Last year’s most popular style at the Great American Beer Festival, the hazy IPA, seems unstoppable both in consumer demand and brewer enthusiasm. A lot of work goes into making sure that batch after batch, specs are met and flavors are intact, and so much relies on the yeast and keeping it healthy.
While New England–style IPA might be relatively new in beer, at Springdale by Jack’s Abby—the experimental and barrel-aging arm of Jack’s Abby Brewing—they have applied a lot of historical knowledge in their approach to making hazy, hops-forward ales, thanks largely to the lagers for which the brewery’s original business is well-known.
“We wrote standard operating procedures for 5 or 6 years with our lager yeasts,” says brewery Cofounder Jack Hendler. “We knew what it liked and what it didn’t. When we started with IPAs, we struggled because we tried to use the things we know for lagers as our best practices on the IPA, and that wasn’t best for the beer.”
He says that individual brewers at the company ran test batches with different strains to see what worked best for the New England–style IPA they wanted to brew. Over the past 2 years, they’ve tried “a lot” and finally settled on one that works well for them and isn’t too extreme in its variations on viability.
“There’s still a lot to be discovered about the role of hops as part of the fermentation profile,” Hendler says. “There are definitely ale yeast strains that don’t behave well with hops in the fermentor, and there are some yeasts that do. We happened to get lucky with the yeast strain that we use. Not only does it have a fermentation profile that we like, but from our perspective, there is a limited impact from its interaction with the hops.”
To keep the yeast strain they use healthy and viable, Hendler says the brewery pulls it from fermentation before the beer is dry hopped, which could be as early as day two or three. From there, they work out their brewing schedule to re-pitch that yeast into another beer, one that doesn’t require hops during fermentation, such as a stout. He says the brewery can go ten or so generations going back and forth between a hazy IPA and another ale.
“Even though we will re-pitch yeast that has some hops in fermentation, we don’t re-pitch yeast that has been dry hopped. There’s only so much hops particulate you can put into a fermentor and have reasonable refermentation and growth.”
He knows that not everyone will agree with this approach and cites his more than dozen years brewing and how “some things just get ingrained in your head whether it’s for an actual purpose or just a habit developed that you stick with.”
About the breweries that go thirty plus generations with yeast, Hendler says, “If you see a positive or negative change, I know people put that up for debate, but at a certain point, you’re rolling the dice to see whether you’re going to get the finished product you’re looking for.” While some breweries are turning out hazy IPA weekly, or more frequently, Hendler says that Springdale releases just two or three per month, and because those IPAs can go into distribution, the brewers are “pretty conservative and overly cautious” about making sure secondary fermentation doesn’t happen in the can, running the risk of ruptures.
“If the beer is going right out the door, some breweries won’t have that issue. But we want to make sure that if it gets into distribution, it adheres to our standards, and that means closely monitoring a lot of things all throughout the process.”
A Little Light with the Yeast
At New York’s Prison City Pub and Brewery, Brewer Ben Maeso says he treats his hazy beers “the same as any other beer, although maybe we go lighter with the yeast.” Too aggressive, he says, and the yeast tends to kick the fruity esters. So he shoots for seven to ten million cells per milliliter.
Like Hendler, Maeso re-pitches the yeast and says that with the hazy IPA, they will do a small crash, ferment as efficiently as they can for 6 days, and then pull the yeast before dry hopping. He can usually get a good four generations out of the yeast. Of course, both Hendler and Maeso are talking about already propagated yeasts.
Dry Yeast Alternative?
Some breweries are using dry yeast for their hazy IPAs, an alternative that is popular to “pitch and ditch”—because it’s economical or simply practical, depending on a brewery’s size. Maeso says he’s tried using dry yeast in the past, but his opinion is that it doesn’t work. “It pulls up the hops tannins, and you get that astringency.” Still, there are a few strains that aren’t available as a liquid, and starters can be expensive, so both Hendler and Maeso say to proceed with knowing as much about the product you’re using as possible.
Maeso actually prefers a blend of two yeasts, Chico and London III. Because he gets four generations out of them, he’s spending about $100 per batch from one starter pitch. In hazy IPAs, hops are usually the most expensive ingredient, especially when double dry hopping is involved. Doing a cost analysis can help brewers of all sizes really think about what the best yeast option is for them to not only create a desired beer but also to keep the bottom line in the black.
For the breweries that just simply buy a new batch of yeast for each new brew, such a cost analysis might show that the $1,000 that they can spend on new pitches for, say, a 20-barrel batch could be invested in a good or better lab to help keep the existing yeast healthy.