It took me years to finally get the right IPA, and by right IPA, I mean dry as fuck with exploding hop aroma and flavor. There were many trial and errors and factors that went into all my failed past attempts, which were well over a dozen, but alas, my tiny brain was able to finally put it all together AND on a constant basis. Here are the steps in my opinion (and facts) to making a great IPA:
1. Use fresh hops. When I say fresh, I mean FRESH. I can’t stress this enough. This is VITAL to making a good IPA on any level. I was kind of ignoring this part a bit. Good commercial brewers do whatever it takes to get the best hops they possibly can. I recommend not using leaf or cones unless you get them vacuum sealed, or you are totally sure they are as fresh as possible. Any slight stale or cheesy smell, old looking, or they look at you weird, do not use them. The safest bet in my opinion is using wet hops (can’t get any fresher) or pellets. The best hop choice in my opinion these days are cryo hops. They have had a lot of the leaf matter removed, leaving a higher concentration of the oils, reducing possible oxygen pickup. If you are going to use pellets, I recommend smelling and rubbing them in your fingers first to make sure. If there is any doubt at all do not use them. I will add that dry hopping with fresh leaves has in the past imparted slightly better aroma than pellets, but it hasn’t been that noticeable enough for me to take the chance on possible oxidized old gross leaf hops (or see above about vacuum sealed ones).
2. Avoid oxygen pick-up post fermentation. This is the one I was focussing on for a while before the importance fresh hops took over. This is still very very important, but using very fresh hops has the edge in order of importance I have found in my brews. At times I have been very sloppy transferring in regards to oxygen exposure and some of those IPAs turned out good regardless, yet some were oxidized before I had even transferred them! That lead me to believe that less-than-fresh hops were the main culprit. That being said, I still go to stupid overkill lengths to avoid oxygen pick up these days. I don’t use plastic buckets or plastic carboys (glass is impermeable), I purge everything with CO2 when transferring (I usually don’t purge the lines, but I probably would if I was bottling), and I take it so far as to not take any gravity readings anymore. I don’t take off the airlock until I put the carboy cap on to transfer the beer to the keg. If I were bottling I would purge the lines, the bottling bucket, the bottles, and as a last resort, get a rocket ship and fucking bottle in space.
This is what I do for kegging personally:
Fill the keg with a sanitizer solution to the top and then push the solution out with about 4-5 psi of CO2 until it’s all out. This is the best way to make sure there’s no oxygen in the keg as it’s fully being displaced with CO2. I don’t always do this as it can use a lot of CO2, but ideally this would be done every time.
If dry hopping in the keg, quickly open the top, put the dry hops in (weighted with marbles or butter knives in a piece of sanitized nylon stocking).
Quickly put the top back on, purge again with about 15 psi for about 10-15 seconds, turn the C02 tank off, and bleed out all the CO2 in the keg entirely.
Transfer using a carboy cap with CO2 being pushed in with a line going into my out connection on the keg like so (you’ll have to take the relief valve out, or unscrew it, to do this successfully).
Once transferred, I screw the the relief valve back in and purge again with about 15-20 psi for 10-15 seconds.
Some people put 30 psi on it, give it a little shake for a minute or two, and then a few days later bleed out the CO2 and it’s ready to go. I have been getting better beer recently just setting it to the serving PSI pressure (usually 10 PSI for me) and letting it sit for a week undisturbed in a chest freezer set to 36F. The slower carbonation method also has the advantage of not sucking out the aroma when the CO2 is bled out after a few days.
3. Massive flame out additions at less-than-boiling temps. I use 70% or more of my total hops at 10 minutes left in the boil, hop stand, and dry hopping (I now often skip the late boil additions as well), but I’ve heard of some commercial breweries using as much as 80% of their hop additions in the whirlpool (I often bounce around from the use of “whirlpool” and “hop stand”). If you are using cryo hops, I would do 100% hop stand with them as their alpha acids are double what hops are, so you will get enough IBUs usually. I swirl every addition in pretty good, but I don’t continuously whirlpool because it isn’t necessary for my system).
