Ok, do you see the following image as a drool-inducing beauty or a muddy-tasting beast? For many beer drinkers, accepting hazy IPA (and its many cloudy cousins such as pale ales, DIPAs etc.) has been difficult. Clarity has been considered a signifier of quality in most beer styles, so the more you knew about beer making, the harder it was to take that first sip. The excitement expressed by fans and the widespread disdain from detractors has been about as polarized as beer preference can be.
This intentionally soft, minimally bitter, hop-flavored variety has emerged over the past two decades, with most of the excitement centered on Vermont and New England in general. Hence, it’s becoming widely known as the New England IPA, or NEIPA, However, unfiltered dry-hopped beers elsewhere in the land helped to push towards the look of the style as well.
Recently, my husband (and Beer By BART co-founder) Steve and I took part in a blind judged commercial competition, where a new category — style number 99 — was grafted onto the existing competition style lists to accommodate beers made with this style in mind. Which is great because there are good beers competing but challenging since an emerging style by definition has no official description and the intentions of the brewers may not even be similar.
I didn’t serve on category 99 that day myself, though Steve did, but the inclusion gave me plenty to think about. At one point, I was on a panel with one other diligent judge, carefully evaluating a flight of nine American IPAs. Like in a lot of commercial competition flights, most were good, just not awesome. Classic brewing flaws were few and far between. We were to pass only one beer forward to the next round. To our delight, it wasn’t even close. There was one beer that the other judge and I both felt was exquisite. It was bright and clear, brightly aromatic in the circus-tropical range and delicately complex all the way through to a moderate but firm bitter finish with tropical hop flavors that lingered beautifully. We were both wowed by this beer, in a day where we had already done other flights and styles but had not yet had a blind tasting tour de force.
An experienced judge who was not seated at the moment walked past as we wrapped up and asked how the flight had gone, and I said, “we just picked an amazing beer. You should try this IPA.”
He poured himself a sample, and commented, “Ah! A nice New England IPA.”
I think he saw the look on our faces. It was not hazy, and it had a satisfying but slightly restrained bitterness in the crisp finish. Aromatics and fruity flavors from the hops were common attributes between this beer and a good NEIPA, I thought. But that was not what it looked or tasted like, nor how it was entered. It was, hands down, the best American style IPA in our flight.
Were our personal standards for a nice bitter IPA shifting? Are IPAs in general getting fruiter and less aggressively bitter?
So that reminded me that we already have a lot of East-West overlap going on in brewing today, from technique to hop selection to recipe development. Perhaps we actually have more like an IPA spectrum!
From that day, I started to work out the model for a great NEIPA based on the examples I’ve tried in California, around the East Coast and recently in Denmark. (Yep, European craft brewers are happily playing with the style, too.) This is in no way an attempt at a style definition, but here are the elements that go through my head as I decide if one of these hazy beauties is meant to be for me:
- Looks seem to matter. If it’s been filtered, fined or centrifuged clear, (or if the yeast flocculated unexpectedly), it seems to be a different beer with a notably different texture. Whether the foggy look is from oat, wheat or rye protein, from yeast cells or from particles of hop matter suspended in a luminous cloud, it seems to matter. (But wait — that’s only true if a clear beer with similar flavors has another place to fit in the beer style rainbow. If that awesome beer I judged was deemed not to be an American IPA, then I’d want it included in here someplace. Oh, the problems with style definitions!)
- It’s highly desirable to have a soft, almost fluffy mouthfeel. Perhaps silky, akin to an Oatmeal Stout in texture. How soft? I would have to say that the American IPA gets to have a heavier malty body. But choosing how to quantify and describe where the style border is turns out to be a head scratcher.
- The bitterness of this beer is very gentle. In the initial part of the sip, bitterness is something akin to the bitterness in a glass of orange juice or punch. There’s something there, but you may not even think of it as bitterness. Think all hop flavor and aroma. Of course, there’s a big range, with the ones I tend to prefer expressing gentle but notable dry hop bitterness along with the “juicy” impression. Frankly, some other beers take bitterness down to where they come off to me as “flabby,” to steal a wine word that fits this experience even better. Mild, fluffy, approaching boring by the end of the pint. (No doubt plenty of people will prefer the ones I find flabby. This is why this conversation is important now. Some better word will arise. Perhaps there will be sub-styles where flab is fab.)
- There has to be a finish. This may be just me, or it may be a West Coast take on these beers, but a few of them just sort of vanish! A very gentle final bitterness or even just an impression of dryness will do it for me if there are no off-flavors. (Does this make me a West Coaster?)
- The beer can’t show raspy astringency or bitterness. Above all, it is kind to your tongue. It has to present as if less bitter than a pilsner, let’s say, to match that mouth-watering low-bitterness idea in my brain when I see the glass. I have tasted some that are far too bitter or astringent. Talk about missing the point!
- No yeast bite bitterness, either. The best description is “baby aspirin.” Put a baby or adult aspirin on your tongue as a reminder. I’ve found this now and then. Hop bitterness is much more pleasant, if you want a touch of bitter finish.
- Aroma! Big hop fragrance is required! If it smells like nearly nothing, it’s not a great example. Tropical, stone fruit, old school grapefruit or forest breeze – just have a beautiful smell.
- A beer brewed with wheat and oats can’t taste like flour or bread dough. I’ve come across that raw flavor a few times, and I don’t really think it meshes with the other hop, alcohol, yeast and subdued malt flavors. To me, drinking a hop porridge is a fail.
- Yeast esters can be part of the fun, but being able to pick them out is not required. A brilliant flavor mix is a delight. If the yeast has a neutral flavor contribution and the sexy hops show through, what’s the problem? So peachy, pear, or even banana yeast notes can be part of the mix, but if the hops don’t require that flavor in the mix, that’s perfectly OK.
- Are chunks and flakes a fail? Yeah, probably. But then again, if it tasted amazing, it might not win a medal but it could still win hearts.
Sometimes I think the whole concept of styles is archaic. New beers will never again spend centuries emerging in isolation in areas where only certain ingredients are found, certain yeasts shared and various pressures like taxes on specific strengths of beers work together to make an historical style. Those days are over.
Competitions are the clearest reason popular new kinds of beers deserve categories. But competitions are not the most important social use for an agreed upon name and set of qualities for these inventive beers. As a consumer, I want a hint of what’s offered when an unknown beer is called an IPA on a menu board or a craft can. This is a reason for style names in everyday life. NEIPA, or whatever consensus settles on calling them.
I like variety. I may want to order something clear today, or something cloudy, or a lightly hop-hazed glassful that falls in-between, but it would help to have a settled-upon style name so that seeing “IPA” doesn’t mean any possible beer you can brew with any detectable expression of hops.
Looking forward to find out how the language evolves along with the beers.
By Gail Ann Williams, for the Session, Aug 4, 2017
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