A Bitter Divide

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Check out Ratebeer.com, Beeradvocate.com or any of a half- dozen other beer evaluation Web sites, and you'll often read approving comments describing this or that brand as "a real West Coast India pale ale."

A West Coast IPA? Does that mean there's a corresponding East Coast IPA? Is one better than the other?

I asked two highly respected hophead brewers on opposite shores to weigh in with their opinions.

"That huge, smack-you-in- the-face hop aroma and flavor you don't get as much out of East Coast IPAs," says Steve Wagner, brewmaster of Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif. A former musician whose band, Balancing Act, once played in such local venues as the 9:30 club and the Birchmere, Wagner founded Stone Brewing in 1996 with partner Greg Koch. The brewery, best known for its strong ale Arrogant Bastard, specializes in brash beers and brash advertising. The corporate symbol, a sneering gargoyle, challenges consumers with the slogan "You're Not Worthy!"

Wagner thinks it comes down to geography. West Coast breweries are closer to the hop fields of the Pacific Northwest, and their brewers make liberal use of classic American hop varieties such as "the 4 C's" -- Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus -- and their assorted offshoots. These varieties are noted for intense resiny and citrusy flavors and aromas. Wagner's Stone IPA and his more powerful Ruination IPA deliver that prickly West Coast hop burst of pine needles and grapefruit familiar to beer thrill-seekers.

East Coast breweries show more of a European influence, Wagner says. They often use English hops, which are less bitter and are frequently described as earthy, woody, musky or spicy. Brooklyn Brewery's East India Pale Ale derives its subdued orange-and-lemon flavor from East Kent Goldings hops. In Pennsylvania, Lancaster Brewing Co.'s Hop Hog blends Cascade with Fuggles, another quintessentially English variety. Hop Infusion from Weyerbacher Brewing Co. in Easton, Pa., contains seven types of hops, including American, English and Czech varieties.

Sam Calagione, president and founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., notes that East Coast brewers tend to use more specialty malts than do their Pacific Coast counterparts, a practice that lends their IPAs a darker color and more body and residual sugar. Dogfish Head produces three India pale ales: 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute, named after the length of the boil, during which the beers receive a continuous infusion of hops. (The higher the number, the higher the alcohol percentage by volume and the higher the "international bittering units," a measure of the bitter alpha acids in hops.) The beers exhibit a more delicate, floral hop character than the West Coast's big bruisers, along with a balancing sweetness.

Ounce for ounce, Calagione insists, he uses as many hops as his Pacific Coast counterparts, including extra-bitter American hybrids such as Warrior and Amarillo. As evidence, he presents a 2006 letter from his hops supplier, Yakima Chief, stating that Dogfish Head is using enough hops to supply a brewery producing more than 280,000 barrels a year -- seven times Dogfish Head's actual output. "Do you have a leak in your brewhouse? Is your hop scale not working?" jokes Yakima Chief's correspondent.

Marketing patterns might skew our perceptions. When craft breweries start shipping to distant parts of the country, they usually lead with their more extreme, higher-alcohol brews, not their everyday drinking beers. Stone Brewing has just begun shipping its Stone Pale Ale eastward, and mid-Atlantic beer lovers soon will be able to gauge how it stacks up against ordinary pale ales from regional breweries such as Old Dominion, Dogfish Head and Wild Goose.

Craft breweries continually experiment with new recipes, a factor that might bridge the continental divide. Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa., markets a well-balanced IPA called HopDevil, but it also releases a paler, drier winter seasonal called Hop Wallop that is so overloaded with hops it has an almost metallic edge. On the other hand, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, Calif., has begun offering six-packs of its Sierra Nevada India Pale Ale, brewed with English malts and hops for a flavor very different from that of its Cascade-accented pale ale. (This year the formerly draft-only IPA appeared for the first time in six-packs, as a winter-spring seasonal.)

"If tastes are that much different on the East Coast, I think we'll see some level of difference continue," says Wagner. "But I think beer drinkers want to taste as many beers and styles as they can."

Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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