Like many of the breweries that dot the list of the country’s largest producers, Bear Republic Brewing Company of Cloverdale, California, started as a small brewpub (in neighboring Healdsburg). That was 1996. Today they produce about 80,000 barrels per year. The brewery’s number one seller is by far the Racer 5 IPA, which dates back to an early recipe where they tweaked an existing IPA and created a juicy and hop forward predecessor to the style now called “West Coast IPA.”
Bear Republic has had a lot of success with the beer, collecting five awards at Great American Beer Festival for it alone, and spawning the Racer Series of IPAs that grew from Racer 5’s foundation, as well as Double Aught Pilsner, the Big IPA Series, and plenty of new options at their brewpub. Over a cold pour of Racer 5 and a phone call across time zones, Bear Republic master brewer Peter Kruger shared his thoughts on USA IPAs and the West Coast influence. Kruger has been brewing at Bear Republic since 1997. The brewery broke ground on a second brewpub location to open in Rohnert Park, California later this year. Their Mosaic and Meridian hop-build IPA Hop Shovel will debut in bottles next year.
Paste: We hear the term “West Coast” beers a lot. What do you think of that term?
Peter Kruger: It’s not a pejorative term, so we’re good with it. I don’t think it’s only on the West Coast, but I know what people mean by it.
I think you can even split the West Coast style into three major chunks:
The Northwest: The malt character is lower, the alcohol content is a bit lower, and they are very hop forward with bitterness being a big part of that.
Then from the California border down to the Santa Cruz area, we fall right in there. The beers are hoppy but that character is balanced between bitterness and aroma/flavor with a little more malt backbone.
Then you’ve got the San Diego guys whose beers are very dry. They’re higher in alcohol, and there’s more dry-hopping.
Paste: How do you think the West Coast style has developed with time?
PK: What I think happened is that other brewers tasted our beers and said, “That’s different than what we’re doing.”
It’s interesting because if you say “East Coast IPA,” or “Midwest,” I don’t think anything comes to mind in particular. Really the West Coast IPA is separating our style from all the other IPAs. It’s that reckless use of hops, you know. [Laughs.] Because we’re closer to the Yakima Valley where all these hops are grown, we’ve had opportunities to get up there. You spend time in the hop fields and the idea is no longer an abstract idea. I think that’s a big part of where it came from.
Paste: So you think the fresh aspect inspired it?
PK: I do. In going to selection and talking to farmers and breeders, we’re able to find out about hops before other brewers. Brewers can influence what farmers are planting. Classic examples are Citra hops, Amarillo, even way back Racer 5 has a healthy amount of Columbus in it. When we first came across that hop we sat up and paid attention because it was like a Super Cascade with-though we didn’t use the term at that point-dank undertones.
Hops are not used for anything else than making beer. The farmers that grow them are really passionate about what they do and, unlike corn or barley, they can’t ship that to another industry. So the relationships become very close and important.
Paste: Were you involved with the formulation of Racer 5?
PK: It was before me. Racer 5 was originally brewed as a beer called House IPA. One of the brewers weighed out the wrong amount of hops. Rich Norgrove, who’s our COO and brewmaster, went with it. He beefed up the hops and changed things on the fly and it basically made what we’re making today. We’ve made incremental changes over the years but, at its core, it’s still the same delicious beer it was in 1996 when the lucky mistake was made.
I started brewing in 1992 at Full Sail (Oregon) and we had an IPA that was the most aggressive IPA in that market at that point. It was 5.4% ABV and like 40-something IBUs and it blew everybody’s doors off. Today it probably wouldn’t make the cut as a pale ale. I later came through California around when Racer was on tap and tasted Red Rocket and Big Bear. I was with my folks at the time and I said, “I don’t think anyone is ever going to understand these beers, they are so huge and so delicious.” Fortunately, I was wrong about that. It was around the same time Vinnie Cilurzo [Russian River Brewing Company] was making Blind Pig for the first time in Temecula.
Paste: Because Racer 5 is so popular among your beers, how do you approach new beers? Does it influence new beers?
PK: We have a family of beers in the Racer family: Racer 5, Café Race, Race 15, Racer X, a black IPA called Black Racer. They use the structural elements of Racer.
Then we do other beers. One of the nice things about having a brewpub is we have 16-20 beers on tap at any time. We have a lot of really good brewers and everybody gets to flex their muscles.
We’re lucky to have this core product, but we’re also lucky that people are not looking for the same old thing. It’s not like a JJ Abrams movie where you know what you’re going to get before you go in.
Paste: The evolution in brand loyalty, compared to when you opened, is interesting. What do you make of drinkers who aren’t die-hard, completely loyal fans?
PK: I think it’s a really good thing for the consumer and it’s good for brewers too. It keeps us current and on our toes. You can’t just sit back on this great beer and not do anything again.