This week, we’ll be revealing the Final Four in Paste’s Top of the Hops IPA Challenge. Today we look at the Southwest bracket, where Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA won by another unanimous decision, this time beating out Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA.
We talked with Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson about making the Union Jack, a beer first released in 2008, 12 years after the brewery was founded in Paso Robles, Calif.
“By waiting to release an IPA, we were able to try everybody else’s and find a way to fit our beer in on its own,” he says. “A lot of work and a lot of experimenting went into Union Jack. We took the better part of a year doing trial brewing. A lot of people consider 7.5% ABV [alcohol by volume] to be the limit for an IPA. We went right up against the edge of that for flavor reasons. The alcohol helps extract hop oils. It’s a double-edge sword because beers with high ABVs lose their drinkability. We tried everything from 5.5% to 9%—7.5% was the sweet spot.”
What really differentiates Union Jack is the double-dry-hop process. The first dry hop (the addition of hops after fermentation has begun) is with yeast present. “Breweries now definitively know that when active yeast is present, it transforms into new flavors,” Brynildson explains. “We know we can generate fruity characteristics from the hops.”
The process can dull the more typical hop flavors, though, so the second dry hopping heightens the hoppy aroma. “Union Jack is produced in a way that’s no doubt West Coast, using classic hops like Cascade, Centennial and Chinook throughout the brewing process and then during the dry hopping, feathering in some newer cultivars like Amarillo, Simcoa and Citra.”
Brynildson may have mastered West Coast brewing but is quick to point out that great IPAs are being made all around the country. He went to college in Kalamazoo, Mich., and has a special affinity for Bell’s. “I was one of the few people to taste the very first batch of Bell’s Two-Hearted,” he says. “That’s the IPA everybody’s been chasing. I give Larry Bell a lot of credit for why I’m a brewer.”
After graduating with a degree in organic chemistry, Brynildson worked for the Kalamazoo Spice Extraction Company spending three years as a hop chemist. He was making hop extract and homebrewing before getting his first job as a brewer at Goose Island, helping Greg Hall develop the Chicago brewery’s IPA and eventually becoming head brewer. He became Firestone Walker’s head brewer in 2001.
When Brynildson learned of his competition in the Final Four of Paste’s IPA Challenge, he said, “Your blind panel has chosen some excellent beers. When I think about those four finalists, you have four very different processes.” We’ll reveal the representatives from the Northeast and Northwest over the next two days.
Here’s the updated Top of the Hops bracket (Click to enlarge):