In its short time in beer drinkers’ consciousness, New England IPA has elicited plenty of judgment. For some, its purpose and merits are as murky as the liquid itself. But having shifted from regional niche to national curiosity, the new-age take on America’s favorite non-macro style finds itself awkwardly positioned somewhere between “fad” and “trend.”
Even as the type of beer and its brewing techniques have spread from coast to coast, there’s still a small group of enthusiasts willing to debate its value, despite examples coming from nanobreweries down the street as well as mothership HQs of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Samuel Adams (yes, national craft players are attempting to distribute the notoriously non-shelf-stable style). Ironically enough, it’s picking up a new version of an old argument that Scott Janish recently noted was ocumented all the way back in 1893, when it was reported that "brewers have an objection to the use of any considerable quantity of hops when quite new as tending to give cloudy beer, and in certain years we agree that this is so." (For a bunch more interesting thoughts from Janish and Michael Tonsmeire, our recent podcast episode is worth a listen.)
But after more than 100 years, we’ve come to a better definition of what “cloudy” and “hops” means when it comes to IPA. If NE IPA’s usefulness exists on a spectrum, it leans more toward ubiquitousness than fluke. Like it or not, the New England IPA—in all its turbid glory—is here to stay.
A recent shot at the style came from Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, who launched a new round of beer geek gossip after being quoted in the UK’s Morning Advertiser saying NE IPA is based around “Instagram culture” and has no longevity.
"I think [NE IPA] is a fad,” Oliver said. “These things come and go. I have seen a great many fads over my 28 years of brewing. Three or four years ago it was Black IPA—everyone brewed one. Now it is hard to find one." Oliver promptly left that conversation, traveled a couple hours north to Cloudwater Brew Co in Manchester, and had a jolly time drinking hazy IPAs.
With the exception of calling New England IPA a “fad,” he’s not wrong. Many beer-based ideas have proven unsuccessful during the past three decades, but it’s the direct comparison to Black IPA that doesn’t quite hold up. It’s true that it may be harder to now find the sub-style than several years ago, but perhaps our collective recollection for just how transformative Black IPA was supposed to be is actually lost in a haze of its own.
In modern American beer, never before have enthusiasts contemplated the value of a particular style against another in the way they have IPA and its many variations. The hop-forward brew went from European historical icon to experimental playground once it was adopted as America’s de facto contribution to the “craft” landscape of beer. The exploration of hops, in all their aromatic, flavor-inducing, and bittering abilities, has gone through an evolution as IPA has morphed into all sorts of different drinking experiences. No longer beholden to its American holy land of California, Paul Jones of Cloudwater, a well known hazy IPA brewer in the UK, cheekily tweets out “West Coast IPA is dead” from time to time, seemingly for no other purpose than to remind us all of our own mortality.
The most recent—and somehow controversial—variation is a logical next step in brewing and business practice as well as a reset of biological and cognitive normalcy when it comes to IPA.
By recent memory, the idea of IPA has been a straightforward proposition. You're going to get some combination of vegetal, pine, or citrus paired with a layer of bitterness imparted by traditional use of hops, recipes calling for placement during a brew’s boiling phase. Nearly a decade ago, as brewers participated in an IBU arms race as a way to differentiate their beers, other sub-styles began to gain traction as opposing forces of flavor. IPA didn’t have to be something that was defined by its bitterness, what initially acted as a stiff middle finger toward America’s legacy as home of adjunct Lager and “drinkability.”
For some reason, it was Black IPA that became the focus of aficionados in the late 2000s. It was something new and strange for a style that associated itself with clarity and bitterness, using malts made for Porters or Stouts with a pinball-tilt level of hops.
But hype created around Black IPA was something of a false narrative. The way drinkers talk about it now, you’d think it had taken the beer world by storm, lightning in a bottle igniting a bonfire of hype.
Technically, it was a trend in the Merriam-Webster kind of way in which it was new and gained traction. Between 2011 and 2015, the amount of IRI tracked brands for Black IPA sold in U.S. supermarkets went from 15 to 46.
However, in total numbers, that wasn’t too far from English IPAs, which grew from 24 to 38 brands in the same timeframe, or Belgian/White IPA, which went from 10 to 40. In percentage growth, Belgian/White IPA actually grew more than Black IPA in this timespan, which also saw the exponential rise of fruit/veggie/spiced IPA, which started from 0 in 2011 and had 42 in IRI-tracked grocery stores by 2015.
Black IPA, new and different in look and flavor, was setting itself apart partially for that reason alone. By some measures, the assumption that it was a game-changing IPA sub-style wasn’t reality. According to Google Trends results, Black IPA was simply a seasonal fad.
Going back to 2010, worldwide searches for "Black IPA" were almost entirely based on seasonality. In the past eight years of results, searches hit a peak between January and March, falling during the remaining nine months of the year before bouncing back. To assume Black IPA was a transformative variation in beer style was false. It was merely a popular seasonal option in the same way pumpkin beer once was.
By comparison, Google-based interest in "NE IPA" or "New England IPA" is entirely different. Using the past two years of Google Trends results, interest in the juice bomb is nearly consistent month to month, showing slow growth during the timeframe while “Black IPA” sits plateaued.
It’s a similar story on Untappd, where, according to reporting from late 2016, Black IPA had been a decreasing portion of all check-ins on the beer rating app since 2014, dropping from 1.2% to 0.8% over three years. New England IPA, added as a standalone sub-category of IPA this summer, accounted for .9% of check-ins in June 2017, but rose all the way to 2.5% by November. Meanwhile, 17 breweries from across the country that specialize in hazy, hoppy beers—from Maine’s Bissell Brothers to California’s Monkish—account for 228 of 332 IPAs that are listed among Untappd’s top 1,000 highest-rated beers.
