This spring, my fiance and I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, a beer destination we’ve visited numerous times in the past. Asheville is a beautiful little hub for beer, filled with breweries both large and small, all striving to find a niche for themselves in both the local craft beer community and the greater national beer scene. It’s an excellent place to take stock of national trends, and see how they’re playing out in the microcosm of one intensely beer-focused city. It’s also an excellent place to hike and eat doughnuts, but that’s beside the point.
Sitting on the riverside patio of a large regional brewery in the area (okay, it was New Belgium), on a very lovely day, in the middle of a very lovely vacation, my fiance took a sip of her hazy IPA, and her face scrunched into a disapproving pucker. Bear in mind, this is a woman who loves craft beer, and whose favorite style throughout her life has often been India pale ale. Nor is she opposed to hazy, NE-IPA, either. She wasn’t reacting with dissatisfaction because of an inherent opinion she had about the style—she ordered that hazy IPA fully expecting to enjoy it, as we have many others. But what she said next perfectly crystalized one of the biggest issues in modern craft beer.
Feeling like this was something I was going to want to remember, I captured the sentiment via Twitter.
And there it is: The most common problem in IPA today, summed up in a single sentence by someone who’s never written anything about beer in her life. She managed to perfectly capture how the quest for “juicy” profiles in IPAs has led the beer industry in a direction that is actively undermining its own aims, and the result has become a whole lot of bad beer. Worse still, these poorly made NE-IPAs have proliferated to such an extent that they’re confusing the consumer as to what a “juicy” IPA is meant to taste like in the first place. We’re weaning a new generation of beer drinkers on a style that is often fundamentally difficult to drink, and that is a problem.
If we’re going to claim that so many modern NE-IPAs have gone off the rails and overshot what they were trying to achieve, then we should codify what a “good” NE-IPA is meant to be striving for in the first place. As in any beer style, there is of course an element of personal taste here—people like what they like, and you can’t tell them not to enjoy something—but we can at least define the style in terms of the profile that brewers claim they’re trying to achieve. This definition comes more from brewery descriptions than anything else—it’s how the brewers see the style, which unfortunately is often quite different from how the beers actually taste in practice.
The NE-IPA is an evolution of previous American IPA styles, which represents a hard left turn from what was the prevailing norm. If IPA started out as moderately bitter and balanced by malt in the U.S., and then became much drier and more bitter, while slowly ceding its malt presence, ‘ala “West Coast IPA,” then NE-IPA differentiates itself in a few ways.
— It ups the late hop/dry hop rates to sky-high levels, eliminating the majority of early addition hops to cut back on perceived bitterness.
— It makes almost exclusive use of newer, popular hop varietals such as Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, etc., etc., which are prized for their citrus, tropical fruit and stone fruit qualities.
— It tends to be made with more ester-laden yeast strains, such as English ale strains, rather than the clean-fermenting ale strains that typified American IPA for many years.
— It isn’t filtered, and a fair amount of yeast and hop particulate is ultimately left in suspension, in order to amp up hop flavors, aromas and compounds derived from having yeast in suspension.
To that end, the ideal NE-IPA is predominantly “juicy,” evoking impressions of freshly juiced fruit, and typically some more “green” hop impressions as well. The style is meant to be low in terms of perceived bitterness and higher than previous IPA styles in terms of perceived sweetness and residual sugar, while still maintaining some kind of balance for the sake of drinkability, with a smooth, even slightly creamy mouthfeel. To quote the “Overall Impression” on the style from the Beer Judge Certification Program:
An American IPA with intense fruit flavors and aromas, a soft body, and smooth mouthfeel, and often opaque with substantial haze. Less perceived bitterness than traditional IPAs but always massively hop forward. This emphasis on late hopping, especially dry hopping, with hops with tropical fruit qualities lends the specific ‘juicy’ character for which this style is known.
And indeed, there are a lot of great, hazy IPAs out there that fit perfectly into these sort of criteria. Just look at the last time we blind tasted IPA, or blind tasted pale ale, or blind tasted DIPA. In each case, you’re going to see gorgeously made NE-IPAs from breweries that make exemplary versions of the style, from Tree House or Triple Crossing to Brew Gentlemen, Great Notion, Weldwerks, Fremont, Prison City, Creature Comforts, Grimm Artisanal Ales, Fieldwork, Toppling Goliath or any of the other countless breweries that have impressed us with their hazy efforts. When made well, these beers are truly delicious.
So why are so many of them now being made badly?
We’ve tasted no shortage of great IPA, both clear and hazy.
