Dick Cantwell’s return to brewing has been a long time coming. When the board of Elysian, the well-respected Seattle brewery he co-founded, voted to take a buyout from Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2015, Cantwell voted against the sale and ultimately left the company. His departure came with a non-compete agreement prohibiting him from brewing, and as a result the world has since been deprived of his liquid creativity and expertise.
Thankfully, his time away from the fermenters has come to an end. When New Belgium purchased San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing, it asked him to come on board as head brewer. For those hoping to find inspiration from the master brewer, Cantwell’s latest book about beer, Brewing Eclectic IPA, provides insights and instructions for taking what is perhaps the most dominant style of craft beer in America and pushing it beyond where it’s already gone.
Cantwell spoke with The Takeout to tell us a bit about his new book and to help explain where IPAs are going next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Takeout: What inspired you to write this book?
Dick Cantwell: I think what really inspired me is we’ve had so many interesting fruity hop varieties arise over the past several years that a lot of them just sort of cry out for creative combination with other things. People pay attention these days to the analyses of hop varieties based on what essential oils are in them, what terpenes [organic aromatic compounds], what flavors, what fruitiness is suggested by some of the naturally constituent elements of the hops and the oils in them. And those same compounds arise in what is essentially vegetable matter, fruits, spices, herbs, that kind of thing. And it’s kind of a fun little game to tie those in to the terpenes and the essential oils in the hops. The whole thing has kind of snowballed, and really you get to realize there’s no end to the ideas and varieties of things that can be tried and can be delicious.
TO: What do you look for in a well-crafted IPA?
DC: Well, I like intensity. It’s too easy just to say “balanced”, but it really is about balance. A lot of people think IPAs are only about hops, and that there’s no such thing as too much hops, and that’s just not true. You’ve got to have enough maltiness, you’ve got to have enough malt flavor, you’ve got to have enough esters having been produced from the fermentation to create some of those flavors too. But I think it’s got to have intensity.
These days there’s a lot of experimentation being done with the hazy IPAs and that doesn’t really come under the realm of what I was writing about. But I’m finding it interesting how divisive that is. There are brewers my age or even twenty years younger who are saying “I won’t do it! I just don’t believe in those beers!” And I don’t get it—it’s beer. It’s not genetics. We’re making beer [for] people’s enjoyment and if people enjoy a particular style of beer you have the choice to brew it or not, but if you want to sell beer you’re probably going to try it. And I like a lot of those beers. I don’t like the ones that look like a milkshake, but I don’t mind the hazy ones. They’ve become a really interesting exercise in dry hopping and other techniques that weren’t being tried before and that’s stretching boundaries right there.
TO: This book is certainly looking into the future of the style. What are some of the more interesting developments of the style that have come before?
DC: I think the development of double IPAs is very interesting, and that sort of came out of barleywine and IPA. I remember having discussions with people about drinking hoppy pale barleywines and saying “is this really barleywine, or is it something different?” And sure enough within a few years it was something different, it was double IPAs. I remember back in, it must have been 1994, standing in front of the Avery booth at GABF [Great American Beer Festival] and drinking the Hog Heaven, which was a pale hoppy barleywine.
TOt: Do you think that because IPA has such cache within the industry, it can lead to people seeking out new and innovative forms of the style?
DC: I think that’s part of it. Obviously rarity has cache too. If you have had something that your buddy hasn’t had you’ve got one-up on him. The first one I remember having along these lines was Heady Topper, which was a very good beer but almost anything is overrated when it has that much hype attached to it. It’s a very good beer! But other beers are also very good too.
TO: In your book, you use the term “arms race” to describe how many brewers are essentially supercharging their IPAs with higher alcohol content and much more prevalent bitterness and hop character. Why do you think that’s happening?
DC: It’s one-upsmanship. IPA is a show-off style; it lends itself to to that. In order to cram that much hops into a beer you have to show you know how to do that, because if you don’t it’s just going to turn out tasting kind of green and vegetal. So if you can put in some massive number of IBUs [international bitterness units], or create this phenomenal aromatic effect using just more hops than you have a right to cram into a beer, then you’ve scored some points I guess. But of course, competition is healthy, but competition can also be ridiculous when that’s the aim in itself.
TO: As a consumer, I know fruit beer has had sort of a bad reputation, and then you talk about herbs and spices and all these things. Do you think there’s been some resistance amongst brewers to start incorporating these elements into their IPAs?
DC: You mention that fruit beer had a bad reputation and we always have to say “except for kriek, except for wonderful lambic beers that incorporate fruit.” But, I think fruit in craft brewing’s earlier days was something that was trying to attract female drinkers. It was typically lightweight wheat beers that had maybe some raspberries, or some cherries, or some apricots, or something in them. They were beers that were really unchallenging, and they were pretty condescending. I mean, some people are always going to be against adding other ingredients. You can come up with creative combinations and still make an IPA.
TO: How do you see the style developing in the future, and what is next for IPAs?
DC: I don’t think the future is entirely bound up in IPAs with other specialty ingredients like [fruit]. I think people will continue to do that. But one thing we’re seeing here, and we’ve already touched on the cloudy hazy stuff, the New England stuff, one thing that’s been kind of fun to see develop and to be a part of here in the Bay Area is brut IPA that a guy named Kim Sturdavant at Social Kitchen and Brewery devised. He put together an IPA that he wanted to have some of the qualities of champagne, so he used additional enzymes as well as regular brewers yeast to make the wort that much more fermentable. It ferments down to literally the specific gravity of water, down to 1, which means it doesn’t hold a head but you can make it very effervescent. It’s super dry, and then if you dry hop it you have a really nice aromatic constituent.
What he did, to his credit, was at an SF Guild [San Francisco Brewers Guild] meeting he said “I just did this beer, I want you other guys to try this too and let’s make this thing.” So a lot of other breweries around here, including us, have come up with our versions of it. And it’s got elements of the New England dry-hopping profile, in that the actual IBUs are fairly low, but the hop punch, the hop aroma effect is very very high. But we’ve got it in a very lightweight beer that’s really pleasant to drink.