Big, fruity and gluggable, New England IPA has come from nowhere to be one of the hottest beer styles on the taps. Adrian Tierney-Jones looks at why it’s no longer cool to be clear.
The spectre of haze is haunting craft beer bars up and down the land. Whereas once customers clamoured for perfectly clear beers that gleamed like freshly polished chrome, there is now a fashion and a passion for beers that look as impenetrable as orange juice (minus the bits) and taste equally fruity. Welcome to the world of New England IPA.
For those who have yet to taste one, a New England IPA is resonant with either the ripe and bruised skin of tropical fruit or the bright, sunny delight of citrus on both the nose and palate, prickly with the sharp bite of carbonation, but also smooth in mouthfeel.
It is laced with a lushness of juiciness, lacking in bitterness, and when cold and correctly brewed, it is as drinkable as any beer style currently on the market.
However, as I briefly mentioned at the start, there’s a highly visible component that divides drinkers and can provide a headache for bartenders. The beer is not clear (or, ‘is murky’ to its detractors) and is also totally devoid of the bitterness that up until now has defined what we think of as an IPA (whether American or English).
Let’s step back a moment and consider the environment in which NE IPA has emerged. Even though on-trade beer sales fell by 2.4% in 2017 (overall beer sales were up by 0.7% in the same year), there still remains a vibrant excitement and enthusiasm among lovers of what can be loosely termed craft beer.
Ten second guide to NE-IPA-KUDOS
Seb Brink, North Brewing
Hot right now
It is within this febrile atmosphere that New England IPA has become such a hot property. This is a style that is so ‘now’ that if you want to impress the beer drinkers in your bar, you cannot afford not to stock it. It is up there with natural wine and coffee cocktails – the familiar and ordinary being made extraordinary.
‘I’ve never seen a beer style catch fire so quickly throughout my time in the industry,’ says Bruce Gray, owner of Small Bar in Bristol and Cardiff. ‘I’d expect that hyper-demand to settle down as we get through the excitement of something so fresh and new, but ultimately this style of beer can taste absolutely amazing and give you an unrivalled flavour profile and drinking experience.
‘When done right you can get about as close to smelling a bag of hops as possible without putting your nose in there. The flavours can be intense, juicy and vibrant, and the low levels of bitterness give them a fruit-juice characteristic that has your taste buds on overdrive. But that’s when done right, of course…’
Obviously, if people ask for a New England IPA on your beer list, it helps to know something of the backstory. For that we have to travel to Vermont and the Alchemist brewpub, which in 2004 began brewing a fruity, juicy double IPA called Heady Topper. Initially it was only produced infrequently and sold at the brewery’s taproom in the town of Waterbury. Luckily for the brewery and Heady Topper fans, it was also canned off-site some miles away. This luck was very much in evidence in 2011 when Hurricane Irene devastated Waterbury and the pub.
Fortunately, the canning operation was untouched, and two days later brewery co-founder John Kimmich had the packaging line moved and Heady Topper became a sensation, with people driving long distances to pick it up. A brewery was also built on-site. This eminently drinkable beer, with low bitterness and the kind of fruitiness normally found on the breakfast table alongside the toast and All-Bran, became the model for what would go on to be called New England IPA.
The style’s swift rise to cult fame shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for those with eyes on the UK’s craft
|How to serve
-When buying, find out the packaging date and make sure it is drunk within eight weeks.
-This is very much a beer to drink rather than sip, but like a lot of IPAs it will also
-Ensure a high toss to allow maximum extension through the ball. Or something.
beer industry. Currently, IPA is the scene’s most popular style, even though it has metamorphosed into several varieties. Alongside West Coast and East Coast American-style IPA, we have the original English style, Belgian IPA, white IPA, red IPA, black IPA, sour IPA, milkshake IPA and, of course, New England IPA. Given this promiscuity, it’s no surprise that the latest variety is such a hit. But that means that to sell it you have to know what it’s about.
According to James Hornblower, owner of The Beer Cellar in Exeter, there is a distinct confusion over what constitutes a New England IPA. ‘If you asked 10 consumers what they thought constituted a New England IPA, you’d probably get as many answers,’ he says. ‘For me, I see it as a strong pale ale with juicy fruit flavour, a touch sweet, with a distinctive murk from dry hopping and suspended yeast; maybe the murk is the most defining feature.’
Ah yes, the look of the beer. British brewing culture has loved clear beer ever since Victorian drinkers swapped their pewter tankards for glass, and liked the look of the newfangled IPAs and pale ales that were overtaking porter. Since then, generations of brewers and drinkers have been seduced by the clarity of the beer they produce and drink, passing on this preference to the people who serve them.
After all, one of the most popular beer styles of the past 30 years, the golden ale, probably wouldn’t have taken off as it did if it looked like it had been freshly drawn from a rain barrel. Jenn Merrick, formerly of London favourite Beavertown and founder of Earth Station brewery, says this is just the UK beer scene evolving.
‘Before, brightness was shorthand for good brewing and good cellaring, but that de-prioritisation of brightness is a part of the modernising of beer in the UK in the post-cask era,’ she concludes.
On the other hand, Seb Brink, head brewer at North Brewing in Leeds (part of the North Bar group), isn’t surprised that the beer has been such a success. ‘For me, I really don’t think it is a hard sell to the public. In many ways it’s a lot more approachable than other types of IPA as the focus is on low bitterness and fruity, tropical flavours. I gave a can to my mother-in-law recently and she loved it!’
Drink it quick
The love shown to New England IPA is all well and good, but if you are planning to sell one, whether on draft or in bottle or can, there is another issue besides haziness to be aware of. The style has a short shelf life: this is a beer that is designed to be drunk fresh, as Andrew Morgan from the Bermondsey branch of The Bottle Shop, (which stocks a lot of New England IPA’s through its wholesale arm), explains.
‘It’s a surprisingly good entry-level beer as the fruity nature is something many newcomers enjoy,’ he says. ‘When done well, this captures a really nice balance of taste, texture and booze (as they’re usually quite strong), but it has to be enjoyed as fresh as possible due to the levels of suspended protein, which will begin to change the character of the beer within a few days of packaging.’
As mentioned earlier, not everyone loves the style – take Bristol-based Moor Beer’s owner and head brewer Justin Hawke. ‘As with all things, it has been taken to the extreme to see who can make the yeastiest or hoppiest – sorry, “juiciest” – beer,’ he says. ‘In the end it is undrinkable because someone could just throw some hop pellets in yeast slurry and call it done.’
Everyone I spoke to had a view on whether or not this is a beer style that has staying power. ‘I think it’ll be around forever, but my money’s on it following black IPA and saison as a beer that hits a trend, is very popular for a while, and then goes back to being more “normal”,’ says Andrew Morgan.
Meanwhile, Jenn Merrick believes the style has peaked. ‘Everyone is on the bandwagon,’ she says. ‘Hopefully it will be followed by lots of great, diverse beers, and not trend after trend after trend.’
But in the US, the Brewers Association, which promotes small and independent operations, is more positive. In March, it announced its latest beer-style guidelines with a new category, titled Juicy or Hazy Ales, which is divided into Pale, IPA and Double IPA sub-categories.
Despite Hawke’s dismissal, and various other concerns that the New England style might go the way of black IPA, I don’t think we will be seeing the last of this for some time. Time, perhaps, for you to get some haze in your bar.