Many of the issues present in badly made NE-IPAs seem to be spurred on by the simple, driving economic need for breweries to stay current and generate hype. Especially happening in a time when growth of the industry is slowing down and new brewery openings continue unabated, it wasn’t enough that breweries known for their clear IPA programs had to adapt and felt compelled to start offering hazy IPAs as well—they also had to constantly keep raising the bar in terms of seeking the next, most decadently “juicy” thing.
And that’s a problem, because the simple truth is that there does exist a point of diminishing returns, when it comes to simply adding more and more hops to a brew kettle, fermenter or brite tank. These aren’t one-to-one correlations, as much as we’d like for them to be. “Twice the Citra” doesn’t necessarily mean “twice as juicy,” in terms of the consumer’s perception of the eventual flavor of that beer. In fact, it might even mean the opposite.
All too often, NE-IPAs now lusting for that “juicy” profile are simply taking their hop rates too far, and as a result they’re losing the very thing they’re seeking. These beers are being hopped at such rates that the delicate impressions of fresh fruit are lost, and all that remains is the overwhelming flavor of plant matter. And mind you, this is a style where a touch of “grass clippings” as a flavor note can be considered a good thing. But when a hazy IPA tastes like a mouthful of wet leaves, then we’ve clearly overshot what was intended, and it’s time to stop pretending that this is a desirable result.
It’s not just an issue of flavor or aromatics, though—arguably, the bigger problem in NE-IPA these days are beers that are so completely choked with sediment and hops/yeast in suspension that it creates a mouthfeel that becomes so acidic, it causes literal discomfort to the drinker. This is exactly what my fiance was perceiving in the story at the beginning of this piece—the sensation that beer geeks have come to refer to as “hop burn.” It’s the sensation one gets while drinking poorly made NE-IPAs that your very throat has become coated in a corrosive, vegetal substance that leaves a lingering astringency on the palate. It’s become an all-too-common staple of even some of the country’s most sought-after hazy IPAs, as the drinkers of these beers seem increasingly unable to distinguish “juicy” from something that evokes the mouthfeel of bile or stomach acid.
The mere fact that such a sensation has become normalized within the beer sphere speaks to the fact that we have lost our way, when it comes to NE-IPA—never should this have been allowed to happen. In their desperate quest to stay one jump ahead and seek out the most decadent and over-the-top offerings (subtlety having become a rarity in the beer world), the breweries seeking advancement in hazy IPA have managed to normalize badly made beer.
The more we normalize poorly made beer, hazy or not, the harder it is to go back.
If this sounds like a confusing landscape for an average drinker to exist in, it’s because it is. It creates a particularly vexing scenario where drinkers are told in most scenarios and by most breweries that they need to consume their IPAs as fresh as possible for maximum “juicy” flavors, but are simultaneously told by other breweries that they shouldn’t consume a hazy IPA when it’s “too fresh,” because its hop burn is too intense and hasn’t settled out yet. Which piece of advice should a drinker be listening to, in any given scenario? How are they supposed to know if any given NE-IPA is one that needs to be consumed “immediately,” or one that the brewer thinks needs at least a few weeks to “mellow out”? Would a beer that is pleasant to drink in EITHER scenario not be a more ideal option here?
We are by no means calling for some kind of boycott on the concept of hazy NE-IPAs, here—merely an acknowledgement of how a sizeable segment of this style has managed to be led astray by market forces and an extremely competitive game of one-upmanship, until it barely resembles the style’s original goal. I can tell you that the last few years of tasting IPAs with these problems has certainly hurt my overall appreciation for the style, to the point that I now rarely order new NE-IPAs at beer bars unless they’re from breweries that I trust understand the basic underpinnings of the style. I’ve had too many glasses of beer that claim to be “juicy,” but have the appearance and mouthfeel of acidic pond water, to trust every new NE-IPA on the market.
What are our potential solutions? Well, a new appreciation for subtlety among the consumer would probably go a long way in helping out here, as would a commitment on the part of breweries to not putting out beers you feel aren’t ready to drink on the day you release them. If I never hear “you drank that IPA too early” from a brewer again, it will be too soon.
But in a more general way, perhaps we can agree that not every single NE-IPA needs to be the end-all, be-all of the vague concept of “juiciness”? That not every NE-IPA needs to surpass all others in parts of perceived juice-per-million? That perhaps by minimizing the all-encompassing vegetal notes of our IPAs, the “juice” could shine through that much clearer and cleaner?
It’s just a thought, guys. Maybe “corrosive” isn’t the descriptor we really want representing the country’s most popular craft beer style.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.