Sunday, 31 March 2013

IPA stories: Gahr Smith-Gahrsen

This article could just as well be named "How To Brew an IPA with Gahr Smith-Gahrsen".


Gahr is a 40-year-old schoolteacher from Norway's second largest city Bergen. He's won a s**t load of homebrewing contests and even been on "Norge Rundt" (Around Norway) one of the most popular TV-shows in Norway. His greatest brewing achievement except for winning the Norwegian Homebrewing Championship, and brewing the winning beer a 10% barley wine named Andhrimnir at Nøgne Ø, is starting up Norway’s very first gypsy brewery "ABC Brewing" with his friend Kim Odland. I interviewed ABC Brewing back in January and you can check that out here. But this time the subject is brewing IPA's at home. Gahr is referred to by many as a human brewing encyclopedia and is very active on the Norbrygg forum. Norway’s best home brew store uses Gahr's recipes in their "all grain recipe brewing kits". So it were only natural to have another talk with Gahr when I started this IPA focus period on this blog. Gahr and John J. Palmer were the biggest brew geeks I could think of so I'm very proud to feature them both here on this blog. Check out the Palmer thing here.

Warning: This will get geeky! (This is only for homebrewers and aspiring homebrewers.)


Tell us about the first time you ever tasted an IPA?

Well, actually I don’t really remember exactly when, but it was probably a Goose Island IPA sometime back in the 1990s. I remember having read about the resiny, citrusy fruitiness of Cascade hops and American IPAs, but didn’t really know what to expect. I guess you could call it love at first sip. The sheer freshness of it was fantastic. It was in the summer, and I remember being a bit annoyed that the beer wasn’t lower in alcohol - Goose Island IPA clocks in at 5.9 %, a bit on the low side for an IPA these days – because it was such a perfect summer thirst quencher. It’s still one of my favorite beers, actually.

When did you start brewing IPA, and do you know how far back homebrewers have made IPA in Norway? Do you have any stories?

My first IPA was brewed on December 4. 2005. It was an English-style IPA, using pretty decent amounts of Target and Goldings hops. The OG was 1.064 with 50 IBUs. Before this I had mainly concentrated on brewing British style beers and a few lagers.

To be honest, I don’t really know for how long Norwegian homebrewers have been brewing IPAs, but the popularity has increased a lot, as have the amounts of hops used, since then. The knowledge of the brewing techniques used in the brewing of the style has also increased among brewers in Norway.

When it comes to stories, I guess I have one that illustrates the usefulness of knowing a bit about brewing to style. It’s not funny or anything, but I once visited a small Norwegian brewpub, which shall remain nameless, and talked to the owner/brewer about the house beers. He proudly poured me a glass of his newest creation; yes, it was supposed to be an IPA. There was, however, very little about the beer that actually reminded me of an IPA, faint, flowery hops, a watery mouthfeel and a sweet, almost cloying finish, and when I asked him about the recipe, he revealed that he used Saaz hops to give the beer a rather unimpressive 40 IBUs. Fermenting the beer with Brewferm dried yeast without any proper oxygenation or temperature control didn’t do the beer any favors either. It just goes to show that proper brewing techniques and knowledge are the main factors in the brewing of quality beers.

A younger Gahr. Photo:

What's the perfect IPA mash/grain bill to get the most out of your hops and give the IPA a nice backbone? Mash methods, additives... 

If you pose this question to ten different brewers, you would probably get at least 11 different answers. For American-style IPAs a lot of brewers, particularly American, would state that the only way to go would be to use American two-row pale malt as the base malt. This gives the beer a crisp malt backbone, but personally I prefer a more bisquity British pale malt for this. Like with any beer, there is a definite element of personal preference here, but it is still important to consider the balance of the beer. An IPA should definitely lean towards the hops as far as balance goes, but the malts are still important. I like to add a small amount of munich and pale and medium crystal malts, but I keep the amount of these malts below 10 % of the total malt bill, to avoid any problems with attenuation or sweetness. The crystal and munich malts are there simply to add a certain complexity, not to compete with the hops. My typical IPA would use about 4,3 % munich at 25 EBC, 3,4 % pale crystal at 70 EBC and 1,7 % crystal at 120 EBC.

I don’t really see the need for any special techniques when mashing an IPA. I tend to mash at about 65 °C for an hour, and then ramp the temperature up to 77 °C for the mash-out. A single step infusion mash would work just as well. The important thing is to mash at a temperature that will give you a well-attenuated beer. You want the beer to be fairly dry to keep it relatively easy-drinking. IPAs should be quaffable, in my opinion. Not in the sense that you should drink pints and pints of it all through a long evening - you would probably fall over - but you should be able to have more than one without being overwhelmed by malty sweetness.

