Cloudy then clear on the IPA front

Sweet or dry? It used to be a question for wine drinkers back in … oh, let’s say the 1970s; before grape knowledge grew like sauvignon blanc vines in Marlborough.

And there was a time before then when it was just white or red, thanks very much.

Beer has been in similar territory for a while – at least when it comes to IPA (India Pale Ale). There was a time when you’d ask for an IPA and it was more of less the same where ever you went, all riffing off the benchmark American style – aggressively bitter, citrus and pine.

IPA in recent times has experimented with a range of colour combinations – red, brown, black, white – and geographical variations (US v NZ hops for example).

Right now two of the hottest style interpretations are at opposite ends of the swinging flavour pendulum – and literally fall into the old white wine paradigm of sweet versus dry.

At the sweet end of the spectrum are the hugely popular hazy IPAs (aka East Coast / New England / Vermont / milkshake IPA). These are about soft, gentle  bitterness, creamy mouthfeel and a fruity sweetness that’s driven by the addition of ingredients such as lactose and oats, embellished by the use of traditional English yeast strains which offer fruity complexity, and a hopping regime that’s all about flavour not bitter. Think pillowy, creamy, soft … as opposed to a bullet train of bitterness ride straight to the back of your palate.

There some excellent examples of these styles led by the creative teams at Garage Project, Behemoth  but the best I’ve had lately is from a small Auckland brewery, Outlier Cartel.

Outlier Cartel  Cloudburst Double IPA (8.5 per cent) is a smooth sensation – or even a smoothie sensation – it’s creamy and lush with mango, apricot and pineapple flavours. It’s made with oats and lactose (for the lactose intolerant, it does pay to check these hazy IPAs before buying) as well as lupulin powder, a process that brings out the oily, resinous quality in hops without the astringent, vegetal bitterness. The brewery is playing around with this style – looking for other ways to add texture and mouthfeel without relying on lactose – so look out for any new offerings.

At the other end of the IPA jungle we’re seeing a shift to super-dry variations, known as Brut IPA – a reference to the champagne style.

The benchmark in New Zealand is Urbanaut Copacabana (7.1 per cent). One the nose it’s the olfactory doppelganger of tinned fruit salad – smells just like it! But the body is like the lightest, driest lager you’ve had – there’s literally no residual sugar – so the effect is to create a mouthfeel that’s closer to water than beer. It sounds weird but it works a treat.

The trick is the use of an enzyme found naturally in malt that breaks down long-chain sugars to create the light, dry finish. Without a sweet support crew the bitterness has to tone down, so in many ways a Brut IPA is hopped in a similar fashion to a hazy IPA – opting for restrained bitterness and hanging the beer on the flavour and aroma of hop oils.

Here’s some more reading on Brut IPA if you’re keen on learning more about this avant garde style.