First I cool the wort to 150-170F degrees (sometimes 140F), then add hop additions every 10-15 minutes until the desired hop stand length of time is reached, which has been anywhere from 30-60 minutes total. This has been the most effective way of extracting flavor and aroma in my opinion. Sometimes a recipe building program (such as BeerSmith) will show that the IPA is in the 100+ IBU range doing it this way, but I wouldn’t worry about that as you aren’t extracting bitterness in a 170-180F degree hop stand like you would in a 212F degree boil. In fact, the isomerization rate halves as the wort temperature falls from 212F to 195F, so at 170-180F not much bitterness is being extracted, rather a lot more flavor and aroma. However, this major drop in bitterness has to be accounted for.
A way to compensate for the drop in bitterness is to nearly ignore what the program says about how much IBUs you are extracting from the hop stand. I first add the boiling addition amounts to get it to about 65 IBUs, then add my late/flameout additions until the program says it will be the 85-100 IBU range. This will probably land you in the 75 IBU range all set and done if doing a hop stand in the 175F range. I heard one home brewer who had a recipe in the 100 IBU range and did something similar with his hop stands, yet when he had it analyzed by a lab it was 77 IBUs, so there is something to this it seems.
Regardless of the high IBU concern, it’s impossible to “overdo IBUs” as the human palate supposedly can’t detect over about 90 isomerized IBUs, and the solubility limit of iso-alpha acids tops out at about 100 IBUs anyway.
4. Very very little crystal malt, if at all. Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River has said 5% and under with the crystal malt is good for IPAs. I agree with that, but I would take it slightly further for my personal taste, and if you’re like me and want a super dry west coast IPA, then don’t use any.
If you really NEED to have some blush in the cheek I’d say use crystal 60 and keep it closer to 2-3%, or use melanoidin malt instead. Melanoidins are formed when sugars and amino acids combine at elevated temperatures, typically around the boiling point. In contrast, the sweet caramel flavors associated with crystal malts form from even higher temperatures, and “sweet” being the word to focus on there. These crystal malts are mashed in at 150F, which creates some sugars from conversion, then these sugars are caramelized at 250F kilning temps.
I will say that I did get great results using 9% honey malt once, but honey malt is in the melanoidin family of chemical compounds. Crystal malt helps add body and head retention to the finished beer, so if using no crystal malts, then for body and head retention I would add about 10% flaked oats. That works for me, but you may want to play with it a bit. El Segundo Brewery just uses 2-Row and some dextrose and that’s it for their Mayberry IPA, and Pizza Port I don’t think uses any crystal malt as well for their Ponto IPA and possibly their Swami’s IPA.
5. Dry hop it. This is an obvious one, but there a few ways that I do it. One way is to do an addition at the beginning and/or near the end of fermentation (some claim the biotransformation with the active yeast and hops help bring out some more aroma), then do another dry hop addition before bottling or in the keg. It should be noted that you may get more haze dry hopping earlier as the polyphenols bind with the proteins in the malt (creating haze) before the yeast has time to clean up some of the proteins—possibly up to 50% of the polyphenols come from hops! You will also get clearer beer dry hopping with cryo hops due to the polyphenols being less. You can also dry hop in the keg as I mentioned in my kegging method. I also dry hop pretty aggressively these days at around .75 oz per gallon, but I cut that in half for cryo hops. I’ve noticed it’s common for home brewers to dry hop closer to .5 oz per gallon range, but commercial brewers can get even more aggressive than that on their scale. I also haven’t noticed any grassy flavors with larger amounts and being left in the keg for weeks. I would also recommend playing around with dry hoping temps. I have had success dry hoping at 60F and 35F, but the last one I did around 60F and got really good aroma out of it.
6. Don’t overthink the basics. What I mean here is don’t put all the attention for making a good IPA into mashing in at 148-150F for smaller sugar chains, adding gypsum to enhance bitterness, adding corn sugar in the boil to dry it out, and only using a clean, American well attenuating yeast such as Safe-Ale US-05, WLP001, Wyeast 1056. I’ve had great IPAs with English strains and lager strains. I’ve mashed in at 148F, 154F, and 160F and still got good results. I’ve played around with different gypsum amounts, in the boil, mash, not at all (but would add some if using RO or 100% distilled water), and I really can’t taste a difference personally. I do it just for fun more than anything. I did a split batch and one had corn sugar and the other didn’t, and I didn’t notice a difference. That being typed, I might add corn sugar for a double or triple IPA. In my opinion the other 5 steps are the vital ones to making a good IPA at home.
But what do I know, I’m just a home brewer trying his best.