The NEIPA Strikes Back
How a beer subgenre flipped an entire style on its head
Saturday 04 July 2020
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Picture a glass of hazy, juicy New England IPA, opaque in its yellowness. A compact mousse of off-white foam effuses heady aromas of tropical fruit, as though from far away climates, each sip gliding across your tongue with pillow-soft lusciousness. Such is its texture and flavour each taste is almost like biting into a slice of overripe mango.
How does this image make you feel? Does it have you immediately reaching into your fridge for yet another can of the latest hyped-up juice bomb, or heading straight to the sink to pour its wretched contents down the plughole? Few beer styles have been as polarising in recent history as the NEIPA. A genre that causes traditional beer enthusiasts to declare it an insult to history, while others willfully wait in line for hours to get their clammy hands on the next lauded release. Meanwhile, a new group of beer drinkers emerges, having found a style with lower bitterness, and more direct flavours; suddenly, craft beer is accessible to them.
A few arguments could be made as to the true origins of this particular style—sometimes also referred to as the Vermont IPA. But it’s widely believed that the groundwork for the format was laid when breweries from the northeastern US state, such as The Alchemist, began packaging intensely aromatic beers such as the iconic Heady Topper as far back as 2003.
When Heady Topper became more widely distributed in cans around 2011, budding homebrewers with hopes of turning pro allegedly went as far as cultivating the small amount of yeast that remained in the can, to try and replicate the flavours it produced when combined with judicious amounts of flavourful American hops. The result of using this so-called “lazy” yeast—because the strongest, healthiest yeast would have dropped out of the beer in its conditioning tank before being canned—is that it bound with hop proteins during fermentation. This remained in suspension in the beer, giving the style its signature hazy appearance.
Around 2012-2013 an explosion of breweries emerged in the American northeast, which began experimenting with other techniques to make beer hazier and juicier. Breweries such as Trillium, Treehouse, Other Half and Bissell Brothers became pioneers for the style—and given that many of them were based in New England states such as Vermont and Massachusetts, so the style acquired its now almost universal moniker. Since then rules have continued to be broken, with double dry hopped (DDH—meaning an alternate version of an existing recipe that contains twice the volume of dry hops), lactose, sour and fruit infused variants emerging, only to further the ire of the traditionalists. These styles are now made by breweries all over the world.
“I personally think [New England IPA] gave newer drinkers a beer to quickly identify with, and for more seasoned beer drinkers, a new experience,” Theo Freyne, founder of Cheltenham’s DEYA Brewing Company tells me. And he would know, his brewery creates some of the most sought after beers within this category in the United Kingdom. DEYA’s flagship pale ale Steady Rolling Man has, for many, come to set the standard of hazy, juicy pale ales in the country. “I think they’ve changed the way people perceive modern beer. Now when you buy an IPA, it is very likely to be a hazy IPA style,” he says.
Brewers in the UK selling hazy beer were being accused of selling a faulty product
Perhaps ironically, at the same time as the new wave of American producers were making waves with their boundary stretching hazy IPAs, brewers in the UK selling hazy beer were being accused of selling a faulty product. South London-based breweries like the Kernel, Brew by Numbers and Partizan had their beers labelled with the slur “London murky”, despite roughly being on the same track as their New England counterparts—if perhaps producing a product with a noticeably more pronounced bitterness at the time. Ultimately it would be the US iterations of this style that would inspire the versions created by breweries like Cloudwater, Verdant and DEYA within the UK. This is probably why it’s called NEIPA, and not Bermondsey IPA.
“I don’t like the term ‘New England’ but I get that there needs to be some definition between hazy and non hazy from a consumer expectation point of view,” Theo says. “We have always considered our beers DEYA beers. I think the terms are useful but don’t explain what we are doing—I don’t consider our beers New England or West Coast.”
With the rise to prominence of the IPA, and the subsequent emergence of multiple subcategories, the meaning of the term has become as muddied as the most haziest versions of the style. Times were simpler when “IPA” meant India Pale Ale, and referred to a strong beer with chewy, sweet malts and a pronounced, lingering hop bitterness. It earned its “West Coast” tag when California-based breweries such as Stone, Green Flash and Ballast Point made them their own, taking inspiration from the irreplaceable Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and dialling it up to 11.
With the NEIPA and its variants using the same label, the IPA has become lost in a definitionless sea. Especially now it shares its world with session IPA, black IPA, fruited sour IPA and many more. Even Theo at DEYA admits that he has to label the non-hazy versions as “West Coast.” So why have brewers sacrificed such an iconic style’s nomenclature in this way? Well when you’re aware that you’re catering to a highly specialised market like London’s Pressure Drop Brewery, that’s less of a concern than ensuring you’re brewing a consistently high-quality product.
“I feel like our customer is fairly hardcore,” Sienna O’Rourke, marketing manager at North London’s Pressure Drop Brewery tells me, another of the foremost producers of the NEIPA style in the UK. “When we decide how to talk about styles we come from the position that the person we’re talking to has an understanding of craft beer, and we purposefully avoid over-explaining or patronising because we don’t see ourselves as that entry level product.”
