Homebrew Recipe: Tré Cool Imperial IPA

Tre Cool Imperial IPA 2

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.

I knew a girl from San Francisco, and she and her Bay Area friends had been Green Day fans from their underground days. At least until Dookie hit the charts, then no more. Mainstream success = kiss of death. A thing’s coolness is inversely proportional to the number of people who like that thing.

Imperial IPA—in all its overstated, unapologetic splendor—offers a nice parallel. Such a ubiquitous embodiment of the craft beer scene, with so many iterations, with paragons of the style with 100 ratings online, inspiring rushes at the liquor store and lines at release parties; hype, buzz, hoarding, trading, a grayish-black market. It’s a lot of baggage if you just want “a beer.”

But, by the same token, popular things are often popular for a reason. “Who am I to blow against the wind?” as Paul Simon asked, right before he went all corporate.

By the time you’re reading this, the new crop of citric, piney, stinky, dank hops will be in your LHBS not getting any fresher and just waiting for a person of immoderate temperament to put an irresponsible amount of terpenes and myrcene and other volatile oils into a single batch of beer. This month, that person is us, citizens. There’s lots of room for you on the bandwagon, as REM said, back before they sold out.

Going by numbers

American IPA is nothing if not an unsubtle style, and Imperial IPA is American IPA’s louder, good-timing cousin. Clocking in with OGs from 1.070 on up to 1.090, these beers yield a barley wine- or doppelbock-grade strength of roughly 8–10% ABV. But as we all know, unlike those similarly-strong beers where malt is the keynote, IIPA packs in hops to the tune of 60–120 IBU*. Color goes from a very deep gold 8 up to a light coppery 15 SRM, with a fair amount of haze possible as a result of all them hops.

* Our ability to perceive hop bitterness starts to plateau at around 100 IBU, so exceeding this level—besides being difficult to do in a high-gravity wort—may be an academic exercise at best. Not that you shouldn’t do it if you want!

What makes it tick

Duh, hops? Skip ahead to the recipe.

If you’re still reading, good—just because Imperial IPA is an overpoweringly hoppy style doesn’t mean it’s easy to brew well. The hops need a solid malt foundation and a sound fermentation in order to sing and not merely clobber. Soapbox time!

In my opinion, the best examples of this style quietly exhibit some subtle malt harmonics—not quite multi-dimensional since it’s still all about the almighty hop, but not quite one-note either. High-quality base malt with some spine to it—English pale malts, for instance; or a blend of domestic 2-row with English pale and/or a touch of Munich malt.

The best examples—again, my opinion!—are also dry and clean, signifying not just an appropriate choice of ale yeast strain, but a healthy fermentation, too. Too caramelly and sweet, whether through overuse of caramel malt or under attenuation, and an Imperial IPA can turn cloying—there is a separate category for barley wine, after all!

A good IIPA should have this in common with a good example of a Belgian golden strong ale: the ABV % should be appropriately high, but not painfully apparent in the aroma and flavor. Hot, harsh alcohol character and the attendant headache-inducing fusels of a stressed fermentation aren’t desirable here.

On to the centerpiece: Humulus lupulus. Born in the USA, IIPA runs on the classic and nouveau craft brewing varieties grown in Yakima and Willamette: Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Chinook, CTZ, Mosaic, Simcoe, and so forth. Southern Hemisphere varieties like Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, etc. are also at home here with their funky, musky, tropical fruit overtones, as are new varieties from Germany’s Hull Institute like Mandarina Bavaria, Hull Melon, and Hallertau Blanc.

Whatever varieties trip your trigger, you’ll need a lot of them. We are looking to get both considerable bitterness and maximum flavor and aroma from our hop charges, so it’s appropriate to add them at pretty much every stage of the process, from mash-hopping to boil additions to flameout or whirlpool additions in the pre-chilled wort to dry hops in the fermentor. In keeping with the “hoppy, not bitter” school of Imperial IPA, this month’s recipe will use a technique common to many of the foremost commercial IIPAs: very heavy late hopping to yield the bulk of our IBUs alongside a powerful concentration of volatile hop aromatics.

A recipe to try:

Tré Cool Imperial IPA

Target OG: 1.076–1.078
Target IBU: 80–82

Shopping list:

  • Grain
    • 12.5 lbs English Maris Otter
  • Hops
    • 5 ml hop extract
    • 5 oz Simcoe
    • 3 oz Citra
    • 3 oz Galaxy
    • 2 oz Columbus
  • Yeast
    • Wyeast 1217 West Coast IPA (or your choice of a neutral, American-type ale strain)
  • Other
    • 8 oz plain white table sugar (sucrose)

Key Points for Key Pints:

Good hops: Since it’s all about the hops, use the freshest, best-smelling, most primo pellets or whole hops you can get. Late fall is a great time to brew Imperial IPA since that’s when the new crop year arrives and the hops are at their most potent and aromatic.

Yeast strain: There are many options that can work in Imperial IPA, but “basic black” is a neutral, American-type ale yeast that will not produce a high level of esters or diacetyl and generally just do its job and stay out of the way of the hop aroma – I’m opting for Wyeast 1217 West Coast IPA.

Yeast starter: Whatever strain you choose, give it a good start in life by propagating a starter culture before brew day. When we have a high-gravity wort that needs to ferment out thoroughly and without a lot of fermentation byproducts (esters, fusels, etc), a big population of healthy cells is a must.

Mash low, use sugar: My prejudice is firmly in favor of dry IIPAs, so I like to incorporate both a low mash rest and a small fraction of easily-fermentable sucrose to help ensure high attenuation. This ain’t exactly a guzzling beer, but it shouldn’t drink like a dessert wine, either.

Hop extract: This is your friend on an IIPA brew day. Essentially a hop concentrate, this syrup-like resin is another trick used by pro brewers to help maximize yield – by using hop extract, which dissolves completely in wort, in place of pellets or whole hops as the bittering addition (even if it’s just a token bittering addition, as we have here!), we lose less volume to vegetable matter in the boil kettle. Neat! Available from many homebrew shops, usually in an easy-to-dose syringe.

Dry hopping: As anyone worth their pretzel necklace at a beer fest will scream-tell you, an Imperial IPA without dry hops isn’t an Imperial IPA. And preferably an awful lot of dry hops. Make sure your secondary fermentor can handle the volume, and be prepared with a fine-mesh drawstring bag if you like to try to contain them. There are differing schools of thought as to optimum contact time and temperature for dry hopping – the steps below will try to walk a middle path, but let your senses and personal preference guide you.

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