Whenever I think of Wisconsin Brewing Company brewmaster Kirby Nelson and hoppy beers, I remember him once saying: "They don't have to be a freak show in your mouth!" Those who have followed Nelson's brewing path know he avoided intensely hopped brews for more than a quarter-century while at Capital Brewery. So when he offered not one, but two IPAs among only four inaugural releases from Wisconsin Brewing last November, I was intrigued. Now Nelson's American IPA has become one of the new brewery's most talked-about releases.
What is it? American IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company of Verona, Wisconsin.
Style: The India Pale Ale (IPA) emphasizes the bitterness of hops, which can provide herbal, citrus and piney character to both aroma and flavor. IPAs are medium-bodied and often golden- to copper-colored. They range from 5.5% to 7.5% ABV. The style evolved from beers made by British brewers, who used heavy hopping to help preserve their products over long sea voyages. When all or at least the majority of the hops used to make an IPA are varieties grown in the United States, it's given the American IPA distinction. Nelson's version is made with four varieties of U.S. hops and three of them are Wisconsin-grown, sourced from Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie.
Background: Kirby Nelson laughs about being "the guy that bad-mouthed the IPA for so long." He's pleased with how his American IPA turned out: "When you've been brewing and developing the lager beers that I did for so long, then step back and add something different into the mix, it's a challenge and one that's been incredibly fun."
Both IPAs from Wisconsin Brewing also show that the brewery isn't going to rest on Nelson's reputation for making lagers (though he has made a great Amber Lager there). Nelson is interested in brewing a range of styles and not just "variations on the beers that I made at Capital for so long," he says. Nelson's initial releases included a porter, also a style he'd never made before commercially. "Awareness of beer among consumers is exploding, and it's great to do beers I thought I would never do," he says.
Pale ales and India pale ales are the hottest style of beer right now among craft brewers. In recent years they've become a necessity to a well-rounded brewery's portfolio. With the IPA, the bitter hop character should indeed dominate other flavors. However, the challenge is getting the beer not to taste like hop-juice in a glass. A good IPA allows the hops to win in the end, but there should still be a complexity and blending with the caramel and grainy tones of the malt.
The bitter flavor of an IPA is more than just the amount of hops. The type of hops that goes into the recipe can be just as important. Firmly hopped IPAs that I consider good will fall into two general camps. One group includes the bright and sharp IPAs that have clean citrus-bitterness that doesn't linger -- or if it does, remains dry like grapefruit. Hops such as Centennial and Cascade are often showcased in these sorts of beers. The other group has more aggressive orangey, piney and resiny bitterness. Amarillo and Simcoe are among high alpha acid hops that may dominate these brews. Their bitterness can be intense and linger on the palate.
The Centennial and Cascade hops that go into Wisconsin Brewing American IPA give it a crisp, citrus-grapefruit bitterness that's clean, with a finish that doesn't linger. It's a similar bitterness to what you find in Vintage Woodshed IPA or popular Michigan IPAs like Bell's Two Hearted Ale and Founders Centennial IPA. In contrast, Tyranena Bitter Woman IPA and Ale Asylum Ballistic IPA offer much stronger spicy-tropical and orangey accents from the addition of large amounts of Amarillo hops.
Wisconsin Brewing American IPA finishes strong at 7.1% ABV and an estimated 60 IBUs. It's found throughout Madison on tap and in six-packs that sell for about $8-$9/each. This beer is also called #002, and was the second of Nelson's early test batches that he made with the Great Dane and Vintage Brewing before opening. Nelson's other IPA is a light-bodied and lower-alcohol version called Session IPA, which ends up around 4.8% ABV.
- Aroma: Light citrus nose.
- Appearance: Clear, golden and bubbly. A thick, soft, off-white head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied.
- Taste: A sharp citrus bitterness. Crisp and clean.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The citrus bitterness is there, but it doesn't linger. The ending is firmly bitter and crisp, then it's gone, which makes it great for food.
Glassware: The Willi Becher, with its inward taper near the lip, will focus the nose, hold the head and show off the beer's clear golden color.
Pairs well with: Wisconsin Brewing American IPA is a nice beer for strong and spicy entrees. It goes well with Asian cuisine and curries. To pair with cheese, try it with a mild blue. You'll also be surprised how well it goes with sweet desserts like carrot cake.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Wisconsin Brewing American IPA is crisp and clean, with an inviting firm grapefruit and citrus-bitterness that encourages drinking another.
In terms of its style, this IPA is very well made. It has a bright golden color and a medium body that is sharp, which accentuates the crisp bitterness from the Centennial and Cascade hops. It has a level of bitterness that is approachable for hoppy and non-hoppy beer fans alike. It's not a light beer and on the strong end of the style at 7% ABV.
I believe this beer nails the IPA style. It's been my hoppy beer choice of late, especially to have around for friends with a range of preferences for bitter tastes. Personally, I prefer a little more bitterness and hoppy flavor and aroma from an IPA, as well piney and resiny flavors.
Nelson notes that he's not finished with his American IPA and is planning to tweak the amount of Centennial hops to sharpen its bitterness. I'm looking forward to tasting this upcoming variation and other hop-forward beers that Nelson will be creating in his new brewhouse.