I am both heartened and surprised that the IPA is the king of growth in craft beer, as historically it has never been thought of as either a mainstream craft style or a “crossover” beer. We think of people having an “A-ha” moment about beer with flavor upon trying cask-conditioned English pale ale, or a Belgian white ale, or a craft lager like Samuel Adams Boston Lager, or a subtle brown ale like Newcastle. But IPAs are strong, bitter, and bursting with intense flavor. It’s not an easy jump to go from Miller Lite to Terrapin Hopsecutioner. But the numbers don’t lie, and IPAs are flying off shelves across the country. Americans can’t seem to get enough of them.
So it’s hardly surprising that not only do many modern start-up breweries launch an IPA right off the bat, even longtime stalwarts of the craft world who’ve never offered a year-round IPA in their line-up have started adding them. In just the past two years, Samuel Adams, New Belgium, and Sierra Nevada have launched their first year-round IPAs. Clearly there was a time (more than two decades long!) when those breweries’ growth did not require them to offer an IPA in their core brands, but that time has passed.
So you may not be surprised when I tell you I’m of the opinion that every craft brewery needs a good IPA in its portfolio. Of course there are exceptions to every rule and all that, but I think the smart money is on respecting the trend.
The folks at Alabama’s smallest brewery, Blue Pants in Huntsville, are paying heed to America’s impassioned plea for more hops. Blue Pants launched with a red ale last year and added a stout a few months ago. I give them props for standing out from the crowd with an unusual flagship. Red ales seem to be afterthoughts for most breweries. But their latest release is in the newly-popular mainstream, the American IPA. They call it Corduroy Rye IPA, and I’m confident it will do well for them.
Being Alabama’s smallest brewery, they can’t produce enough for regular distribution anywhere outside their home town of Huntsville. So you won’t see Blue Pants brews at bars throughout Birmingham. But of course the fine folks at the J. Clyde have worked to obtain the occasional Blue Pants keg, and that’s where I tried Corduroy last week.
It pours up with a nice head that leaves beautiful lacing as you sip the beer, and features a dark golden hue. I think they went easy on the crystal malts and heavy on the rye. It’s hazy from keg conditioning, which I find very appealing. I’m no fan of filtering or pasteurization.
Corduroy has a fairly light, crisp body for a beer of its size—it’s seven percent alcohol and clocks in around 70 IBU from Magnum and Centennial hops. It also steps up with an excellent hop-forward flavor from the Cascade and Centennial dry hops: heavy on pine and tangerine citrus, with a hint of grapefruit. I think the greatest sin of many commercial IPAs is their failure to be extravagant with hops at the end of the boil and in dry-hopping. Corduroy does not succumb to that miserly mistake.
I do find myself wishing it was a tad more bitter. It’s just a hair too far towards the sweet side of the spectrum. But it has a pleasing alcohol warmth on the finish without being hot or boozy. My overall impression is that Corduroy is a top notch IPA featuring brilliant late hopping and dry hopping, and could stand in the same company as some of the best in the nation if the bittering hops were nudged up a little.
These folks are brewing on a system that is comparable to some of the larger, more advanced home brew systems you can find in homes around the country. It’s kind of crazy to think about. Brewmaster Michael Spratley has a day job and just brews on weekends. It’s inspiring to see what guys like Spratley will do with their passion for craft beer. You can find out more about Blue Pants—including photos of their tiny brewing system—at bluepantsbrew.com.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org