Good Beer Hunting

A Sea of Hoppy Sameness — In Search of New England’s IPA


Though the 2018 edition of the Great American Beer Festival was the first year that awards were given to "juicy or hazy" IPAs, DIPAs, and Pale Ales, the U.S. region synonymous with the style was shut out. Not a single brewery from New England earned a medal. Instead, Illinois and California each picked up a gold, silver, and bronze across the three categories.

In fact, the only GABF medal in India Pale Ale that New England earned last year was awarded to a brewery that's not actually located in New England. Appalachian Mountain Brewery, which is based in North Carolina but brews core brands in New Hampshire through Craft Brew Alliance, won a silver in the American-Style India Pale Ale category for Not an IPA (P.S. It's an IPA). The last time a New England brewery medaled in an American IPA category was 2010, when Trinity Brewhouse's Decadence Imperial IPA earned bronze in its respective group.

To be fair, the Northeast has always been underrepresented at the annual contest. New England sent a combined 984 entries to GABF in 2018, the fewest of 10 regions identified by Brewers Association economist Bart Watson in an analysis of the event. Despite having 6.6% of all U.S. breweries, New England sent just 2.7% of the total entries from 2014–2017.

The Northeast is famed among beer enthusiasts for New England IPA originators like Tree House and Trillium, as well as a host of other breweries that have produced their own versions of the opaque, fruity, hop-forward style. But despite the fact that the region is strongly (and rightfully) connected to the New England IPA, does it actually define where the style is going?

Since 2010, California, also historically associated with IPA, has won 24 medals in the American-Style India Pale Ale and Imperial India Pale Ale categories at GABF. Ohio has laid claim to eight, and Oregon five. Illinois and New Mexico each have two. Rhode Island and New Hampshire, the lone New England states represented, each received one, along with 11 other states.

If New England has helped set modern beer trends down the path of all things hazy and juicy, it begs the question of the entire IPA-drinking populace: is New England’s IPA simply a style, or is there actually a defining brand in the region that sets itself apart?

From a cultural standpoint, and by sheer volume, Harpoon India Pale Ale would be an easy choice. Before the geographical moniker of “New England IPA” also meant a specific kind of style, Harpoon even promoted its English-inspired beer as a "beautifully balanced, definitive New England-style IPA."

According to IRI sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores in New England, that IPA accounts for 62% of Harpoon's volume. It sold the equivalent of about 10,400 barrels in the region in 2018, making the brand big enough to be its own, sizable brewery. But Harpoon IPA's IRI sales were also down 11% from 2017–2018, as were Lawson's Sip of Sunshine (-11%), Samuel Adams Rebel IPA (-13%), Smuttynose Finestkind IPA (-10.6%), and Long Trail IPA (-25%).

For a more up-to-date take, five of 2018's highest-volume IPAs sold in New England IRI channels were distinctly modern. Samuel Adams New England IPA, which has, alongside Sam ’76, helped revive Boston Beer's beer portfolio, leads the way, followed by Long Trail’s VT IPA and Trail Hopper, as well as Lawson's Super Session #2, and Lord Hobo’s Boomsauce. As beer lovers may suspect, there are a couple common denominators among most of them, including the use of some combination of Citra, Simcoe, and Mosaic hops (reflective of an increased move by breweries toward aroma varieties). Super Session #2 also uses Amarillo, but these beers are pretty much universally described in terms of "fruit," "citrus," or "juice."

These collections of brands are clearly missing some of the hottest IPAs sold not just in New England but in the country, given that IRI tracks in-store transactions and doesn’t record own-premise sales at places like Tree House or Trillium (both of which are known for their IPAs and for selling near-exclusively at their breweries). However, taproom-only sales still pale in comparison to the volume sold to a far broader swath of beer customers in grocery and convenience chains.

But all together, these two paths, which follow both “classic” IPAs and more modern versions, show a shift that can be found across the country. Flavor profiles are changing, and consumer preferences along with them.

At Craft Beer Cellar stores in Massachusetts, 2018 was (unsurprisingly) a big year for IPA. Seven of the 10 top-selling beers at the flagship Belmont store were IPAs, and five of the 10 were New England-style. "Hops have people's attention right now," says Suzanne Schalow, co-founder of the bottle-shop chain, and there's no sign of that stopping. Even formerly hop-phobic customers are learning that IPAs aren’t necessarily bracing and bitter as a default.

"There seems to be some pride in everyone participating in the consumption of beers that are stuffed full of hops or proclaim to be Pale Ales or IPAs,” she says, “as a show of support and acceptance across beer lines, long divided by bitterness.”

Schalow singled out Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy as three key hop strains that have driven interest in beer’s ingredients. Those varieties, particularly Citra and Mosaic, are also used in some of New England’s heaviest-volume IPAs produced by larger breweries.

Unsurprisingly, they’re also used by the brewery that Schalow describes as a burgeoning regional IPA leader: Night Shift Brewing. "They are getting their beer across the state and as much of it as retailers want," she says.

