The beer world — like most other popular markets — is prone to fads. New styles come along that break some long-held norm. They garner attention and gather a small but ardent following who go to great lengths to seek them out.
Word spreads until every beer fan clamors for them, every brewer makes them and every writer sings their praises. Sometimes they gain traction and stick around. Other times they slowly fade away.
The latest craze is the New England IPA — a murky, juicy-fruit version of the old hophead favorite. The style’s origin can be traced back to a single beer — Heady Topper, first brewed by Vermont’s the Alchemist in 2003.
Heady Topper was originally an occasional release, but it quickly attained national cult status. Lines of traffic on the days it was released forced the owners to close their retail location to avoid angering neighboring businesses. Single 16-ounce cans now sell on eBay for as much as $25.
The most obvious thing that differentiates a New England IPA from any other version of the style is its appearance. While most IPAs are filtered to bright clarity, New England IPAs are anywhere from hazy to extremely cloudy. The murkiest examples can look like orange juice in a glass. The haze primarily comes from a combination of suspended yeast and the residue of massive loads of hops added very late in the brewing process — typically after fermentation is complete.
The heavy use of late-addition hops is also the source of the main flavor and aroma profile of the style — the near total dominance of the juicy, fruity character of certain hop varieties. When hops are added later in the brewing process they bring less bitterness and more character.
The nose of a New England IPA is all squishy fruit — tropical mango, pineapple and citrus slices. The flavor follows suit. Bitterness is relatively low for an IPA and malt is almost nonexistent, save for a sometimes sticky sweetness.
Suspended yeast, the other haze producer, can lend these beers a doughy, bready note.
The very things that define these beers can also bring their demise. The heavy loads of hops can bring with them chalky or plantlike chlorophyll flavors. The complete reliance on hop flavor and aroma leaves some examples feeling thin and lacking structure — a bit like watery hop tea.
Yeast and hop haze quickly drop out in the package, robbing them of their distinctive appearance and causing unappealing chunks when the beer is poured into a glass. The sediment can also bring undesirable flavors as yeast cells die and hop compounds oxidize. These beers are best consumed fresh — preferably in the brewery taproom. Packaged examples must be stored cold and sold young.
If you’re keen to give the style a try, there are plenty of examples to choose from.
If you want to dip a toe in without going full submersion, try Samuel Adams New England IPA. It’s got the general profile of the style — haze and juicy hops. But a firmer malt backbone and sturdy bitterness give it greater balance. It’s probably too much like a normal IPA for die-hard fans, but it’s a good introduction for those new to the style.
My favorite example of the style is Hazy Little Thing from Sierra Nevada. It also takes a more balanced approach. The nose and flavor ooze squishy tropical fruits like mango and pineapple, with pithy lemon and minty herbal notes in the background. Malt and bitterness are substantial enough to carry it without overwhelming it.
One of the better local examples of the style is Local 755 from BlackStack Brewing in St. Paul. The emphasis is on drippingly juicy tangerine and orange citrus. Tropical fruit and minty herbal notes provide some background. Bitterness is sturdy, but not at all harsh.
Ask local lovers of New England IPA and they will likely point you toward Hooey from Big Lake’s Lupulin Brewing Co. This golden brew has a high haze, but doesn’t go all the way to murky like some others. Fresh pineapple and grapefruit slices lead the way. Bitterness is high and lingering, balanced by some sugary sweetness. But the sweetness doesn’t coat the mouth like it does in some examples of the style.
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewpub brewed an interesting take on the style with Deflate New England India Pale Lager. Lager fermentation gives this one a crisp, clean profile that makes it more refreshing than most. Juicy pineapple and tropical-fruit hop flavor still leads, but bitterness is intense — emphasized by the dry-as-a-bone finish. It achieves the structure that is so often lacking, without sacrificing the core elements of the style. This is my top pick of the examples that I tasted.
The local taproom best known for hazy IPA is Barrel Theory in St. Paul. On any given visit you’ll have several to choose from. There were six the day I stopped in. They range from moderately assertive to completely over the top.
On the milder end is Raindrops. The primary notes are lemon/lime citrus, with yellow and orange tropical fruits close behind. There is virtually no malt character here and bitterness is subdued. It’s not hop tea, but a bit more structure could be desired. It goes out dry with lingering bitterness and a light chalkiness. It’s a pleasant quaff.
There is usually a double dry hopped version of Raindrops available. For me this brings out some of the less desirable characteristics of the style. Yes, the fruit is increased, but along with it comes clinging bitterness, plantlike chlorophyll and subtle notes of garlic and chive. Unless you are a true hophead, stick with the original.
On the other end is Shooter McGavin, an 8.2 percent alcohol double IPA hopped with 100 percent Citra hops. This one is ultra-cloudy. Yeast, hop residue and starch add a whitish cast to its gold color and a doughy yeastiness to the flavor. Everything here is overdone. Lemon/lime hop flavor is bright, wet and very intense, with an almost acidic edge. Bitterness is aggressive. Chlorophyll and chalk define the finish. If you like the style, you will probably love this beer. It was definitely not for me.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.