Beer: it's not just for beer drinkers anymore. Seriously. New or casual drinkers can steer themselves safely away from anything resembling what would have been considered an actual beer even five or six years ago, and still be paralyzed with overwhelming options. Wine drinker? There's a chance I've already converted you through the deft application of a gose made with grapes, or a raspberry lambic. Are most beers too: bland/malty/hoppy/bitter, or sour for you? No problem! Because brewers can load your pint with so much lactose they call it a milkshake, and you can drink actual donuts. That's between you and your pancreas.
Brut IPAs - the actual champagne of beers - are a very new, entirely American style. They're sweet and dry, beginning to show up all over the place, and I thought this week I'd do an explainer and review a few brewers' early efforts. Drinkers of the bubbly, drinkers of the murky, and Connecticut craft beer fans in general: you may just be about to have a new summer fling.
Whereas most India Pale Ales have been getting juicier and almost syrupy for most of the 2010s, Bruts take their name from champagne, in that they're much more dry, without losing the hop flavor. The key to unlocking this new style is an enzyme called Alpha Amylase; it unzips starch into less complex sugars, and is the same thing found in both the malting process (which is why grains are malted in the first place), and in your saliva. Seeds like barley grains have α-amylase in them naturally to break down the starch a baby plant uses for energy before it can make its own with leaves. We use these starches to make bread, pasta, and beer. Yeast can't eat sugars complex as starch, so brewers use malting and boiling to rev up the enzyme. Wine and champagne are made from easily digestible grape juice, but often sugars are left in finished beer after fermentation. The sugars sometimes taste sweet, but usually just add body and smoothness to beer, what we call "mouthfeel." What would happen, though, if a brewer looked down on those sugars and basically nuked them from orbit?
The thought occurred a year or so ago to Kim Sturdavant, the brewmaster at Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco. He dropped an enzyme variant called amlyoglucosidase into the beer after it fermented. The idea, he saidwas to make a beer "as pale in color, spritzy, light bodied, dryyyyyy, hoppy, and as champagne-like as possible." It's a pendulum-swing away from bitter, robust West Coast, and soft, fluffy, Hazy IPAs.
I first had a brut IPA last August (2018) at Two Roads when it was an experimental pilot batch called #28 because it was made after pilot batch #27, but before #29. Stirring stuff. Anyway, it is now in full production, and I am humbly willing to accept full responsibility for this development because I tweeted at the them once telling them to do it.
Head brewer Phil Markowski has followed the spirit of Sturdavant's theme to the letter. Two Roads Dry & Mighty Brut IPA is exceptionally clear, pale, and fills your glass under a bright white head thick and sticky enough to be confused for a pilsner if you're viewing it from a great distance through a telescope, or have plugged your nose with cotton. If you haven't done either of these things for some reason, and are standing within three feet of said beer, your second sense will alert you to the presence of HOPS. Just like that, in olfactory all-caps.
The aroma is fresh, sweet grapes, apricots, and resinous hops still on the bine, lifted out of the glass by riotous effervescence. The aroma and flavors are nearly identical, maybe with the resin turned up a bit, and the taste rolls around your mouth before disappearing almost completely in seconds, leaving a crisp and, yes, dry feeling. For a beer that would both look and taste appropriate in a flute or coupe, pinky raised, it's practically easier to chug than keg beer. Dry&Mighty is still identifiable as an IPA, though, as plenty of hops and a nearly 7% ABV keep it from being too dainty.
Two Roads may have been the first to brew brut in Connecticut as far as I know, but Black Hog, CT Valley, Outer Light, and Hog River have all been exploring them. I recently had two from other Hartford brewers, and one from Brooklyn also worthy of mention.
Hanging Hills Low Hanging Fruit Brut IPA has a nose not too far off champagne, with maybe a tiny hint of lemon. The body, under a dense head of tiny bubbles, is so crystal clear for a New England-made IPA I could weep with joy. This one is actually a collaboration with New England Cider, and blends a Hanging Hills sour wheat ale with over 200 gallons of apple juice from Blue Hills Orchards in Wallingford. The final product is still slightly tart, and the fruit flavor is a mild blend of apples and Mosaic and Cascade hops, but I thought I could just barely catch some peaches whispering from the back row. I'd prefer to detect, like, an IBU - even one - but this spin on the brut style is a great addition to the local beer scene, and would be a devastator at the beach or golf course this summer.
Thomas Hooker Blossom Brut IPA isn't bitter either, but swings wide of the brut guidelines by appearing as a sort of ruddy murk - like coffee dosed with both cream and cherry juice. The pinkish hue comes from the addition of hibiscus flowers, and the beer gives off a sweet scent with cherry and mango. Fruity new school hops dominate the flavor, and it finishes bone dry, but without the softening blanket of body, or clean crispness of the other two. Instead, the billions of yeast cells in suspension, mixed with the nearly 0% final gravity, finish chalky instead of smooth. I've had a few like this, and bruts just don't often seem to do well with haze. It's a new style, though, and everyone has all the time in the world to dial in their beers. Hooker was off to a bit of a slow start catching up with the bandwagon on new styles a few years ago, but they've been turning out some excellent on-trend beers lately, so I'm confident they'll have a remarkable brut before too long.
The counterpoint is Sixpoint Sparkler, which is like the Rosetta Stone between hazy and brut IPAs. It's unfiltered, yes, and shows up as the creamy yellow of lemon curd in a glass. The level of head is reduced to a thin cap, despite bubbling up like mad. The lack of filtration continues to show up in the nose, which is citrusy under predominant yeast. While hazebros were rolling their eyes and reaching for their dueling swords I was sidestepping and calling touché before they drew, because I genuinely like this one. Sixpoint managed to blend the high points of New World, citrusy, floral hops with the aging trend of yeast blizzard IPAs and still land pretty close to the mark of a bright, dry brut. The two styles, it turns out, can talk to each other. They also win style point with me for their label art, which says "champagne" to me in an Art Deco, Gatsby way, without the any of the implied tragedy. So thumbs up on that one.
The biggest thing (and I've said this possibly a dozen times in my almost a decade of writing this column) with American brewing is: we can innovate because we're not tied to the hidebound traditions of European brewers. When malty west coast IPAs revolutionized first American, then global brewing, it was because we had novel ingredients, and the liberty to use them as we pleased. When brewers like Alchemist and NEBCO started to focus their IPAs on the flavor and aromas of American hop varieties, their work was later carried to the extreme by "New England," now Hazy IPAs which ditched bitterness and prized those two virtues above all else, while adding turbidity. Brut IPAs are another branch in American craft beer's evolution. Light and crisp like old world styles, juicy and orchard-floral in taste and smell, we've once again managed to grow something new under the sun.
See you out there.