As for additives, I tend to use an addition of calcium sulphate, or Gypsum if you will, to slightly enhance the hop character and to hit the proper pH of the mash. Water adjustments are not crucial, though. The water in Norway tends to be rather low in calcium, so adding some form of calcium is generally a good idea, but it’s important not to go overboard with it. A calcium level of about 50 mg/l helps the yeast flocculate. I use about four grams of calcium sulphate per ten liters of water in my IPA batches, and I sometimes add small doses of calcium carbonate to my IPA as well, to hit a target pH of 5.2. You want a pH below 6 and above 5 to maximize enzymatic activity and to avoid tannin extraction from the grain husks. Tannins are mostly extracted if the pH rises above 6 during sparging and can cause astringency in the final product. But too much sulphate can hurt the flavor, so be careful. Lervig brewer Mike Murphy is well known for his hoppy beers, but he swears by calcium chloride instead of calcium sulphate, Chloride enhances the maltiness of the beer, and you avoid any soapy off-flavors.

Other additives would in my case be plain sucrose, but I only use that in double IPAs, simply to boost the gravity without ending up with an excessively sweet beer. I don’t care much for imperial IPAs that are too big, they taste too much like barley wines. I typically add 5-10 % sucrose to my double IPAs.

What's your favorite hops combos? And why?

Oh, there are so many! My go-to hop combo would normally be a small dose of Chinook added as a first wort hop or at 60 minutes, depending on what I feel like at the time of brewing, and then a 50/50 blend of Amarillo and Simcoe for flavor and aroma. For dry hopping I would use a blend of equal parts Amarillo, Simcoe and some other hop, probably Chinook or Columbus. I like the way Amarillo and Simcoe work together; the tropical notes of the Amarillo work really well with the rougher grapefruit and pine of the Simcoe. I have used this in my home-brewed IPAs for years, and we use pretty much the same hopping in the ABC Brewing West Coast Lager, albeit at a lower rate than for an IPA. I generally look for hops that complement each other in this way when I choose hops for American-style beers; I want a certain complexity in IPAs, so I will usually pick one smoother, more fruity variety and one slightly rougher. Lately I’ve been doing a few beers with Mosaic and Summit. I think they make for an interesting comb too. Summit can be quite sulphury and almost garlic-like when used at high levels, but these characteristics diminish when it is paired with the right hop. Mosaic has a powerful mango aroma that I enjoy a lot. Mosaic and Chinook are pretty good together as well. If you are looking for hops that pull in the same direction, if you know what I mean, Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin can work great as well. Lots of homebrewers are into single-hop beers as well these days. I like the idea of single hop beers, but I see them more as a tool for learning than as potentially fantastic beers. Depending on what varieties you go for, they can end up rather one-dimensional. The hops I find work best in single hop beers are probably the good old Cascade. Sure, this has to do with personal preferences, but single-hop IPAs can be a bit lacking in complexity at times.

Gahr & Kim of ABC Brewing. Photo:

What does it take in your mind to create a technically well brewed IPA?

IPA is no different than any other style in this regard; the most important factors are knowledge and technique. By this I mean knowing what matters in brewing and being able to execute these techniques properly. Cleanliness IS godliness, and conducting the fermentation in the right way is the most crucial part of brewing. I always find it strange how homebrewers can spend tons of money on really great equipment for mashing but skimp on the things that help them control fermentation. I’d rather spend my money on pure O2, proper temperature control and a magnetic stir plate than on shiny mash equipment. I’d much rather do BIAB beers and keep my O2 and temperature-controlled fridge, than get a full Blichmann or Sabco setup without the oxygen and fermentation temp control. I’d prefer both, but I have my priorities in order. Sure, a certain level of control is necessary when mashing, but the fermentation side of things is WAY more important! An IPA should be clean, without too many yeast-derived esters, higher alcohols or diacetyl, and good yeast handling ensures this. Pitch the proper amount of fresh, viable yeast ( has a great pitching rate calculator), oxygenate the wort well and control the fermentation temps.

What are the no-no’s when brewing an IPA?