It’s when this same product hits the mainstream market—such as supermarkets—that Sienna does see it becoming more of an issue. The majority of beer buyers outside the craft sphere have been programmed to assume that beers are clear, and taste like, well… beer: malt and hops, not mango and lychee, and certainly not banana milkshake. If this consumer picks up a can of IPA and it pours hazy, it might shock them—but I’d wager the majority would also be surprised at how nice this style of beer tastes. But is it still an IPA in classical beer terms? Sophie de Ronde, head brewer at Suffolk’s Burnt Mill Brewery, brews both popular West Coast and New England IPA style beers, and can see how the proliferation of the IPA term could be sowing confusion among different types of beer drinker.
“For the modern IPA drinker, I think its strength and hopping that seems to denote the IPA term. It’s a simple descriptor for explaining the basis of the beers you are looking for. But if you ask a cask ale drinker, their version of an IPA is very different,” she says. “For the general market I think it is seen as very confusing and may well be putting a lot of people off experimenting by trying new and different beers.”
How confusing must it be then, for the IPA to continue splitting into further categories like milkshake or sour IPAs? When a definition means one thing, it gives that item power. Just look at Champagne in France, or Parmesan in Italy. By giving up IPA, sure, the British brewers of old helped plant the seeds that would grow into a global brewing revolution, but in doing so they gave that power up. To paraphrase a tweet from Brooklyn Brewmaster Garrett Oliver: “The idea of beer style is not ‘true’; it’s an idea—driving traveling thoughts, an interest in our tradition and history, and creates a framework for understanding.”
What, then, is IPA if nobody knows what it means? In the US state of Colorado, WeldWerks Brewing Company has become one of the most exciting producers of IPAs that seriously skirt the outer reaches of its definition. The brewery has become synonymous with its flagship IPA, Juicy Bits, which honestly feels a little tame compared to some of its more outlandish offerings. Take Piña Colada Fruity Bits IPA, for example, or Double Peach Milkshake IPA. The brewery is not without a sense of humour either; it once brewed a DIPA called ‘Evil Haze Factory’ with a sly nod towards detractors of the NEIPA style.
“When hops are the primary characteristic of a beer’s flavour and aroma, especially when you’re using hops at a rate that meets or exceeds the hop rate typical for IPA, then it makes sense to use the term IPA,” Weldwerks co-founder and head brewer Neil Fisher tells me. “I don’t think we’re seeing any actual customer confusion surrounding the use of the term IPA in the more experimental versions. Has anyone ever accidentally purchased a Fruited Sour Milkshake IPA they had never heard of on the shelf because it was simply labeled ‘India Pale Ale?’”
In the case of Weldwerks, the ingredients are clearly indicated on the can, so accidentally picking up a can of a milkshake IPA when you were expecting something dry and bitter would certainly be your own mistake. The problem comes when beers labelled as IPA reach the wider market and are sold on that premise alone. I can understand why someone might be upset if they’d been drinking West Coast style IPAs for years, order something they think they’re going to like and instead are served something very different to what they were expecting.
Terms like “West Coast” and “New England” have become incredibly useful
It’s why I feel terms like “West Coast” and “New England” have become incredibly useful. Their meaning has grown beyond the inner circles of beer geekdom and are being accepted within the public domain. Instead of seeing them as a problem, I see them as an opportunity for brewers to easily and succinctly describe how their beer will look and taste.
And, ultimately, isn’t this exciting? It might be time to accept that the term “IPA” means something that isn’t simply “India Pale Ale”. While brewers have lost that particular nomenclature, the proliferation of subgenres might be an opportunity to regain multiple identities to—and I must apologise in advance for using this phrase—take back control.
“Here in Colorado, the harsh criticism surrounding hazy IPA has mostly ceased among consumers,” Neil continues. “Most consumers seem to acknowledge that Hazy IPA is a style that’s here to stay and not just a ‘flash in the pan’ trend, as many predicted. There are plenty of brewers that still deride the style, but to be honest, that’s mostly just noise.” Neil finishes his point by saying that hazy IPA styles can act as a gateway for drinkers who may have never given “assertively bitter IPAs a second thought.”
Beer and its success in the modern era has been built on change. A shift in the mindset of what beer can be, and if IPA was the vanguard of modern craft beer then it shouldn’t be surprising how fluid this particular genre of beer has become. It remains utterly crucial that IPA and its history is preserved—and maybe brewers could have used better terms other than IPA to describe their far-out creations—but the name has stuck, and beer drinkers keep on buying them, so maybe it’s time to cherish what we have now, instead of constantly looking for ways to deride this ever shifting style.
“The only detrimental thing to small, independent breweries is bad beer,” Burnt Mill’s Sophie de Ronde says. “As times change and peoples’ palates develop they may migrate towards more bitter beers. Who knows, we could even see that race to the most bitter beer ever (again)!”
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