Cloudy is the new Black: The New England Style IPA

Check it out - here we go with the second blog post in just over a week! Seriously y'all, I'm back! Hey, on that note, if you've enjoyed these articles, I'd love for you to share them with a friend and encourage them to sign up. The subscriber list had been growing steadily over the course of last year before my several-month hiatus, and while I sometimes think I ramble a a lot and probably care about stupid beer things a bit too much, I feel like there are a lot of people out there who do the same and maybe, just maybe, they would enjoy reading my musings. (you can sign up using the form here)

Thanks for all of the replies last week - particularly those letting me know about even more gose releases that are coming out this summer from some of our local breweries that weren't included on my list (Whatup Fullsteam!?), and for the few of you who caught the use of "funky" in the description of the Haw River Communal. I used the brewery's descriptions for the beers and didn't want to edit it, because it helped to prove my point that the term is over-used, though can be helpful when it is used as an entry point, followed by other more detailed descriptors.

Over the past few months, there has been growing chatter about what folks are calling the "New England Style IPA" or the "Vermont Style IPA." I've been hesitant to write much about it, up to this point, because I haven't been lucky enough to sample very many of the fresh juicy IPAs from the northeast. I have enjoyed a can of Heady Topper and Sip of Sunshine in the past, and I've even shared a growler from Hill Farmstead, but these beers have, until recently, always just been called IPAs...or American IPAs. It's only over the past 6-12 months, with the growing popularity of other New England breweries, such as Tired Hands and Trillium, that folks have started branding this unique IPA trend something other than just an IPA, but instead a "New England Style IPA."

So, since you're likely to hear this phrase a lot, both in this article, and in the coming months as more and more breweries start producing their own spin on the New England IPA, I'll start by giving you my interpretation of how these beers differ from what we typically think of as an IPA and why they (according to some) deserve their own style distinction.

Vermont- or New England style IPAs are defined by a few distinct qualities. First of all, they are known for being unfiltered and noticeably hazy. This haze is caused by the use of oats and/or wheat that are rich in haze-producing proteins. Sometimes brewers even use grains that have been ground into a flour, to further contribute to the haze. The wheats and oats create a softer mouthfeel, and the haze is important because a lot of folks believe (though there isn't a ton of science behind this, yet) having the extra protein in suspension helps to hold more hop particulate in the beer, which will further enhance the hop aroma and flavor.

Additionally, when making these beers, brewers use very little early-addition bittering hops, which are the hops added early in the boil, allowing the alpha acids to isomerize, creating the bitterness that is often associated with IPAs. Instead, they use very generous amounts of hops late in the boil, during the whirlpool (post-boil), and most notably through dry-hopping, which is the addition of hops into the fermentor during of after primary fermentation takes place. (if that was too much jargon, here's a quick reference from one of my favorite books on brewing)

The addition of hops during primary fermentation has historically been seen as inappropriate because the active yeast is creating a lot of Co2 that may carry the delicate hop aromas out of the beer. In the making of these New England IPAs, however, many brewers are adding some of their dry hops at this phase, in hopes that the yeast will distribute more hop particulate throughout the beer that will remain in suspension, further contributing to the haze. More dry hops are added after primary fermentation to lock in the juicy hop aroma.

The resulting beer is very hop-forward, but not overly bitter. The mouthfeel is soft and creamy due to the oats and/or wheat, and the predominant flavor and aroma is that of tropical melons, juice, and citrus. This is notably different than the more piney, resinous, and grapefruit flavors often associated with the hops used in West Coast IPAs. Hops are the star of the show, with the soft malty notes just acting as a pillow to hold up the hops. Additionally, the hazy, cloudy profile contributes to a perceived thickness which helps further associate the New England IPA with a tall glass of fruit juice.

So, can you taste it now?

Don't worry, you soon will. I was in Charlotte last week, visiting some of my favorite Charlotte-area breweries, and at each one I either purchased a New England Style IPA or was told that they were brewing one (or would be soon). This style is about to roll through NC like a cloudy, juicy tidal wave.

You can already try some NC takes on this Vermont-invented style at places such as Trophy Brewing in Raleigh or Sycamore Brewing in Charlotte, with many more on the way.

Now I've given you a lot of information, but I can't wrap up without throwing in some opinion, right?

Where this style gets interesting is in how breweries go about making the beers cloudy and try as hard as they can to make the beer as cloudy as possible. It's like you get more street cred the cloudier the beer is. However, what I don't want to see, and what I'd encourage you (both the beer consumer, and beer providers on this list) to be aware of is breweries that achieve cloudiness through nefarious means.

By that, what I mean is that there are other ways to make a beer cloudy at the cost of impacting the flavor of the beer. First, there have been rumors that some breweries are achieving cloudy beer because they are kegging it before fermentation is completely done, so more yeast is in suspension. One of the important functions of yeast at the end of fermentation is to "clean up" a lot of the less desirable flavor compounds they have created during the heat of fermentation. If the process is rushed, then this may not happen. Also, the cloudiness should not just be yeast, the cloudiness should be caused by protein from the malt, hop particulate due to upwards of 2-4 lbs per barrel of dry hopping, along with some yeast in suspension.

Additionally, I am weary of the over-use of highly milled grains, to the point where flour is being added to the beer. Yes, it will create a more turbid beer, but I worry you would run the risk of increasing the astringency of the beer, since the grain husks provide a nice filter bed in the mash that help avoid astringency. Again, I don't have much science on this at this point, but it is something to be aware of.

The last issue a lot of beer purists (myself only partially included) have with this beer is that IPAs traditionally should not be cloudy. Cloudiness in an IPA has long been considered a flaw, and many breweries have invested lots of money in finding ways to reduce haze through filtering, fining agents, yeast selection, and brewing practices. To turn this on it's head, to some, can seem lazy and that breweries are just putting out a cloudy beer because they are unable to, or don't care enough to take steps to clarify the beer. While this is a valid point, and as a beer judge I can understand where these folks are coming from, I believe that there is a reason that only 3 of the 50 points allowed when scoring a beer in competition are allocated to appearance (color, clarity, and head really only one point for clarity). If that means that a cloudy IPA can only ever score a max of 49 points, so be it. If it tastes better than all of the other IPAs, it will still win the competition.

All of that is to say that we, as consumers, shouldn't just be drawn to (or away from) the new shiny (cloudy) object just because it's the most shiny (cloudy). Be discerning with your beer, drink the beer that actually tastes good, not just what has the most hype behind it, and support the breweries that make good beer.

Don't get me wrong, I'm excited to try all of these new New England Style IPAs! I am just not going to be a fanboy that touts all of them for being so cloudy. I'll certainly tell you when I find a really good one - there are sure to be a bunch of them hitting the market this summer!

If you've had some you really enjoy, or if you have your own opinion about this new style, I'd love to hear it. Feel free to post a comment below.