Too much sweetness and overpowering malt is a no-no in my book. Go fairly easy on the specialty malts, and mash for attenuation. Diacetyl should also be avoided. Not using enough or using way too much of them aren’t good ideas either. The beer needs a certain balance. The hops should be the most prominent feature in an IPA, but some homebrewers add way too much bitterness. Granted, the beer should have a firm bitterness, but the enamel on your teeth should still be intact after a few pints. Lip-curling bitterness is not a point in itself, everything in a beer needs to serve a purpose, and all beers should be enjoyable to drink. I tend to add a lot of the bitterness to my IPAs as late hops. This ensures that you get a decent hop flavor and aroma as well as bitterness.

Yeast & fermentation, what yeast do you recommend to use when brewing an IPA and what are the most important things during fermentation?

Well, I guess I have already touched upon some of the things I find important, but when it comes to selecting the right yeast, there are different schools of thought. The Chico/American/California yeast is definitely king when it comes to commercial examples of IPA these days. That’s the Wyeast 1056/White Labs WLP001/Safale US-05 strain, available to anyone. It ferments cleanly, attenuates well and is really temperature tolerant. If you treat it well, it lets the other ingredients of the beer shine and really makes the hops pop. However, it might just be a bit too neutral for some. A number of noted breweries use English strains for their American-style IPAs. Nøgne Ø uses the White Labs WLP007, and rumor has it that Stone also uses a version if this strain. Lagunitas uses a strain similar to the White Labs WLP002/Wyeast 1968, the strain known as the “Fullers yeast” and Kinn uses the fantastic top-cropper Wyeast 1318. These yeasts produce higher levels of esters than the California yeast, but if you treat them right, the still produce wonderful IPAs. It’s all about achieving a balance between the hop- and yeast-driven aromatics of the beer and getting the attenuation right at the same time. I have used all of the above for IPAs in my homebrewing, but these days I’m mainly using WLP001 since that is the strain we use in the American-style ABC brews.

What are the do's & don'ts of dry hopping?

The main rule would be only to use fresh hops. Keep your hops refrigerated, preferably frozen, and avoid oxidation. If they don’t smell fresh, get rid of them. Dry hopping is not that hard, actually. You just chuck in the hops you want, and leave them there for a few days and you’re good to go. One thing I find, though, is that a little really goes a long way at times. Although it is tempting to use insane amounts in a lot of beers, sometimes showing a bit of restraint can give you a cleaner beer where the different nuances of the brew come into focus. Don’t get me wrong, I like wasting hops just as much as the next brewer, but there’s not much point in hopping the hell out of a beer just because you can, if it doesn’t make the beer better. Not using enough hops on the other hand, can also be a fault. While a certain amount of restraint can be a positive, without a proper hop aroma, an IPA will be pretty boring.

When you do use large amounts of hops, the contact time can be an issue. I like to dry hop in different stages to keep the contact time fairly low for at least parts of the hops. It’s a technique we use for the ABC Henrik Imperial Amber, for instance. We divide the dry hops into two equal parts, and add the second load four to five days after the first addition. The total time on the dry hops will be no more than ten days. The goodness is mostly extracted in the first three or four days, and by keeping the contact time a little shorter for the second load, we avoid excessive vegetal notes in the beer. We’re working on an ABC IPA at the moment where we’ll be dry hopping in different stages too. That being said, I have never really experienced the much maligned “grassiness” you reportedly get from dry hopping for too long in any of my beers.

Thinking about temperature is also a good idea when dry hopping. The volatiles of the hops are more easily extracted at higher temperatures, so you would typically want to dry hop at fermentation temperatures or slightly higher.

Choosing the right varieties to dry hop with is also important, of course. I always think of which direction I want the aroma to take; pine, resin, stone fruit, citrus, dank, catpiss (yes, catpiss!), herbal, floral or vegetal etc. Catpiss sounds pretty awful, but it’s all about the blending of aromas. Like when a faint sulphur note can add freshness to a light lager. Rough smells in hops can add an underlying complexity in a blend. Still, there’s a difference between “rough” and “bad” here.

Label for the award winning Barley Wine. Photo:

Do you use any special hopping techniques?

I tend to add flavor hops at 15 minutes before flame-off and chuck the aroma copper hops in at a couple of minutes before flame-out. There’s nothing special about this per se, but when you use large amounts, you also get the bulk of your bitterness this way. It’s a technique commonly referred to as “hop bursting”. It really gives a lot of aroma and flavor to the beer and provides bitterness at the same time.

