What Is a Brown IPA?

Eno Sarris, October 21, 2015

"That's rare, that's kind of weird! Smell California, see England" I said to Aram Cretan of Federation Brewing of his brewery's Bus Tub Brown IPA we were having. He grinned like a proud father.  

Cretan is slowly brewing his way from contract status towards full-blown homeowner status. Working with Fort Point and EJ Phair brewing has been a blast, but the boys at Federation are excited to open their brewery and tasting room in downtown Oakland sometime in the next year. 

For now, they're keeping their brewing muscles flexed. In an event at Beer Revolution this month, they debuted Bus Tub Brown IPA, a classification-busting exercise that could lead to a new style. The 'how' seemed interesting -- it turns out, this is a beer born of three styles. And even if it'll go through some changes before it sees the public again, it was a fun drink and a fun drink to talk about.

After all, there are only about three 'brown IPAs' on record at BeerGraphs so far. It's something new! 

Cretan spent some time brewing with cask specialists Freewheel Brewing in Redwood City, and that's sort of where this story starts. It was there that he "gained an appreciation for the English styles generally and for the idea that you can still approach things from a California hops perspective, but not everything needs to be a hop bomb." Have a Freewheel cask English IPA and you can sense how a California perspective, paired with a dedication to Real Ale, might give birth to something like a Brown IPA.

Cretan wasnt sure the "world needed another IPA" but then again... "am I sure the world needs another brewery" was the jovial self-response. So the Bus Tub was begat: "It's sort of half way between an english brown or bitter with the California IPA twist." 

Like most brown ales, Bus Tub starts with Maris Otter malt. Unlike most brown ales, it doesn't stop there, despite the fact that Cretan loves that "round, bready, mellow taste." This was a collaboration between cultures, down to the malt. He added in California favorite Two-Row, too. And about 5% Biscuit, "for a little bit of ... you know... biscuit," he laughed. "But also a little bit of bite from the malt rather than the hops." 

Add in a little roasted barley for color, and you're finished with England, for the most part.

The contract brewer had a Californian struggle with some of the rest. "The particular challenge in this case was scaling up from one-barrel batches at home to 30 barrels at EJ Phair," Cretan admitted. "Things don't scale linearly, especially the hop extraction, and in this case, the color." 

So the home-brewed brown IPA came out straw-colored at first. He didn't want to go overboard on the roasted barley going in because "it only takes about 4% to make it black," and they wanted brown. But 30 barrels at the 1% roasted barley they used at home was more straw than brown. Ooops.

A quick blend with their Oatmeal Stout solved the color thing without mucking with the flavor too much. The chinook for bittering, the cascade for flavor, and the citra for aroma still bust through at the beginning and the end, giving it a west coast classic grapefruit taste and pine finish with a fruity smell. 

Federation's Bus Tub Brown doesn't taste like a stout. It's brown and weird, but it begins and ends with a traditional California flourish. At 6.6% ABV, the beer is drinkable but thick. It's not a Black IPA, even if it has something in common, because it's breadier and rounder without having that Rye kick, necessarily. It could be an ideal easy-to-drink-yet-thick kind of beer down the road.

And it represents a foray. A new idea and also a step on the road between homebrewing, contract brewing, and brewing on your own big system for your own customers.  A delicious, brain-tickling, innovative foray.