you have big IPAs at 6% and over and we wanted to fill the gap between them. A big flavoured APA that doesn’t step into (what I consider) the true IPA mould,” Gargan told Brews News. ‘Ours is a 5.8% Strong Pale Ale which is a hop-forward ale rich with toffee-ish malt and a firm hop flavour and bitterness. It’s bigge than an APA but gentler than an IPA – therefore, XPA.”

“I also love the concept of the ‘X’ as a symbol – like traditional English ales would feature, stamped onto the side of hogsheads and firkins in cellars. Like X-rays and Superman it’s a cool and brilliant ‘superhero’ kind of thing,” he explains with his trademark cheek.

New Husband-and-Wife-on-the-block brewers, Wolf of the Willows have launched their brewing company with an XPA, although this one puts the ‘extra’ into its ‘pale’ and its ‘flavour’ rather than its alcoholic strength.

Wolf of the Willows Scott and Renae McKinnon

Wolf of the Willows Scott and Renae McKinnon

“The beer basically evolved from wanting a beer that I could enjoy more than two pots of and still be able to drive.” Head Brewer Scott McKinnon told Brews News. “When I say enjoy, I mean a beer that has flavour, balance and length on the palate. I also wanted a beer that a weathered craft beer drinker could appreciate but that was also approachable for someone who has not discovered the joys craft beer.”

So how does McKinnon achieve the extra paleness without sacrificing the flavour? “…. I designed the malt profile to provide depth in the middle and rear palates by using wheat and carapils. For malt flavour, I just love Maris Otter and Vienna and I think they work well together. This beer does not contain any crystal malts as I think they can overpower the other base malts in this style. I also think that crystal malt shows age in beers, eg I just think of the sometimes overpowering caramel flavour we get in a lot of US imports. That’s just me though… I also use some acid malt to provide a brightness to the beer to ensure it’s refreshing.”

One of Melbourne’s best brewing outfits – and possibly the quietest and most unassuming – 2 Brothers have also recently added an XPA to their portfolio of beers in response to a perceived lack of hop-forward beers in the range. BOOM! XPA is also a response to the rise in popularity of ‘session IPAs’ although the BOOM is designed to pack the flavour and aroma of a hoppy IPA without the same level of bitterness.

Brother Andrew Ong says (on The Crafty Pint) “We’ve been told by industry critics that the 2 Brothers fold has a reputation for malt driven beers, but with some recent evolutions in our conditioning processes, we hope that BOOM! will break this paradigm.”

It must be said that both Riders and Wolf of the Willows chose the same name for different beers independently of each other. Does this leave room for consumer confusion when it comes to choosing the beer that suits them best? We will leave the last word with McKinnon;

“XPA to me means ‘Extra Pale’ in colour and ‘Extra’ hop aroma and flavour… as compared to the style guidelines for an APA. I see this as where the XPAs from the west coast of America are sitting. Riders XPA is a great beer. I think the difference is that they have gone for that bridge between an APA and an IPA. We’ve both released beers that we love and have simply interpreted the name XPA differently. That’s the beauty of craft beer.”

I’ll drink to that.

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