Because so many NE IPAs were previously listed under the "American" sub-category on Untappd, it's hard to get a clear picture of just how much more users prefer the hazy version of IPA. Even still, the collection of beers specifically listed as a New England IPA have the highest average rating of 4, just edging out a 3.97 combined from DIPA and "Triple" IPAs.
Ninety-five of the top-100 American IPAs could actually be reclassified as New England IPAs, even pushing the hazy sub-style’s average rating up to 4.1. That’s not Instragram culture - it’s a growing culture altogether.
Of course, it’s not just app check-ins that matter. The comparison of aroma and taste of New England IPA against other hoppy styles simply isn’t an apples-to-apples situation, especially if it’s Black IPA. Both sit on a different spectrum in flavor, which changes the business dynamic and ultimately influences lasting power.
Black IPA, trying to embrace roasted malt alongside heavy hop bills, exists in a strange limbo of niche taste preference. It's neither appropriate for people who enjoy malt-forward sweetness and astringency, or hop-heads who prefer India Pale Ale's typical laser-focus on lupulin. But it’s curiously black - novelty to have once garnered enough time and attention to be considered The Next Big Thing.
But what if the reality was that was never going to be enough anyway?
New England IPA, dialed in with low perceived bitterness and late-boil hop intensity, is easy for our taste buds to understand and appreciate: it’s “sweet” and creamy, thanks to brewing practices that enhance the style’s mouthfeel through lipids and proteins. It’s attributes allow for a beer a lot of people who “don’t like IPA” end up enjoying thanks to its chemistry of creation.
“Our biological preference out of the womb—literally the moment you are born—is for mother’s milk, which has high content of what are essentially sweet molecules and high content of umami,” says Nicole Garneau, a geneticist and curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where she leads the Genetics of Taste Lab. “It’s an evolutionary thing. We have an on button for sweet and umami.”
For years, IPA has slowly trended in that direction, brewers redefining ingredients and process to better adhere to American interests and palates. Late-addition hops boosting aroma or fruit adjuncts complementing citrus flavors were a natural evolution to this point in time, where NE IPA encapsulates various biological preferences in craft beer’s most popular vessel for style.
According to Garneau, part of what makes New England IPA so successful is cross-modal interaction, the ability of senses to play off one another and create a positive cognitive reaction. In the case of this sub-style, hop usage, paired with methods that induce additional density and viscosity in the beer, adds layers preferred by taste buds. Dairy companies, Garneau points out, create additional creaminess to beverages all the time as a way to increase perception of sweetness even without added sugar.
“Imparting mouthfeel sends a signal to the brain that this is something that is sweet, and sweet decreases perception of bitter,” Garneau tells GBH. “The cross-modal interaction between aroma and mouthfeel in the brain is telling you it’s sweeter, which would make it more palatable to a lot of people.”
Even though “a lot of people” is likely a niche group of fans within the swath of beer drinkers across the country, it’s still a significant enough number to have changed businesses. Just last week, after Epic Brewing announced it would buy California's Telegraph Brewing Co., the new owners said a line of “juicy and hazy” IPAs would be a key part of future planning. More famously, companies like Tree House, Trillium, and Great Notion have financed millions of dollars for expansions on the back of New England IPA—a hefty bet on the lifespan and interest of hazy India Pale Ale. And it’s not just these upstarts.
Speaking last year to New School Beer, former Stone Brewing brewmaster and current New Realm brewmaster Mitch Steele admitted that NE IPAs were here to stay.
“I just spent two weeks on the East Coast,” he told Ezra Johnson-Greenough. “Tasted a few of these. And yes, it’s a thing. I expect it will be considered a style by most craft beer people soon. I brewed at three different breweries in Philadelphia and we discussed this cloudy IPA thing at each one.”
Around the same time, Oregon’s Willamette Week released results of an IPA taste test featuring 73 India Pale Ales from within the city limits of Portland. Culture editor Martin Cizmar declared "The hop war is over, and the bitter side lost.”
“The five best IPAs in the city come from brand-new breweries, and most of those have been influenced by Heady Topper, Julius, and Sculpin, beers that present hops as a reward rather than a challenge,” Cizmar wrote.
Beer is very much a subjective product, but defining popularity is an objective crusade. Something is made more and more, or it’s not. People are willing to buy, or they’re not. By this measure alone, it would seem foolish to deny New England IPA a place among its hoppy family. And just because it flies in the face of stylistic tradition doesn’t mean it’s incapable of graduating from successful experiment to a welcomed addition in beer’s portfolio of styles.
Within industry context, NE IPA’s nascent presence makes it fair to wonder what kind of staying power the style may have, but unlike other creations that have seasonal or specialty lifespans (Pastry Stout, anyone?), New England IPA has found a footing on many levels, from an exciting, new process in which brewers can play, to providing preferred experiences for drinkers and, for better or worse, creating new business models for companies. Indeed, there’s more to NE IPA’s success than a bunch of beer geeks posting photos on Instagram.
The argument of New England IPA as nothing more than a flash in the pan of brewing creativity ignores the clarity that surrounds it. Whether compared to Black IPA or any other style, its ability to shift expectation and experience signifies an importance that won’t just be lasting within its own style, but resonates with others as well. Recognition of aspects that make a beer successful—not just what it represents on social media—should calm these issues.
Rather than rage against the dying of the light, maybe it’s time we embrace the idea that it’s not going out. Maybe it’s just getting a little harder to see through the haze.