It’s an interesting process to watch consumer tastes change in real time in the world of craft beer. With 3,000-plus breweries now in operation in the U.S.A., and a constant stream of new seasonal releases and innovation, the definitions of popular styles such as IPA have come a long way in a comparably short time.
Although perhaps “definitions” isn’t the right word. What’s really changed, particularly in IPA, is which kinds of flavor profiles are now sought-after. Compare historical ratings on beer sites such as BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer, and you can see the change unfold over the last five or so years. We still love IPA with just as much fervor, but beer geeks are now seeking a different kind of IPA. The gushed-about India pale ales of 2015 bear little resemblance to the ones that were hailed as top of the class in 2010.
Those classical, now apparently antiquated IPAs, tended to fit into a specific sort of mold: Bitter, dry, citrus and piney, a bit of balancing crystal malt. Perhaps they had a different hop twist—floral or herbal?—but more or less, these were the IPAs you’d be hearing about. Take an IPA like say … Ballast Point Sculpin. Or Bell’s Two Hearted. Or Bear Republic Racer 5. Nobody is saying those beers are now lesser examples of the style, but they’re not reflective of what has become popular in the current wave.
The modern IPA has transformed into a much more sumptuous sort of experience. Pure bitterness has been dialed back a touch in favor of larger, later additions of hops that impart more aroma and flavor without added bitterness. New hop varietals such as Citra, Mosaic and southern hemisphere styles like Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin have become the go-to, buzzed-about flavor profiles. They largely share one thing in common: Intense, juicy tropical fruit flavors—or in the case of the Nelson, a certain citrusy, white wineyness. The malt bills have changed a bit as well, typically cutting back a bit on the crystal/caramel malt in favor of letting those enhanced aromatics shine. The modern IPA is light of color and body but exploding with easy to drink fruit flavors. Think of say, Three Floyds Zombie Dust, which is an IPA masquerading as an APA, as a perfect example.
And so, when I started to read a press release from Starr Hill explaining that they had redesigned the recipe of their Northern Lights IPA, I already knew what it would say in advance. Breweries are, after all, businesses first and foremost. I can’t say if the owners at Starr Hill actually wanted to change the profile of their IPA, but they clearly made a decision that this was the way the market and their consumer base was trending. The IPA they first put out in 2007 was no longer representative of their demographic.
That, and the brewery has already seen the positive effects of modernization. Their new King of Hop DIPA is excellent (although oddly low-ABV) stuff, and we fittingly gave it a glowing review back in April. With it, they’d proved they could make a very good IPA. So why not reapply those principals to their flagship?
To highlight that difference, the brewery sent us samples of BOTH the old and new versions of Northern Lights. I tasted them side by side in order to compare the before and after.
Northern Lights IPA (original recipe, on the left)
The original take on Northern Lights is much as I described earlier—Light caramel maltiness met by floral and piney hops, although there’s also an interesting, almost minty note as well. It’s dry, with moderate bitterness, nothing too over-the-top. It’s not a particularly assertive IPA compared to most on the market, but is pleasant enough stuff—but a definite throwback in its profile.
Northern Lights IPA (new recipe, on the right)
The new recipe also receives a new label, which we must note looks WAY better than the messy original—that’s a definite upgrade. The flavors change in the way I expected—more citrus and tropical, with a pronounced grapefruit flavor, but still a bit of the original floral notes as well. Malt presence seems reduced a bit, or there’s just a bit less of the caramel, but it’s still very light of body—the ABV has also been reduced slightly from 6.5% to 6.2%. The new version displays juicier fruit flavors, but I need to note that it’s actually still on the subtle side for this style. It conforms more to the newer profile of IPA that I described, but not necessarily to the volume of flavor one tends to find elsewhere.
Ultimately, I enjoy that new flavor profile—as a consumer, I readily admit that I’m one of those people who have pushed IPA in its current direction. The recipe change takes this beer from an IPA that was somewhat unremarkable to one that is pleasant, but could probably still use just a bit more oomph. Perhaps that’s just me, with a desire to see everything cranked up to 11. But if we’re asking if the new version of Northern Lights is better than the previous, then the answer, according to my own taste buds, is certainly yes. In fact, the two beers were compared by multiple people, all of whom agreed that the new was superior to the old.
So there you have it. The cycle of evolution continues.
Brewery: Starr Hill Brewery
City: Crozet, VA
Style: American IPA
Availability: Year-round, 12 oz bottles and cans