That's a big deal in terms of volume, and thanks to expansions and a contract brewing agreement with Rhode Island’s Isle Brewers Guild, Night Shift's production went from almost 19,000 BBLs in 2017 to almost 31,000 last year. Whirlpool IPA (Mosaic), Santilli IPA (Mosaic), The 87 DIPA (Citra), and Morph IPA (rotating hop series) all include popular hops. These beers, thanks in part to their of-the-minute flavor profiles, should help increase Night Shift’s brand awareness and sales, though the brewery still lags behind its biggest regional competitors—Sam Adams and Long Trail will always have more shelf space. That challenge is greater still for Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company (3,600 BBLs in 2018) and Lamplighter Brewing Company (5,600 BBLs in 2018), two other breweries Schalow mentions as IPA up-and-comers.

Still, there's clearly room to grow for everyone, thanks to the popularity of the style overall. Nationally, IPA is responsible for nearly all of craft's growth in recent years, and from 2017–2018, New England saw an 8.5% volume increase in IPA sales at IRI stores. That equates to more than the total amount of IRI-tracked beer sold in the seven-state region of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

New England's year-to-year IRI sales of IPA are also slightly above the style’s percentage growth in Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and California combined. Those numbers also don’t include the tens of thousands of barrels of beer sold directly to customers at taprooms across New England. In total, IRI volume for IPA in the region was second only to American Lager, and almost twice as much as the next-closest category, Tropical Lager.

When considering a variety of trends—the rise of “juicy” IPAs, the popularity of particular aromatic hops, the acceptance of haze as an attribute—New England’s general definition of IPA may not be overtly different from most other regions’. Distribution then becomes a key factor in determining popularity by sales, as getting products in front of people is half—if not more—of the battle.

So what can be a differentiating factor for New England’s IPAs?

“In everything we’ve built, we’ve started to find a niche,” says Rob Day, director of new markets for Woburn, Massachusetts’ Lord Hobo Brewing Company. “We’ve made some really high-gravity beers that don’t taste really alcoholic.”

Using ABV as a metric of success may sound taboo, but he’s not wrong. Nearly 90% of Lord Hobo's 2018 IRI sales in New England came from its four core beers, with 57% via flagship Boomsauce, a 7.8% IPA that "delivers a notable citrus and tropical fruit finish," according to the company's description. Consolation Prize DIPA (9.5% ABV) was also a big seller, and early in 2019, Day is eyeing Triple IPA as a space to play. Lord Hobo recently released Museum, an 11% IPA made with three of the trendiest hops available (Citra, Galaxy, and Mosaic). Day calls it "the best thing we've ever made."

"No one is saying, 'Make the most alcoholic beer you can make,'" he says, "But making something that has that characteristic, hides it well, and is a little balanced [in flavor] has always been in our DNA."

There's also a practical, business reason to explore such an approach. While Brut IPA's bone-dry effervescence is something of an of-the-moment anti-New England IPA, there's no denying the ongoing attachment drinkers have to hazy and juicy beers. In the same way that Dogfish Head is exploring the unclaimed white space of "better for you" beers, Lord Hobo recognizes an opening in the market.

"It's obviously not as crowded at the 11% range," Day says. "Which is fantastic." The expectation for the brewery was to sell as many as 10,000 cases of the beer during its three-month run across Lord Hobo’s entire distribution footprint, the equivalent of 725 BBLs. Museum also fits within a generally accepted idea of what new and on-trend IPA should be in New England.

“It would be very surprising for a consumer to walk into a brewery in New England, order an IPA, and not have it be hazy and juicy,” Day says. But does that mean any and all IPAs need to have those attributes just because they’re from New England? “This is where the style was born from and blew up from, so we do take a lot of pride in it,” he says.

It’s a strange, cyclical situation: if IPAs are driving growth in beer, and if New England IPAs continue to push the style (and the industry) forward, can another version of IPA really step up? Harpoon IPA, which arguably introduced the geographic moniker of “East Coast,” continues to slide. With so many breweries (including Sam Adams) finding footing with some variation of juicy and hazy, becoming New England’s go-to IPA requires a mix of fanfare and securing enough placements in stores to attract a large swath of drinkers.

One way to zig from this zag, mentioned by both Schalow and Day, is to take a considerably anti-IPA approach. “There’s something of a wild and sour renaissance going on here,” Day says.

Schalow noted an "enormous uptick" in mixed-fermentation beers at Craft Beer Cellar stores. Particular interest has been given to a style far away from juicy IPA—"lacto-based Kettle Sours.” Dry-hopped Sour IPAs have been getting plenty of attention. And the combination of these flavor experiences has caught Day’s eye, too.

“If you can do it well, [the wild and/or sour category is] a category you can be really comfortable in,” he adds. “It’s a great way to stand out right now.”

In a sea of IPAs, changing tacks could be one way to stay afloat, and keep drinkers’ attention, as the haze thickens.

Words by Bryan Roth