Brut IPAs Owe Their Existence to Diet Beer from the 1960s

November 13, 2018

By Molly Kendrick, November 13, 2018

Fashion is cyclical, and if you peer closely at new trends you’ll see the skeleton of something that’s been around for quite a while. Brut IPA is no exception. Kim Sturdavant, the master brewer at Social Kitchen and Brewery in San Francisco, gets credit for this dry, highly carbonated brew that has no residual sugar thanks to an enzyme called amyloglucosidase. Its dry, bubbly profile reminded Sturdavant of Champagne, hence the “Brut.” Sturdavant is the latest to capitalize on this enzyme’s sugar-gobbling properties, but this technique dates back to the 1960s, when scientist Joseph Owades set out to make a lower-calorie beer.

When Brooklyn’s Rheingold Brewery hired Owades in 1960, he was the first-ever Ph.D. to work for a brewery. In 1967, Owades began looking for a way to make beer with fewer calories. Even the driest beer has some residual sugar, and to get rid of it he had to find a way to break the bonds of sugar’s starch molecules. Amyloglucosidase did the job, and the world’s first light beer—known as Gablinger’s Diet Beer—was born.

It wasn’t on shelves for long, which Owades attributed to the marketing campaign. In 2005, his Washington Post obituary quoted his description of the Gablinger’s Diet Beer commercial, which featured a sumo wrestler “shoveling spaghetti into his mouth.” Most people who saw it “couldn’t stand to look at the guy” and didn’t want to give the beer a chance. Rheingold swiftly scrapped it.

With permission, Owades shared his recipe with a friend in Chicago who worked for a brewery called Meister Brau, which evolved into Miller Brewing Company. They cracked the code for selling lower-calorie beer—instead of marketing to people with dietary concerns, they targeted their ads at blue collar men who liked the idea of drinking beer without filling up. Miller came up with the winning motto, “Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less.”

Almost exactly 50 years later, everything old is new again. Jaime Jurado, past president of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas and current VP of Ennoble Beverages, tells October, “Craft brewers have used proven approaches from ‘Big Beer’ in the past, and then pretty much tried to claim them as their own invention. It's just new in that a known technique is applied in a craft brewery situation.” Jurado knew Owades in the 1980s, and remembers him as a brilliant scientist who “built a legacy in industrial chemistry,” and whose “crowning glory was light beer.”

No brewer in their right mind would advertise, ‘Hey, I screwed up a batch, but I made it sellable by adding an enzyme.'”

Light beer and Brut IPA aside, craft brewers are perfectly aware of enzymes’ magical properties—Jurado says that brewers often use enzymes as a Band-Aid, although “no brewer in their right mind would advertise, ‘Hey, I screwed up a batch, but I made it sellable by adding an enzyme.” Jurado explains a typical scenario: “Maybe you got a little crazy; you made a beer with roses and six kinds of fruit...” and at that point, you might get what’s called “stuck fermentation.” Thanks to enzymes, you can salvage your beer, “and turn these complex, un-fermentable sugars into fermentable sugars.”

Enzymes’ applications are many, but they might not be necessary for brewing Brut IPAs. The Brewers Association doesn’t have a definition for Brut IPA, which means brewers get to make it up as they go along, a fact that inspired Trevor Schlam, the master brewer at Greenpoint Beer and Ale in Brooklyn, to name his version “Self Taught.” Schlam says he is “still not 100-percent sure” that the enzyme is required to achieve the desired dryness. Jurado agrees, speculating that once there is a category for Brut IPA at the Great American Beer Festival, “a brewer using the enzyme is as likely to win as someone who isn’t.”

Self Taught balances on a tightrope strung between America’s coasts, combining the dryness of a West Coast beer with the haze of a trendy East Coast brew. Schlam can spot biases in brewers’ definitions of the style: “West Coast [brewers] say it’s not supposed to be that hazy, but that’s because they don’t make hazy beer.”

According to Schlam, Brut IPA has come at the right time for East Coast brewers, presenting a chance to move away from beers that are “cloying, juicy, and hazy to the point that they look kind of muddy. They want something that looks and tastes a little more elegant.” He says of Self Taught, “This is what we wish New England beers were like. It’s a little tart—we added a couple different kinds of acid to bring down the pH.” Self Taught contains turo, a type of barley that dries out pretty easily. Despite the focus on dryness, Self Taught doesn’t feel particularly dry on the palate, although Schlam says that if you cared to take a hydrometer reading (and who wouldn’t?) you would see that it’s “very, very dry.”

When it comes to packaging Brut IPA, Schlam isn’t sure his vision matches what the East Coast market wants. Schlam and his team are experimenting with Belgian bottle treatments, in order to obtain a high amount of carbonation without losing aroma, as well as to further evoke the experience of drinking Champagne with the pop of a cork. He doesn’t want to put a hazy beer in a glass bottle for fear of it looking too muddy, but hazy beer is “in,” and clear beer has an unfavorable association with less flavorful macro brews. Schlam knows he can make a beer that is both clear and delicious, but also knows that “brewers can only push the market so far.”

Jurado has seen firsthand how quickly the public can turn on beers that don’t keep current trends in mind. For instance, when hazy beers took over, a few breweries copped to using flour to make their beers especially cloudy, instead of relying on a technique like dry hopping. Although flour doesn’t compromise quality, critics “went through the roof,” Jurado recalls, adding that he’s sure the maligned brewers regret sharing their ingredients.  

The market for microbrews is as much about perception as it is quality. Microbreweries go out of their way to distinguish themselves from mass-produced beers like Miller Lite, and yet Brut IPA exemplifies the fact that techniques from macro brewers can lead to compelling, cutting-edge microbrews like Self Taught.

Self Taught has a strong floral aroma, but the hoppy presence remains confined to the bouquet—it packs none of the bitter punch you’d expect from an IPA. It doesn’t remind me of Champagne, but it feels similarly classy to drink. (The tulip glass helps.) You would never mistake it for a light beer, but it’s a drink you could happily down several of on a sunny day in an industrial corner of Brooklyn, not far from the Rheingold Brewery (now an apartment building), where, in Jurado’s words, Owades “set the world on fire” with his groundbreaking recipe.

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

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