Not many organizations can claim a beer crafted and named in their honor, but it is for this exact reason that I and a small team from Cook’s Illustrated find ourselves at Trillium Brewing Company’s 16,000-square-foot Canton, Massachusetts, location on this humid August afternoon. We are here to meet with JC and Esther Tetreault, who cofounded Trillium on the heels of their marriage in 2013, and to learn how the company crafts its excellent beer—in particular, the very special one they’re creating for us.
But first, some background: Twenty-five years ago, the premier issue of Cook’s Illustrated arrived on newsstands and in mailboxes. Since then, we’ve helped millions of home cooks become more successful in the kitchen. And that kind of accomplishment deserves celebrating.
To do just that, we’ve been planning a big birthday party, the Cook's Illustrated 25th Birthday Bash on September 14 (click here to learn more and grab your tickets). And all great parties need great beer.
It’s fitting that Trillium will brew the first-ever Cook’s Illustrated beer—and not just because they make some of the most sought-after beers in the country today. JC, like so many of our current readers, subscribers, and fans (myself included), was introduced to Cook’s Illustrated magazine at a young age and was immediately hooked. He keeps stacks of back issues and uses them as a culinary library. He credits the magazine for 99 percent of his culinary training over the years.
But it’s not just the deep explanations of kitchen phenomena, original stories chronicling the test kitchen process, or foolproof recipes (a few of JC and Esther’s family favorites are French Onion Soup, Boston Cream Pie, Butterscotch Pudding, and French Apple Cake) that appeal to him. Framed illustrations from the back covers of the magazine line the walls of his and Esther’s kitchen at home. Not only that, Esther confides that the pen-and-ink illustrations that grace the labels on Trillium cans were directly inspired by the magazine’s aesthetic as well.
Enter the name of our special brew: Illustrated IPA. IPA, of course, stands for India pale ale, a style of beer with a generous amount of hops. Like all beer, it starts with malted grains. To tie in Cook’s Illustrated’s Massachusetts roots, JC has chosen a mix of raw wheat, danko rye (a Polish rye varietal), spelt, red wheat, and two-row barley, all from Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts. He opens bags of the grains for us to taste. They are crunchy, dense, savory, and slightly sweet but mostly mild. JC explains that “just like with raw flour for a loaf of bread, these grains won’t fully express their flavor until they are cooked.”
To start the cooking process, the grains are crushed through steel rollers and then fed into a large stainless-steel tank along with warm water. They’ll spend about an hour in this tank, where the warm water encourages enzymes in the malted grains to convert starches to sugars. Those sugars are extracted into the warm water along with flavor compounds, pigments, and proteins. Each of these components contributes to the character of the final beer, but the sugars are key. Later in the process, yeast will consume the sugars and produce alcohol, additional flavors, and carbon dioxide.
While the malted grains enjoy their warm bath, we continue the tour, passing through a hidden door in the back of the brewery to a small, brightly lit lab. There we meet quality assurance manager Burke Dignam. As Burke walks us through processes for testing new combinations of ingredients and brewing techniques, measuring alcohol content, and performing sensory analysis of beers, my mind immediately jumps back to the test kitchen. At that very moment, just 20 miles to the northeast, the rest of the Cook’s Illustrated team is busy measuring, cooking, tasting, correcting, and repeating, all in the name of recipe development. The common thread? A true dedication to the slow, often-tedious scientific method of controlled trial and error to produce something unique, creative, delicious.
Before leaving the lab, we’re offered a taste of a not-yet-named, nearly finished beer. If you are picturing a crystal-clear, amber-hued pale ale, you are at the wrong brewery. This sample has a cloudy, milky appearance—it could be easily mistaken for freshly squeezed orange juice. Even five years ago this kind of hazy beer would have been deemed faulty by traditional brewing standards. But this is no accident. Trillium is at the forefront of a style of brewing that favors intense flavor and rich body over visual clarity. The beers that they (and a few other similarly experimental craft brewers in the region) make have spawned an entirely new beer style, known as the New England IPA (NEIPA). The style is defined by a hazy appearance, an intense hop aroma, and relatively low toasted malt flavor and bitterness, all of which will characterize the Illustrated IPA as well. Fans of the style often refer to NEIPAs as juicy, a reflection of both the incredible depth of citrusy, fruity flavors that the hops provide and their easy drinkability.
