Smooth Move: Ballast Point and the Mouthfeel Movement

January 27, 2017

By Joshua Bernstein, January 27, 2017

Ballast Point wanted to have its cake and drink it too. So the San Diego brewery spent the better of 18 months deep in R&D for Red Velvet, a dessert-inspired oatmeal stout doctored with chocolate and featuring beet juice in the namesake arterial tint. Dispensed on draft via nitrogen — the tiny bubbles that give Guinness that glorious creaminess — Red Velvet drinks like a luscious dream, the thick cap of foam acting as liquid icing.

“It didn’t take much to see that we had a winner on our hands,” says James Murray, Ballast Point’s vice President of brewing and distilling.

Packaging Red Velvet in bottles was a no-brainer despite industry standards. Most breweries opt for cans equipped with nitrogen widgets, plastic inserts that release a gassy rush upon opening. Bottling beer on nitro is slightly more difficult.

“Nitrogen is not the easiest gas to make soluble in liquid. It breaks out quickly,” Murray says, noting that Ballast Point bought special tanks to withstand higher pressure. Nearly a year after the project’s inception, nitrogenated Red Devil rolled down the bottling line, decadence sold by the six-pack. To Murray it was effort well spent, especially given the alternative. “Carbon dioxide is not ideal for beers that are designed to have that creamy mouthfeel,” he says.

New-school IPAs are as smooth as a waveless sea, bitterness blacklisted.”

Aroma and taste driven by hops may hijack the headlines, and in the same vein, yeast and grains occasionally take star turns too. However, the hidden underpinning of today’s most thrilling brews is mouthfeel, the physical sensations a beer causes after hitting lips and tongue.

A decade ago India Pale Ales were all about aggression and wrestling taste buds into bitter submission. Now, new-school IPAs are as smooth as a waveless sea, bitterness blacklisted.

Breweries counting Breckenridge, Sam Adams, and Firestone Walker are having a gas with nitrogen – turning stouts and porters into silky ambrosia. And lactose now laces everything from cream ale to stouts, the milk sugar supplying a calming sweetness.

“I think it just sounds like a smoother beer when you hear ‘milk’ in the title,” says Hardywood Park Craft Brewer cofounder Patrick Murtaugh. Over the last five years, the Richmond brewery has made the milk stout its muse, headlined by a Christmas-inspired, heavyweight-strength Gingerbread Stout. “Imperial stouts can have a bit of harshness to them, and that milk sugar rounds it out and balances it out,” says Murtaugh, also Hardywood’s brewmaster. “It gives it a sort of thicker, smoother, lightly sweeter characteristic.”

Imperial stouts can have a bit of harshness to them, and that milk sugar rounds it out and balances it out.”

Milking Gingerbread’s success, Hardywood has released variants aged in spirit barrels, plus imperial-strength milk stouts such as the chocolaty Milkman, and also Trickery, which sleeps in apple brandy barrels for eight months. “Flavors have come full circle from intensity, when everyone was trying to go bigger and more bitter and cram more IBUs into a beer, into something that’s more palatable,” Murtaugh says.

Hardywood has company in its love for lactose, which creates an even-keel platform for experimentation. Wicked Weed spices Milk & Cookies stout with raisins, cinnamon, and vanilla, while San Diego’s Belching Beaver makes Peanut Butter Milk Stout, and Stone tosses peppermint into their Mint Coffee Milk Stout.

Stone’s stock-in-trade, though, remains IPAs, a game that’s significantly changed in the last 20 years. When the brewery released Ruination in 2002, it was America’s first year-round bottled double IPA, a bitter jolt that shocked palates. Times have changed. The IBUs arms race is over, and painting tongues with pine resin is no longer lauded.

Tropical, fruit-forward hops such as Citra and Mosaic are all the rage, and brewers are perfecting techniques that dial down bitterness. Seeing the not-so bitter future, Stone reformulated Ruination to amplify aroma, and developed juicier beers like the newly-released Ripper, a pale ale pummeled with peachy Galaxy hops.

Ballast Point, no IPA slouch itself, is also backing off bitterness. The just-unveiled Manta Ray — “an approachable double IPA,” per the marketing copy — flaunts fragrances of tangerine and ripe melons, the bitterness swimming into the sunset. “We’re just catching those IBUs on the back end, which makes them softer,” says Ballast Point’s Murray. “It’s all about soft bitterness, not harsh bitterness.”

No neck of America better embraces soft bitterness than the Northeast. In a not-too-distant past, East Coast IPAs were derided as fuddy-duddies, caramel-soaked relics of Ye Olde England. Thanks to breweries like Hill Farmstead, the Alchemist and Trillium, the Northeast IPA has been reinvented as hazy and highly fragrant, gushing with mangos and papayas, the bitter bite totally toothless. IPAs like as Bissell Brothers’ Substance and Tree House Brewing’s Julius drink softer than goose down, boozy fruit juice for grown-ups.

This smooth move is fast spreading nationwide, so much so that Coronado — situated in San Diego, the IPA’s epicenter — just uncorked North Island, its “New England-style IPA.” North Island is a far cry from San Diego’s archetypal golden IPAs, laser-etched with citrus and pine. The beer is cloudier than a London winter, chock-full of on-trend Mosaic and Citra hops, sipped as effortlessly as a latté.

The downside to the Northeast IPA is its ephemerality. Lifespans are measured in weeks, not months, as the penetrating fragrances fast flutter off. “I opened a two-month-old can of High Road, one of our double IPAs, and I was bowled over,” says Jean Broillet IV, head brewer and co-owner of Tired Hands, a specialist in these new-breed IPAs. “It tasted more West Coast. Two months is a lot for a double IPA. It tasted more malt-forward, a little bit more caramel-rich, but the hops were still there. It presented in a much more classic American fashion.”

As for the mouthfeel, “it was relatively unchanged,” says Broillet, who favors less-aggression carbonation. And like Ballast Point, he also blurs the line between beer and dessert with his Milkshake IPAs. Mobbed with milk sugars and fruits such as blackberries, watermelon and guava, the IPAs are as smooth as gelato. There’s no harshness, only harmony, mouthfeel fostering universal appeal.

“They’re very simple, childish flavors that anyone can appreciate,” he says. “If you were to give a can of Milkshake to your aunt, for instance, and tell her that this was a strawberry milkshake IPA, you wouldn’t need to explain much else,” he says.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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