It must have been back in October or November of 2012 when Robert Masterson and I started talking about a different take on an IPA. Like a lot of homebrewers these days, we both really like the new hop varietals coming out that have huge fruit characteristics – be it tropical fruits, stone fruits, or sweeter citrus. From this came the idea of a piña colada IPA, based on the cocktail that’s usually a mix of rum, coconut, and pineapple. Rum character is something that could come from some barrel aging in a rum cask or from rum-soaked oak chips, but we wanted to get that coconut and pineapple character in an IPA. But before I get into that further, let’s take a brief trip back to the year 2011.
The first Stone Homebrew Competition and AHA Rally I attended was in March of 2011. I had missed out on going to the previous year’s competition and wanted to make sure I would be in attendance. At the time I didn’t think I was a good enough brewer to enter the competition so I just brought my camera with me to shoot some video for my YouTube channel. Since the winner was going to get to brew their beer with Stone, I wanted to give people an insight into how the competition works. Seeing Jason Fields and Kevin Sheppard win the competition was very inspiring. I knew then that I wanted to enter the competition the following year. But when the 2012 competition registration opened up, I had forgotten to prepare a recipe for it. So once again I was only an attendee, sampling my way through as many beers as I could and filling out my ballot with the rest of the crowd. Ken Schmidt’s Mint Chocolate Stout took top honors, making it two years in a row that a dark beer had won the competition. I felt a lighter-colored beer was due to win the next year, so I had to start brainstorming.
As 2012 came to an end, Robert and I decided we needed to start brewing up our piña colada-inspired IPA and refine for the recipe for competition. We decided to brew separately and to not discuss much about each other’s recipes to see what we could come up with. On December 22, I brewed up my first batch of piña colada IPA. I used a grain bill similar to past pale ale and IPA malt bills I’ve brewed, but decided to add some rolled oats for mouthfeel. To give the beer some of that milky texture, I also added some lactose. I knew the beer would not be as dry as I would normally like for an IPA but I thought it would work well with the coconut. So I mashed in at around 151˚F and went through my normal procedure. Hops were added at 60, 10, 5, and 0 minutes in the boil and I cooled down to hit my target gravity of 1.068. After two weeks of fermentation, it was time for me to add some coconut. I toasted up four ounces of fine Macaroon-style organic coconut and added it in with 6.5 ounces of dry hops. Having never used coconut before, I had no idea how much to add and how long to let the beer sit on the coconut before kegging. After tasting the carbonated beer I decided it wasn’t where I wanted it, so I toasted up another eight ounces to add for an additional two days. In the end it still wasn’t enough so I knew I had to add more next time.
Once our first batches were completed, Robert and I got together to sample our creations. Robert’s version had a similar grain bill but differed in that there was no lactose or oats. He also added some pineapple to secondary. The hops were a bit different, but we had both used Citra and Amarillo. The yeast was the same: good ol’ White Labs California Ale Yeast WLP001. Another difference was Robert added toasted coconut post boil to get some initial flavor, along with adding coconut in the dry-hopping stage. Overall, we were pleased with the results and discussed how we would approach a second batch. We felt the lactose wasn’t necessary and that the pineapple was too much of a mess to deal with, especially on a larger scale. The hops would have to provide the pineapple character along with tropical and stone fruits. The coconut had enough sweetness to it such that the lactose was overkill. We needed to simplify the recipe and make it something Stone could reproduce on their brewing system.
On January 26 of this year, I brewed up my second batch. Robert and I brewed separate batches but followed the same recipe for the most part. This time I decided to push the limit, adding coconut to the boil kettle after flameout, with the dry hops, and finally in the keg. Adding it at all three stages ended up being too much. Robert had added coconut at flameout and in the keg and that was what we felt produced the best result. Both batches tasted great and we were getting a lot of positive feedback from family and friends. It was time to brew up the competition batch with almost no changes from the second batch, except for a couple of differences in the dry hop.