As I sniff the sample in my small plastic cup, JC explains that we are about to taste “the most decadent of IPAs.” Its alcohol-by-volume content of 9.6 percent would certainly suggest something quite luxurious, but the real excess comes in the form of hops. Resinous hop cones are one of the four traditional ingredients in beer (the other three are malted barley, water, and yeast). They are nothing new. But the type and amount of hops used for beer have changed dramatically over time. The hops of the moment for American IPAs are grown primarily in the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and New Zealand. And the varietals that grow in these regions—Citra, Mosaic, Cascade, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin, and Vic Secret, to name a few—lend beer an incredible range of flavors, from citrus and tropical fruits to pine and black pepper.
This particular brew contains 9 pounds of these types of hops per barrel. JC puts that number in perspective for us: A more traditional IPA contains an average of 1½ pounds of hops per barrel. What does six times the quantity of hops mean for a beer? I take a sip to find out. I’m hit with the intense flavors of grapefruit, orange, and mango and just a hint of pine. The flavor lingers, and the sip finishes slightly sweet and bitter. It’s a pleasing tease of the kind of heady hops flavor that will also make the Illustrated IPA special.
What Makes Illustrated IPA So Special?
All the malted grains come from Massachusetts.
JC has chosen a mix of raw wheat, danko rye (a Polish rye varietal), spelt, red wheat, and two-row barley, all from Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts.
Our beer embodies the style of New England IPA (NEIPA).
The style is defined by a hazy appearance, an intense hop aroma, and relatively low toasted malt flavor and bitterness.
It's got the hops.
CTZ hops provide bitterness while El Dorado hops contribute an intense fruity, hoppy aroma.
We head back into the brewery. It’s time for the beginnings of the Illustrated IPA to flow through the ground-up malted grains into a second towering steel tank.Here, CTZ hops are added (more for the bitterness they will contribute than for their aroma) and the liquid is boiled to stop enzymatic activity, denature and coagulate proteins, and sanitize the beer. (CTZ stands for Columbus, Tomahawk, Zeus, three names for the same hop variety.) This is the last stop on what JC calls the “hot” side of the brewery (where all the cooking takes place). After the boil, the beer will be cooled rapidly and transferred via stainless-steel pipes to yet another large tank on the “cold” side. There, yeast will be added and allowed to create alcohol, additional flavors, and some carbon dioxide. It’s also where the beer will be dry-hopped with a large quantity of El Dorado hops, a variety known for providing intense fruit aromas—everything from pineapple to citrus to stone fruits. After that the beer will be canned, labeled, and readied for its big debut at the Cook’s Illustrated 25th Birthday Bash on Friday 9/14. (The beer will also be available for tasting the next day at the ATK Boston EATS Cooking, Food & Wine Festival and eventually at Trillium locations.)
As we leave the brewery and head back to the test kitchen, I’m struck by how much effort goes into making beer of this quality: the sourcing of high-quality hops and local malted grains, the precise attention to controlling temperature and timing, and the careful analysis at each step of the process. I think about something JC said early in the day when discussing how Trillium’s hands-on method differs from that of a large-scale brewery: “Efficiency doesn’t often taste good.” It reminds me of the weeks and weeks each test cook on my team spends developing a single recipe, and of our labor-intensive method for creating recipes we can proudly call foolproof—something others might very well view as superfluous, even a little ridiculous. But then I think about what that process has produced over the last quarter century. I’ll take delicious inefficiency every day of the week. Cheers to the next 25 years.
I hope you’ll come raise a glass of Illustrated IPA with the whole Cook’s Illustrated team at the Cook’s Illustrated 25th Birthday Bash on Friday, September 14, or the ATK Boston EATS Festival on Saturday, September 15. Click here to grab your tickets.