To achieve a smooth bitterness from the actual bittering charge, I like to use first wort hopping (FWH). In FWH you add the hops as soon as the bottom of your boil kettle is covered when running off from the mash. This gives the hops a really long contact time with the wort. Many brewers claim that this gives the beer a better aroma because somehow the aroma compounds are “locked” in the beer by the higher pH of the wort before the start of the boil. There hasn’t been too much proper research done on this, but based on the stuff I have read on the issue I would argue that it really gives the beer less aroma, because of the long contact with the hot wort, thus giving the impression of a smoother bitterness and cleaner beer. You get better isomerization of the alpha acids, but the volatile hop compounds that provide aroma are evaporated and disappear from the beer to a larger extent than when you boil for, say 60 minutes. The result is a perceived bitterness roughly equaling that of a 60 min. boil (some say less), but with a smoother feel.

Dry hopping in different stages is also a technique I like, but I’ve already gone into that, so I won’t repeat it.

What's the most important thing in an IPA for you?

I probably already said it, but drinkability and hoppy freshness really rock my boat. Clean fermentation and malt flavors, and zingy hops, rule.

The off flavors to watch out for and how to avoid them?

Again, avoid the fermentation derived off-flavors arising from poor yeast handling and bad fermentation practices. Phenolics from yeast tend to clash with American-style hops, diacetyl can ruin any beer, too much fruit from esters, and so on, all these problems can arise from fermentation issues. Treat your yeast well and it gives you good beer.

Be careful when bottling and kegging beer, especially when dealing with very delicate light or really hoppy beers. Hop compounds in beer oxidize quickly and the cardboard aromas you get from oxidized hops will ruin any beer. Oxidation happens quicker at high temperatures, so store your beer cold. The colder the better, above freezing that is. The brewing scientist Charles Bam forth reports that lowering the storage temperature by 10 °C, will treble the shelf life of a beer due to the slower oxidation reactions.

What's your favorite IPA and why?

That’s really hard to say, because I tend to think of favorite beer moments not favorite beers as such. Beer is a social drink, and the enjoyment of beer to me is always linked to a certain state of mind, a certain event, a specific place and time, and above all, to other people. One of the best IPAs I ever had, maybe the best was a Nøgne Ø IPA chugged when cramped behind the brew setup at Nøgne Ø. I was at the brewery to brew the Andhrímnir Barley Wine together with Frank Werme, and since the brewery had visitors from certain authorities that day, we were a little weary of drinking too much when we were in their view. The beer was fresh form the warm room, just carbonated, only three or four days after bottling. We crash-cooled the bottle in the sink after testing the carbonation level and I tell you, beer doesn’t come any fresher than that! The Cascade and Simcoe aromas really blew me away. Well fermented beer very often needs very little aging, and this beer damn near proved the existence of God. I really like Kinn Vestkyst and Ægir IPA as well. They are quite different examples of the style, but both excellent in their own way. Ægir’s is the smoothest, most easy drinking example; Vestkyst is more hop and yeast forward. The great American IPAs are really too many to mention, but Stone IPA, Dogfish Head 60 and 90 Minute IPA, Sierra Nevada Torpedo and Goose Island IPA have all given me beer moments that I will remember.

Anything you want to add on the subject?

Think your recipes through properly, read books, and keep a good log. Good logs are a great tool in learning and developing your brewing skills. Note down everything you do when brewing. When something goes wrong or when something works really well, it’s really helpful to be able to check what you have actually done on your brew day. You may think you will remember everything, but you probably won’t. There are tons of good books out there, Mitch Steele’s IPA book is great, and learn as much as possible on yeast and fermentation. And above all, to cite the great Charlie Papazian: Relax, don’t worry, have a home brew!


And on that note we thank Gahr for taking the time to share the knowledge and for responding so thoroughly. I hope you will find it useful dear reader. I have at least found it useful as I've changed some of the techniques I use when brewing an IPA after getting these answers from Gahr. Yes it's true, I do these geeky interviews on my blog for myself, to learn and get better at brewing. I'm a selfish bastard! But it is also my goal to be able to influence others, not only with the bombastic enthusiastic articles, but also with serious and plain knowledge. If you came this far in the article chances are you love good craft beer. If you support this blog please subscribe (You can do it under the comment field below) and share. Spread the magic...

- Haffy

PS support ABC Brewing if you find their beer on tap in a pub near you! If not ask the bar manager to order some. My favorites so far is Halvor IBA & Henrik Imperial Amber.


  1. Thanks for mentioning me in the same sentence as John Palmer. Im deeply honored!


    1. Thanks to both you and John for being awesome! :D

  2. I not sure I belong up there together with Gahr and THE Palmer, but thanks anyway!

    1. No problem and thanks for your story, it was great!

  3. An excellent story. As a recent American transplant to Oslo, it's good to know where the recipe for the Blonde Ale I just bottled for summer came from!