Hazed and Confused: Defined style or passing fad–examining the fate of NEIPA

NEIPA // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

This haze is the primary source of the controversy swirling around New England IPA. For some it’s simply a matter of style appropriateness. IPA should be clear, they say. These beers are not clear, therefore they are wrong.

For others, the murkiness is a sign of poor brewing practice. It suggests that the beer was rushed to package before it had fully conditioned. This is particularly true for the sludgiest examples. Full of yeast and floating bits of hop, they resemble the trub that collects on the bottom of a fermenter. There is also concern that the cloudy appearance allows less competent brewers to mask brewing mistakes with a simple, “It’s supposed to look like that.”

The final controversy comes from the way the haze is created. Brewers are using a variety of methods to arrive at that characteristic sheen, some of which might be viewed as cheating.

One method is to use a small amount of flaked oats or wheat in the beer. These unmalted grains have a high protein content. Remember, it’s proteins that bind with hop polyphenols to produce haze.

Another method is to use a low flocculating yeast. After fermentation, yeast cells form clumps that become heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the fermenter—a process called flocculation. But different yeast strains flocculate at different rates, meaning some will stay suspended in the beer, causing haze. Some say that this leads to the earlier onset of off-flavors as yeast cells die.

Most controversially, a few brewers have admitted to adding flour to their beer to produce starch haze. This is seen by many as cheating, as flour serves no purpose other than to create haze that could be developed using more conventional brewing techniques.

One problem with adding flour is that, unlike the permanent haze from hops, starch haze as well as that from yeast will eventually drop out. In a relatively short time on the shelf, the beer will become clear, defying consumer expectations. For now, the beer sells quickly enough that this isn’t necessarily a problem. But the more New England IPA is produced, the longer it will sit.

Is New England IPA a distinct style? Or is it just another variation on American IPA, like the so-called West Coast IPA? In an interview with Vermont weekly newspaper Seven Days, Heady Topper creator John Kimmich replied to the birth-of-a-style question by saying, “I think it’s bullshit. There are delicious IPAs all across this country. […] I don’t think we’re doing anything different here in Vermont. We get a lot of notoriety with Hill Farmstead [Brewery] and Lawson’s [Finest Liquids], but I don’t think we’d ever be so pretentious as to lay claim to a style. Leave that for the West Coasters.” Clearly, he’s not buying it.

Summer unfiltered. HOPSTAR Session IPA is out now on draft. Cans in 2 weeks.

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But what of the keepers of style orthodoxy—the Brewers Association and the BJCP? The Brewers Association guidelines govern professional competitions such as the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup. As of the 2017 release, there is no category for New England IPA, but in the American IPA category, it is noted that chill haze is acceptable at low temperatures and hop haze is allowable at any temperature, effectively carving out a space for brewers to enter their New England IPAs into Brewers Association competitions. The BJCP guidelines are most often used as the benchmark for homebrewing competitions. But they carry much broader authority in the industry, including adoption by the Cicerone Certification Program. Kristen England has written a yet-to-be-released provisional description of New England IPA that will be included, along with black, brown, red, and white IPA, under the BJCP’s Specialty IPA category.

But does that mean it’s an actual distinct style? According to England, “It’s not an actual style. It’s a write up so that if you get something in a competition you can refer to it. It is absolutely an off-shoot of the American IPA. There are always going to be these off-shoots. Same thing with the black IPA. It’s an off-shoot.”

If it isn’t a style, is New England IPA just a fad? A recent article in All About Beer Magazine described declining interest in the once-hot black IPA. Untapped check-ins for the style have declined every year since 2014. Sales tracking data show decreased sales of black IPA. Some prominent examples—such as Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous and Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack—have been discontinued. Does a similar fate await New England IPA? Only time will tell.

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About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.