The History of Jai Alai
Jai Alai IPA, the flagship beer of Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, has become an iconic beer of Florida and has introduced beer lovers around the world to a uniquely tropical style of India Pale Ales. Clocking in at 7.5%, Jai Alai IPA’s bold flavors of tangerine, clementine, and pineapple have beguiled hop heads since its introduction in 2009. What makes this beer so idiosyncratic and perennially enjoyed?
Since the early days of American craft beer, the industry has been identified by its focus on hops, the bittering agents in beer that can produce flavors from floral and grass-like, to resinous and astringent. Hops grown in the Pacific Northwest became prized by American brewers for their grapefruit-like citrus qualities, though the citrus was typically offset by strong piney qualities and a significant bitterness. When designing Cigar City Brewing’s first IPA recipe in 2008, Brewmaster Wayne Wambles had a different vision for his hop-forward recipe. That vision would use varieties of hops that not only embraced traditional citrus elements but the more subtle tropical qualities found in newer hop varietals from the Southern Hemisphere that would reflect the tropical setting of Cigar City Brewing.
“My whole concept for that beer was to make an IPA as tropical as I could possibly make it,” said Wambles. “If you take a look back when the beer was designed, no one was making IPAs like that back then. A lot of people were making IPAs that were more citrus-forward, or citrus and piney, but they weren’t making IPAs that were more focused on mango and pineapple and orange marmalade. I was trying to emulate our tropical feel, our location and concept, through the beer.”
To allow these tropical elements to shine, Wambles designed a beer with a restrained bitterness, bucking the prevailing trend in IPAs of swinging for the IBU fences. He also utilized a blend of specialty malts that added a soft caramel-like sweetness. At a time when bitter, resinous IPAs held sway, Jai Alai IPA’s focus on hop flavor and aroma and emphasis on balance helped chart a new path for hop-forward American beers.
“That sweetness turned the hops character into something more luscious and juicy, before ‘juicy’ became a thing,” said Wambles. “Even today when you drink it, the center of the flavor profile will still have that caramel sweetness, then as it trails off, the hops rush in and help to balance that in the finish. It’s not an East Coast IPA, and it’s not a West Coast IPA. I was trying to straddle that fence right in the middle.”
With the recipe finalized, Wambles and Cigar City Brewing Founder Joey Redner looked to Tampa history for inspiration when naming this new tropical beer.
“As a young man, I was lucky enough to have exposure to the game of jai alai in Tampa,” said Redner.”
Though the game was developed in the Basque region of Spain, the Sunshine State has been home to a thriving community of jai alai players and fans since the first fronton, or jai alai court, was built in Florida in the 1920s. A dynamic sport that embraces elements of racquetball and incorporates a wicker scoop that allows for ball speeds of over 150 miles per hour, jai alai and the parimutuel gambling around the game found favor among Florida’s residents and tourists throughout the 20th century.
“I thought the game nicely encapsulated the spirit of American hoppy beers: over the top, borderline aggressive yet still full of nuance,” said Redner.
When the first commercial batch of Jai Alai IPA was released in 2009, the beer’s idiosyncratic qualities earned it a reputation as a beer that was going in a new direction. Since that first batch, the beer has grown to become the iconic craft beer of Florida and has found resonance with beer lovers across the globe. Jai Alai IPA’s tropical approach has found a spot on store shelves from St. Petersburg, Florida to St. Petersburg, Russia and is widely recognized as a beer that helped American brewers pivot from the piney, resinous IPAs of the early 2000s to the nuanced, fruit-forward recipes enjoyed across the world today.