Belgian IPAs

Three bottles of Belgian IPAs. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / February 25, 2014)

Ale Asylum entered the world of Belgian India pale ales gingerly.

Otto Dilba, one of the Madison, Wis., brewery's founders, had never tasted the hybrid style of Belgian-style yeast and bold hops, but he was intrigued. His co-founder, Dean Coffey, didn't want to make the beer at all.

"Dean is a style purist," Dilba said.

A deal was struck: Ale Asylum would make the smallest test batch possible, and only Dilba, Coffey and one other employee would try it. If Coffey didn't like it, the beer would be flushed. End of story. Their maiden Belgian IPA finished fermenting while Coffey was traveling in Costa Rica; Dilba couldn't wait for him to return.

"We were like kids on Christmas Day waiting to get that first pint into him," Dilba said. "It was a fantastic amalgamation."

Though still not Coffey's favorite style, he couldn't argue.

"It's a freak show of a beer," Coffey said. "I thought people might like it."

He was correct. Ale Asylum introduced Bedlam! in the spring of 2009, and the beer quickly became its second-best selling brew. It proved so popular that Bedlam! was added last month to the brewery's stable of year-round offerings.

Such success reflects a growing ardor for Belgian IPAs, a style that barely existed five years ago, but can increasingly be found as one-off experiments at the smallest neighborhood brew pubs and year-round offerings from the largest breweries.

The mix of bright, earthy Belgian yeast and fruity-piney hops might put off some purists, but for the rest of us it adds up to a magical combination of flavors that is at once zesty and refreshing without being overly complex.

"The Belgian yeast helps turn up the volume on the hops," Coffey said.

Bedlam! features the popular Citra hop, which lends a lush, tropical presence to the zing of the Belgian-style yeast (which actually comes from California). Ale Asylum was already known for its well-hopped beers, so adding Belgian yeast gave the brewery a new profile that resonated with drinkers.

"The Belgian-style yeast adds a presence you can't put your finger on that you don't get from other yeast strains," Dilba said. "There's just something about it that kicks the hops into the next stratosphere."

Three to try

Bedlam! (Ale Asylum): Fruity Citra hops explode with the backdrop of Belgian-style yeast.

Maya (Une Annee): Less hop-forward than Bedlam! but still a deft blend of flavors.

Rayon Vert (Green Flash): A Belgian-style pale ale also less hop-forward, but bright and flavorful.

jbnoel@tribune.com