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Ska Brewing's Brut IPA is emblamatic of the new trend toward a lighter but hoppy beer style. (Photo courtesy of Ska Brewing)

The newest craft beer trend traces its origins to a discovery more than 50 years ago that led to the creation of Miller Lite and the modern techniques behind a Hazy IPA.

The Brut IPA is light in body and appearance, easy to drink with a dry and effervescent mouthfeel like a domestic light beer. But it pops with a tropical fruit hop aroma and flavor without the bitterness, just like a hazy New England-style IPA.

“I think it’s a combination of those two things that kind of came together to make this style, and it seems like it’s taken off,” said Steve Breezley at Ska Brewing in Durango, the maker of Moral Panic Brut IPA.

Social Kitchen & Brewing in San Francisco first popularized the Brut IPA in 2017, and it quickly moved to the mainstream with New Belgium and Sierra Nevada now distributing their own versions and dozens of smaller craft breweries experimenting with the beer.

The improbable genesis of the nascent style showcases how the fusion of science and innovation continues to push the beer industry in delicious new directions.

Here’s how it works.

The old-world science in the new-world Brut IPA

The brewing process converts starches from the grain into fermentable sugars that the yeast later consume to produce alcohol. But not all starches make the transformation. The residual sugars form the body of the beer, and the more that remain, the more heavy and full the beer tastes.

Back in the 1960s, beer makers wanted to find a way to make a low-calorie beer and hired Joseph Owades, the first Ph.D.-level scientist in the U.S. brewing industry. Owades found an enzyme called amyloglucosidase that would break down complex starches that remained in the beer, making them fermentable.

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“Most yeast is capable of consuming all four types of sugars — but some are harder and linger in the beer,” said John Giarratano, the CEO at Inland Island Yeast Laboratories in Denver. “The only way to break it down and ferment it is to add an enzyme.”

The discovery led to the first domestic light lagers and Owades helped create Meisterbrau Lite, the predecessor to Miller Light.

In the craft beer world, the enzyme is often used to help tame big imperial stouts and Belgian beers, reducing the body to make them more drinkable. But when added to an IPA, the amyloglucosidase helps remove most — if not all — of the sugars, giving the beer a brut Champagne character.

Ska Brewing’s Brut IPA is light in color and sparkles with a dry finish. (Photo courtesy of Ska Brewing)

Though far different, Brut IPA borrows from hazy IPA

The dryness makes Brut IPA the antidote to the cloying thickness of some New England-style IPAs, but it also borrows from its innovative, hoppy cousin.

Most brewers only add hops to the Brut IPA at the end of the process to pull out the aroma and flavor without the bitterness. The addition of dry-hopping as the beer ferments amplifies the tropical hop characteristics. Both are the signature of New England-style IPAs.

“What people really liked about (hazy IPAs) was the juiciness and fruitiness of the hops, and what we did with Brut IPAs is we took some of the same thinking about how the beers were hopped,” said Breezley, who recently gave a presentation on the style at the Big Beers festival in Breckenridge.

The style is still evolving as brewers experiment. New Belgium in Fort Collins amplifies the carbonation to give it a spritzy character, akin to sparkling wine. Platt Park Brewing in Denver adds white wine grapes to enhance the effect.

“I think we are still somewhat in a period of active invention, continued refinement if you will,” said Koenigs, a research and design brewer at New Belgium.

MORE: Find more beer coverage here from The Colorado Sun.

The appeal of a lighter IPA fits a broader market trend toward easier drinking beers with lower alcohol content. But a debate remains about whether Brut IPA will become a mainstay.

“Maybe this is the new Black IPA — it becomes a big thing for a year and then you never hear about it,” Koenigs said. But in his mind, “this is going to be a new benchmark style, or at least a sub-style within the IPA category.”

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.