In 2009, craft beer was rocked by controversy. A new kind of beer was making the scene. It was dark like a stout, but heavily hopped like an IPA. What exactly was this strange chimera? What should it be called? Was it even a style?
Factions formed. “It’s a Cascadian dark ale!” proclaimed one side, citing its creation at a small brewery in Washington’s Cascade River Valley. “Not so fast!” said the other. They believed in an East Coast origin and insisted it be dubbed “black IPA.” Some declared it to be a distinct style and demanded the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) take immediate action to include it in the guidelines. Others said it was just a passing fad.
The battle threatened to rend the beer world asunder. It was nerd against nerd in a fearsome fight for the very soul of craft beer.
The Brewers Association stepped in to de-escalate the situation. It included the style in its own contest guidelines, opting for a neutral title—American black ale. The final shot was fired in 2015 when the BJCP included it as a sub-style of American IPA. They called it black IPA—a small but notable victory for those in that camp.
Right now there is a new battle brewing. The beer at its core goes by many names—Vermont IPA, New England IPA, Northeast IPA, and milkshake IPA. Like black IPA before it, some call it a style, others a fad.
This time the geographic origin is not in question. Its roots have been traced to a single beer—Heady Topper, brewed by Vermont’s The Alchemist. Heady Topper is a beer with cult status. It sells for as much as $45 a can on eBay. The line of cars filled with would-be buyers outside The Alchemist’s original brewery forced the closure of its retail space out of consideration for the neighbors.
Heady Topper inspired a movement. New England IPA is now brewed from coast to coast and as far away as Oslo, Norway.
So what exactly is this upstart brew? How does it differ from other IPAs?
“First and foremost, it’s just extremely squishy fruit,” says Bent Brewstillery head brewer and BJCP guideline author Kristen England. “No matter what it tastes like, the aroma is […] squishy fruit like the mangoes and the lychee, like you get from a lot of the New World hops.” When drinking a New England IPA you can almost feel the juice running down your chin.
“There’s very little bitterness to it.” England continues. “You’re talking like 50 IBUs.” That puts New England IPA at the lower end of the bitterness range for American IPA according to the BJCP. The reduced bitterness lets all of that squishy fruit shine through.
Perhaps most distinctively, and also the source of much of its controversy, it’s hazy. While most IPA is filtered or fined to clarity, New England IPA has a gauzy sheen that in real-world examples may range from slight to opaque. The most extreme versions have been mistaken for orange juice in the glass. Much of the character of New England IPA comes from the way hops are used during the brewing process. As a general rule, the longer hops remain in the boil kettle, the more bitterness they impart. A typical American IPA is kettle-hopped at a rate of two-to-four pounds of hops per barrel of beer. Enhanced flavor and aroma come from smaller additions post-fermentation—known as dry hopping.
According to Kristen England, the low-level bitterness and juicy-fruit flavor and aroma of New England IPA come from massive dry hopping. Brewers of these beers are using only one to two pounds of hops in the kettle. But many are using as many as six pounds per barrel of dry hop. They are creating new re-circulating devices to wring every last drop of impact from those hops. Some are even using lupulin powder, a new hop product that is basically just the lupulin gland of the hop flower, the part that contains the aromatic oils that give beer that fruity flavor and aroma.
Dry hopping also accounts for much of the turbidity of New England IPA. Hop polyphenols such as tannin, bind with proteins from malt and stay suspended in the finished beer creating what’s called “permanent haze.” In a typical IPA, these compounds are filtered out or allowed to drop out naturally before packaging. In New England IPA, the filtering and fining steps are skipped.
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