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Brut IPA: The Best New Thing in Beer or Passing Fad?

October 16, 2018

By Miles Liebtag, October 16, 2018

“Clean, bright and modern.” That’s how Samantha Lee, co-founder of the Hopewell Brewing Company in Chicago, describes her brewery’s ethos, from the balance of its beers to the airy, inviting taproom. It’s also an apt description of Brut IPA, the latest phenomenon in American craft brewing’s seemingly never-ending love affair with the India Pale Ale. 

Barely a year ago, Brut IPA began as a process innovation in a San Francisco brewpub. Kim Sturdavant of Social Kitchen and Brewery took a brewer’s enzyme called amyloglucosidase—an amylase enzyme typically used either for producing light beer or for lightening the body of big, viscous stouts—and added it to the recipe of a typical 7% ABV IPA. The process produced something new in itself: An IPA with zero residual sugar, restrained bitterness, lively carbonation and unparalleled drinkability. He called it the Champagne IPA, then later: Brut IPA.

When a beer ferments, yeast consumes “fermentable” sugars and metabolizes them into ethanol, CO2 and other compounds—but there’s almost always “residual” sugar left over, that is, sugars that the yeast does not or cannot consume. Historically, residual sugar is a key component in the balance of a beer—it balances hop bitterness and contributes to the beer's body and structure. Sturdavant’s Brut IPAs have no residual sugar at all, as the added enzyme converts non-fermentable sugars into ones that the yeast readily consume, drying the finished beer out completely. Extreme dryness, high carbonation, low bitterness and high hop aromatics seem to be the hallmarks of Brut IPA. Beyond that, it’s largely open to each brewer’s vision and interpretation. 

Hopewell Brewing Company’s vision for the style centered on elegance. Its clean, bright and modern Brut IPA, called Clique, is a 6.5% ABV dry and sparkling beer bursting with enticing aromas of peach skin and tropical fruit. Stephen Bossu, Hopewell’s head brewer and co-founder (as well as Lee's husband), says that the style seemed like the perfect fit for them from the time they first read about it. “It felt familiar, almost,” he says. “So we just ran with it, and we’re proud of where it ended up. It’s simple but there’s an elegance to it.” There’s a complex interplay of delicate flavors in good examples of Brut IPA that requires intentionality and a light touch.

“It’s very soft,” Lee says. “We use 20% rice in this beer in addition to Pils malt. It makes for a soft, pillowy body that supports that juicy peach flavor. It felt very natural. We’ve played around with all these hops before, we’d made a rice saison before—it’s almost like we’ve danced around this particular style in other iterations.” 

The team at Hopewell was also excited to make Brut IPA due to the amount of buzz it generated in a relatively short amount of time—buzz that started in San Francisco and quickly spread across the country via the vector of brewer curiosity. Nearly 400 miles away, in Columbus, Ohio, where Columbus Brewing Company and JAFB Wooster Brewery brewed their first collaboration beer, a Brut IPA, to satisfy that curiosity.

“The funny thing about the Brut is that as soon as the information made it to Ohio, it seemed like everyone was clamoring to brew one,” JAFB’s Paul Fryman says. Fryman hadn’t even tried a Brut IPA prior to brewing one, because, at the time, there were none commercially available in Ohio. 

“I will without question tell you I wanted to be the first brewery in Ohio to make one,” Tony Corder of Columbus Brewing says. The Columbus Brewing and JAFB Brut is different from Hopewell’s Chicago take on the style. It’s brewed with 100% malt—so no “adjuncts” like rice—bright, citrusy hops such as Citra and Nelson Sauvin, and fermented with a fruity English ale yeast. The hype surrounding the beer resembles the early days of the haze craze, when the world was just getting to know the New England-style IPA. However, Fryman points out that, comparatively, Brut IPA has caught on surprisingly quickly. "With the hazies, there were a lot of people who were really reluctant at first and then eventually came around,” he says. “This was totally different.”

With the Brut thing, though, I was immediately drawn to it. I love champagne, after all.”

Across town, Seventh Son Brewing’s head brewer Colin Vent is also exploring the Brutish possibilities. Vent is a nimble brewer, and Seventh Son’s homey digs in Columbus’ Italian Village have afforded him ample opportunity to experiment, from Kviek-yeast beers to his first Brut IPA. Brewed as part of the People Power Beer project, originated at Threes Brewing in Brooklyn as a nationwide effort to raise money for the ACLU, Seventh Son’s “People Power” was a 7.2% Brut IPA filled with Mosaic, Galaxy and Denali hops. Whacking back a pint of it was dangerously easy. "I thought of Brut, when I first heard about it, as a bastardization or offshoot of New England IPA,” Vent says. “I’m not a huge New England IPA guy; I resisted it for a really long time. With the Brut thing, though, I was immediately drawn to it. I love champagne, after all.” 

The diversity of interest, approaches, definitions and execution of this new and burgeoning style is playing out across the country. It seems like virtually every state will have a Brut IPA to call its own by the end of 2018. But does the style have longevity? Is it a counterpoint—even an antidote—to the pitiless hegemony of haze? Corder is uncertain. “I’m not sure people understand what Brut IPA is supposed to be—they don’t get it yet,” he says. “Telling someone that no matter how hoppy your beer is, you’re used to a little residual sweetness in there—now we’re literally using science to break those unfermentable sugars down so the yeast can continue to ferment out until it’s nil? That’s going to take some time.” 

Five years ago, when bracingly bitter West Coast IPAs ruled the land, it would have been hard to imagine that a style as iconoclastic and strange as the New England IPA would become a dominant trend. But will the more familiar qualities of Brut IPA translate into mass consumer appeal? Back in Chicago at Hopewell, Bossu is hopeful. "Like with the New England IPA, as long as it’s well done and capturing an elegance or a balance that people want, it’ll stick around, regardless of what it’s called,” he says. “Just like with this new style, whether in the future it’s still called Brut or dry or what have you. I hope it sticks around, though—we love it."

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