On February 10, I brewed up batch three. Once again we brewed separately just in case one of the batches did not go as planned. We were still a ways out from the competition but we wanted to make sure the beer was in its prime. Robert was great about keeping me on track with the process, but I ended up getting a bit behind in the end, such that my beer didn’t clear out as well as we would have liked. The night before we had to drop off the keg at Stone we had our final tasting. We both had some of batch two left, but right away decided it wasn’t as good as batch three. Both batch three brews were good on their own, but differed in character, so we decided to start blending them. A rough 50/50 blend was determined to be the best tasting since one batch had more hop character, and the other more coconut character. But because Robert’s beer was the clearer of the two, we ended up doing somewhere around a 60/40 blend of his batch to mine. I dropped off the keg the next morning at Stone and it was an anxious eight days until the big day.
March 16 finally arrived, and I was nervous and excited at the same time. Our initial goal was to get to the judges’ table. To qualify for the top five, we would need the votes of our homebrewing peers. We both thought we had a good enough beer to get to the final stage, but you never know what the other 29 competitors were going to bring. As soon as they started pouring I had to try our beer. Thankfully it smelled great, was clearer than expected, and tasted fantastic. I knew then that we had a shot at winning the competition. I immediately put our beer in the number spot on my ballot and went to check out the rest of our competition. Ballots were collected, votes tallied, and the judges got together for their blind tasting to determine the results. The fourth, third and second place winners were announced and there was no mention of our beer; we had a shot. Thankfully when the winner was announced it was our beer, and the celebration began – we had done it! It was certainly one of the most exciting moments in my life knowing that we had won and were going to have our beer brewed by Stone.
Reality first set in when Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele gave us his contact information and we sent him the recipe to scale up. We also had to choose another brewery with which to collaborate. Robert and I compiled a list breweries we would have been more than happy to help us brew the beer at Stone. After figuring out who was interested and/or available, upstart Rip Current Brewing Co. in San Marcos was selected. Co-founders and co-brewers Guy Shobe and Paul Sangster took the leap from homebrewers to professionals and started making great beers as soon as they opened. I’ve known Paul for a few years now and had tried some of his amazing homebrews, so I knew this would be a fun experience and a great way to get Rip Current’s name out to more people. After Mitch told us that we wouldn’t be able to use the exact hops from our homebrew recipe, we had to figure out a new combination that would work well with the coconut. Thanks to Rip Current’s 20 gallon pilot batch brewing system (formerly Paul’s homebrew system), we were able to test out a hop combination. Based on this beer, we formulated a recipe to be brewed on Stone’s 120 barrel brew house.
Brew day at Stone started mid-morning on May 24, and the first batch was already going when we arrived. Amazingly, it takes Stone three brews on their system to fill one of the 360 barrel fermentors, and we filled four. We started off tasting some wort and then adding in some first wort hops (FWH) to the wort holding tank. Next we emptied bags of the specialty malts into the grain mill and weighed out hops for the whirlpool. One single 44-pound box of hops in the whirlpool was more hops than I’ve used in my entire homebrewing career, and we added several of them. Then of course there was the coconut: 280 pounds of it that needed to be split into 14 20-pound bags, which were then tied up and lowered down into the whirlpool kettle. This was far and away the most labor-intensive step of brew day. After a lunch break at the Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, we headed back to the brew house to try some cooled-down wort before it was sent to a fermentor and the yeast was pitched. It was an exciting day that I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to try the beer when it comes out around early August.
Hopefully the inspiration I got from the previous winners will inspire some of you to follow in our footsteps. Just remember to have a schedule and hone in your recipe in advance. Robert and I are ineligible for the competition until 2017, so we’ll have plenty of time to prepare for it, something I’m perfectly content with. It has been a great learning experience working with the team of Stone brewers and an honor for Robert and me to get to brew with them for a day. Thanks to Guy, Paul, and the rest of the Rip Current brewers for helping us out along the way and a huge thanks to all our family and friends for their support. We hope everyone enjoys the beer, cheers!