Friday Froth: Taking New England Out Of Hazy IPAs

James Gribbon

Lately I've been doing some studying up on hops, which is - naturally - why I'm going to start this week's column off by being mad at yeast. I am comprehensively sick and tired of unfiltered IPAs; exhausted and at my wit's end trying to find an existing beer I can rely on to not look like milky pond water upon its exit from the can. Unsightly floating clumps, and my beer burning my throat, aren't even the biggest irritations. The worst is the style has had, until just now, "New England" in its name. Thankfully this week the Brewers Association has officially renamed it "Hazy or Juicy IPA." The BA's Beer Style Guidelines are effectively the AP style book of beer writing, and they've relegated the defacto descriptor of juice-bombs to the backseat. Hooray for the BA, and death to trub, amen.

Let's lead with why the broad brush "New England" moniker always rubbed me the wrong way. American IPAs - currently the globally dominant style - started on the west coast. I don't think anyone is going to fight me on this. Chinook, Cascade, Centennial: many big daddy "C-hops," are named after their mostly native terroir mountain ranges in the Pacific northwest. Homebrewing - newly re-legalized in 1977 - lead to people (duh) brewing, and using local varieties which had picked up pine, citrus, petrichor, and other flavors and aromas from years of wild, unrestricted plant-sex while they were being ignored during and post Prohibition. The resultant West Coast Style was the first modern American style (I)PA. They have a substantial, sometimes even deeply layered English-style malt skeleton, fleshed out by flavorful, bitter U.S. hops. Think Lagunitas IPA, Harpoon IPA on the east coast, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as very general examples

Like everything else humans cultivate, people selected for the traits they liked, and hops got more flavorful, and more aromatic over time. Also like everything else humans do, it quickly turned into a total pissing match. As in the 1980s and '90s hot sauce craze and Scoville Units, West coast brewers chose their weapons and settled on the International Bitterness Unit. Drinkers started seeing names along the lines of Palate Crusher, Tongue Masher, and Eff Your Tastebuds, to dare them into drinking beers with 80, 90, and hell, why not, 120 IBUs, ensuring they would only be able to taste the first five gulps before palate exhaustion set in the way horse stables don't smell so bad once you've been in there for a while. 

I still like those IPAs, but sometime within a few years of my legally being able to buy a beer people remembered hops have something to contribute beyond preservation and bitterness. The subtle or flavorfully uninspiring hops with plenty of the compounds which aid in bittering and preservation were still in there, but these New World, American hops were added much later in the boil so their other characters stayed. These new IPAs would look basically the same as the established west coast varieties in a glass - and retained their body and hallmark bitterness - but with fruit and trees and earth in the flavor and tantalizing aromas on the nose. The same hop species were available to everyone, but they were being used differently. 

I've been meaning to write this for a long time: Alchemist Heady Topper, and NEBCO G-Bot (née Gandhi-Bot) are both what I'd consider halo beers in this segment and, here's the point: they are the actual New England IPAs

I'm not 100% sure these two specific beers were the very first to really dial up the juicy character of hops like Citra, Simcoe and the like, but I know for a fact they helped popularize the characteristic in New England while the west coast was still IBU-obsessed, and both were on the shelves before Treehouse - the current Haze-Bro mecca - was even a brewery. 

So now, years later, the way Tabasco's shelf space came to include Dave's Insanity Sauce, and a gentle Harpoon IPA cooler space with Green Flash Palate Wrecker, we have the sometimes muddy tsunami of IPAs I resent being called "New England."

Anyone reading this who has been to a beer bar, on a brewery tour, or taken a chance on a four pack of pint cans wearing inconsistently-applied labels, has likely seen or drank a hazy pale ale or IPA. They are everywhere, across the country. The Brewers Association has finally codified them, though, and this is what they say makes the style:

Color: Straw to deep gold
Clarity: Low to very high degree of cloudiness is typical of these beers. Starch, yeast, hop, protein and/or other compounds contribute to a wide range of hazy appearance within this category. 
Malt Aroma & Flavor: Low to low-medium
Hop Aroma & Flavor: Medium-high to very high
Bitterness: Low to medium. Perceived impression of bitterness is soft and well-integrated into overall balance, and may differ significantly from measured or calculated IBU levels. 
Fermentation Characteristics: Low to medium fruity-estery aroma and flavor may be present, but are usually overwhelmed by hop fruitiness. 
Body: Medium-low to medium-high. Perceived silky or full mouthfeel may contribute to overall flavor profile.

Alcohol By Volume: 6.3-7.5%

First, the idea of a brewer using starch as an additive to beer, either as a thickening agent or to increase opacity, jumped right out at me. Using cheap adjuncts instead of skill to achieve a desired result seems antithetical to the idea of craft beer in the first place. It's why we make fun of Bid Light listing rice as one of the key components of beer in their ad campaigns, and why "malt liquor" is a legally separate category from "beer." I don't like seeing starch on the official record at all, because it's going to be used as an excuse.

Second, what do the above descriptors tell us about a hazy IPA? It is a light colored, cloudy to nearly opaque, low malted ale which relies partially on solids like yeast, unfermented protein, and hop particles for body, and largely avoids bitterness, while presenting fruit aroma and flavors as the primary experience.

Body and bitterness were the rules of the original English India Pale Ale, Americans added hop aroma and flavor, but many hazy IPAs do away with three out of four factors. Remove the body and the bitterness what's left seems less like a beer, and more like boozed up hop juice. That's not an IPA, that's a wine cooler.

The best hazy IPAs I've drank have been smooth, invigorating - low-IBU and malt, sure - but intensely pleasing and well crafted. Every menu and walk-in cooler in America now seems to boast a few of them, and we have some excellent examples being made in Connecticut. The skill of the brewer is what elevates the beer. Proliferation, though, has rapidly caused the degeneration of the "NE"IPA. Most, MOST, of the hazy PA/IPAs I've had after several years of the style's explosive growth have been a cover up for poor quality beer. 

Yeast cells in their billions now goop up too many examples of what may have had a chance at being a legitimately good beer, and burn your throat as you drink it down. This is not a feature, it's a bug. Leftover protein, yeast, and hop solids (or "trub," say: troob) clump together and dump from kegs and cans where they've settled like peat in a bog. These solids have always been trapped, cold crashed out after fermentation, pushed through a filter, or spun out with a centrifuge in the brewer's art, but those last two pieces of equipment are expensive, finnicky, and difficult to clean, so someone, somewhere, decided to skip the effort and expense and convince people having that much crap in their beer was a good thing. I have the feeling more people than not go along with this because it's the current fashion.

There will always be some yeast remaining in a finished beer and, in most cases, this is a good thing. Yeast not only ferments the wort, it gives beer hundreds of different flavors and aromas, almost all of which remain after a basic filtration. I haven't had a Good (not Great) hazy IPA which would have been just as good if its makers had taken 90% of the solids out before selling it.      

I have had many very good lightly-filtered-to-unfilted IPAs, but it bugs me that this reducto ad absurdum of flavor/aroma focused IPAs is the one which burst like a nuke of consumer awareness and swallowed the regional nameplate whole. This is why the style needed a real name which didn't paint an entire region with the same unwashed brush. After a certain point in evolution it's not just a new species, it's a new animal.