The Original Cold IPA from Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ben Lisle

Portland drinkers are practically swimming in cold IPA. But Cold IPA? Hardly a drop to drink.

Head to Portland, Oregon, and you’ll encounter this relatively new style on most tap lists. The first beer now identified as a “Cold IPA” was brewed by Kevin Davey about five years ago when he was brewmaster at Wayfinder Beer. His goal was to capture the essential hoppiness of the West Coast IPA, while providing those hops a cleaner stage – meaning a diminished maltiness – on which to express themselves. He wanted a beer that was aromatic and bitter, but also clean and crisp, to enhance drinkability. Wayfinder’s first Cold IPA, now called “The Original,” is described by the brewery as “Wester than West Coast.”

As you’ve probably figured out, the “cold” in Cold IPA refers not to the temperature at which it is served. Rather, it alludes to the process of making it. Typically (though not always), brewers of Cold IPA use a lager yeast, fermenting at cooler temperature than you would with a typical IPA brewed with ale yeast (while at a temperature warmer than when brewing a lager). Some brewers use a clean ale yeast (like the famous Chico) but ferment at cooler temperature than is typical for IPA brewing. Whatever the yeast, the goal is to enhance the crispness of the beer, while minimizing yeasty byproducts (like fruity esters) that might impinge on the expression of the hops.

So, technically, there is something “cold” (or at least “cooler”) about how the beer is made. But as a name, Cold IPA might work better as a metaphor, signaling something about its drinkability when compared to IPAs that are maltier or more full-bodied. And this is where the other distinguishing characteristic of making Cold IPAs comes into play: the grain bill.

The grist for a Cold IPA should consist of 20-40% corn or rice, according to Wayfinder’s Davey. This amplifies the beer’s dryness. The sweetness largely comes from the alcohol, not the malt. Ample carbonation plays a role here, too, heightening the perception of dryness. And again, the goal is to make those hops pop, in a beer that is more quaffable than its IPA cousins (and more akin to a more distant relation, the adjunct lager).

Some see Cold IPA as less of a new style and more an interpretation of an existing one, the West Coast IPA. Davey told beer writer Jeff Allworth that in making the beer, he was inspired by some of the classic California IPAs like Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, Bear Republic’s Racer 5, or Union Jack from Firestone Walker – a brewery that Davey worked for in the early 2010s. Brewers have long experimented with different processes – including using lager yeast in IPA. And Cold IPA has some relatively close cousins. Davey wrote in Craft Beer & Brewing that his recipe was “a lager brewer’s answer to the Brut IPA trend.” Like Brut IPA, dryness is a signature feature, but Cold IPA is intended to be much more bitter. India Pale Lager is a hop-forward lager – a bit crispier and cleaner – but typically less bitter and boozy.


Whatever it is, Cold IPA has made an impression, spreading up and down the West Coast and working its way across the Rockies. Clickbait rankings of top Cold IPAs abound. Cicerone and illustrator Em Sauter has parsed the style in Pints and Panels Instagram posts. Samuel Adams makes one, and I even recently saw cans of it at Salem’s Notch Brewing, that expert in traditional European styles. But Maine, it would appear, has been stubbornly barren soil for Cold IPA. Why is that? It was a question on my mind as I packed for a trip to the Pacific Northwest, with Cold IPA on the agenda.

Lo and behold, two days before I crammed myself onto a cross-country flight, cans of that rare species, the Maine-made Cold IPA, popped up in the fridge at RSVP. It’s a special release brewed for Saco River Brewing’s seventh anniversary. There is a sort of poetry that what is surely the state’s westernmost brewery, located in Fryeburg, would take a shot at this “Wester than West” IPA.

“Our Anniversary beer is always a time for us to experiment,” said Mason Irish, founder and head brewer at Saco River. He has been testing Cold IPA recipes for the last couple of years, intrigued by the style’s dry drinkability for the summer months.

VII Cold IPA from Saco River Brewing Co. in Fryeburg. Photo by Ben Lisle

And drinkable it is. Saco River VII is a 6.5% IPA brewed with Galaxy and Vic Secret hops. It smells very green – a quality that it shares with all the Oregon Cold IPAs I’ve had in recent days. True to style, there’s not much maltiness to speak of, turning the spotlight over to those hops and their peachy, citrusy and piney qualities. Its effervescence augments a moderately bitter and buzzy finish. It was a pleasure to drink, and it would turn out to be a strong representation of the (non?) style.

Saco River is not entirely alone amongst Maine brewers. Lewiston’s Side By Each has also run out a couple of versions in their taproom over the last year. The most recent is Keith Carson’s Polar Vortex, an homage to the News Center Maine meteorologist. According to taproom manager, A. Bowie, its popularity with drinkers (and, crucially, the owner and brewer, Ben Lowe) forecasts its reappearance in the future.

Why does a beer that seems quite popular elsewhere find it so hard to get a foothold in Maine? Irish notes that the rapid growth of previous years is now in the rear-view mirror. In this new context, “keeping with your tried-and-true brands is always a safer bet than putting other things in the market that may not pay the bills,” he observed. And New England IPA pays those bills.


But one thing that craft beer is well equipped to do is experiment, using tasting rooms and one-off beers as testing grounds, as Saco River and Side By Each have done. Will others test the appetite for the Cold IPA in Maine? Or will Cold IPA go the way of the Brut IPA – another West Coast rejoinder to the exuberance of the New England IPA that never got traction here? Is there enough space between the crispy, hop-forward India Pale Lager and more traditionally balanced West Coast IPAs to make it worth people’s while?

Saco River’s VII makes a solid case for this leaner, drier IPA and is well worth trying. And it would be interesting to see what other Maine brewers would bring to the style, putting their own mark on it.

I write to you from the other Portland, home of the Cold IPA, and after a week, I’ve yet to have a beer I haven’t enjoyed. It’s not a small sample size. Cold IPA is good, and it is different. Even so, I’d rather drink a frisky altbier from Breakside; an elegant, peated best bitter on nitro from SteepleJack; one of those dry California IPAs from Baerlic; or, indeed, a drippy and aromatic New England IPA from Great Notion.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.

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