Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

How the Hazy New England IPA Conquered America

Carefully, I poured the contents of the orange-and-yellow, 16-ounce can into tasting-sized glasses as the judging panel awaited in anticipation of the blind tasting. I inhaled the mango, pineapple, and orange blossom aromas wafting off the glass as I waited for the beer’s head to fully bloom, knowing I was about to blow these guys' minds. They’d all been judging beer for at least a decade, and impressing them was no easy feat. And yet, the moment I set the beers down, the room erupted. “What is this?” “You said this is an IPA? No fruit in here?” “Wow, it smells amazing. Just smell that!”

It was 2015, and I was a beer editor at DRAFT magazine, serving Tree House’s Julius to our panel for the first time (I'd already done sampling of my own -- after all, who could resist?). The judges weren't sure what to make of this new beer. On one hand, they seemed poised to award the beer a perfect score -- except, what to do about its hazy appearance, a distinct departure from the trademark clarity an IPA is supposed to have. They argued and argued, citing precedent and contradictory evidence like they were before the Supreme Court. Should they dock it points? Was the glowing, foggy consistency irrelevant? Should they judge it in the same way they’d always judged IPAs, or were we on the brink of a paradigm shift?

Fast forward to 2018, and the New England IPA is an established national phenomenon, drawing legions of fans with its aforementioned hazy aesthetic and a flavor profile that emphasizes a softer juiciness met with markedly less bitterness than other IPA styles. The Brewers Association recently codified style guidelines for “Juicy or Hazy IPA”; everyone from Boston Beer Co. to Sierra Nevada makes one; and you can find local versions in taprooms from Alaska to Florida (note their nationwide presence on our 33 hottest IPAs in America). So how did the New England IPA go from cultish East Coast darling to national sensation so quickly? It was a big bang caused by the collision of several converging factors during the early part of this decade. The explosion of the New England IPA simply couldn’t have happened at any other time in beer’s history.

A changing industry gives birth to a new style

“You’d be amazed at how many years we had to defend those beers against people that would just trash us,” John Kimmich, co-founder of The Alchemist brewery in Stowe, Vermont, tells me. The Alchemist’s Heady Topper is the beer that launched a thousand NE IPAs, but it wasn’t always so revered. Kimmich began brewing hazy IPAs with Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery in the mid-1990s, when beers were still expected to look brilliantly clear. Noonan passed away in 2009, but he was one of very few brewers at the time who didn’t care whether his IPAs had a fuzzier quality to them.

“We’d be making these IPAs and they’d have a haze to them,” Kimmich says. “And Greg would say, ‘So what? Does it taste amazing?’”

Kimmich expanded on Noonan’s groundwork when he opened The Alchemist brewpub in 2003, turning out less-than-clear IPAs that achieved intense hop flavor and a refreshing, give-me-another-one quality. His goal in brewing Heady, he says, was to create a beer that smelled and tasted like really great weed.

“I’ve always brewed beers to be the way I wanted them to taste. Haze is not the goal; it’s a byproduct,” he says.

So Kimmich steadily plugged along at The Alchemist, which didn’t even offer growler fills for its first nine years of existence. People had to drive to his taproom in Vermont to try Heady -- until August 2011. Once he started canning Heady and those silver, 16-ounce cans of magic began traveling and trading across the United States, attitudes seemed to change instantly.

“After we started packaging Heady Topper, it turned around overnight. All of a sudden I start reading things like ‘It’s not turbid enough;’ ‘It’s not nearly as hazy as such and such.’”

"You'd be amazed at how many years we had to defend those beers against people that would just trash us."

A regular at The Alchemist pub, Shaun Hill opened Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Bend, Vermont in 2010. The first two beers he brewed -- Edward pale ale and Abner double IPA -- were delicately hazy and soft, in a vein similar to Kimmich’s hoppy beers. Savvy drinkers in the Northeast began picking up what these two breweries were putting down. The duo shared not just a yeast strain -- in 2010, Hill says, only Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, and the Vermont Pub & Brewery were using the strain Noonan referred to as Conan -- but they had a common philosophy built on self-distribution.

Their model predated much of the current taproom-only craze, and showed new breweries that massive regional distribution didn’t have to be the goal: selling beer locally was the ticket. For years, the NE IPA was entirely a taproom style, owing to the fragile nature of the beer. If most of these sat on store shelves for a couple months, their bright hop flavors would degrade and the beer would become drastically less appealing. To this day, Hill Farmstead beers are available primarily through the brewery and at select accounts around Vermont. The Alchemist only self-distributes its beer within 25 miles of its location.

“It’s interesting to see how much the world of beer has been shaped by, in a way, what two people in Vermont were doing in 2010,” Shaun Hill tells me. “It’s really weird.”

Evan Lockhart/THrillist

An evolution in hops... and a revolution in yeast

The hops that are now synonymous with NE IPAs -- Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy--were just debuting around the time Hill Farmstead opened. (Galaxy and Citra hops were released in 2007; Mosaic in 2012.)

“At our grand opening in May 2010, a single-hop IPA with Citra was on tap, and that was the first time I’d ever brewed with Citra,” Hill says. “As more people tasted this flavor and the brightness of the hops, they realized they hadn’t tasted beer that had that certain je ne sais quoi.”

Before the NE IPA came along, the trend in hoppy beers was toward aggressively bitter, West Coast-style IPAs with flavors of pine, resin, and grapefruit pith. The IBUs arms race of the mid-2000s saw breweries boasting of developing 100-plus IBU beers and proudly calling them palate wreckers. A lot of consumers assumed they just didn’t like IPAs at all. But while most breweries chased bitterness, some smaller outfits on the East Coast decided to do something different with strains of hops and yeast that were just coming into their own.

Many of the hoppy beers Hill Farmstead released off the bat had a softly bitter, unfiltered, and highly aromatic quality. Quickly, customers started to realize that haze in beer -- more suspended solids -- could translate to a softer texture and more palatability. Combine that with the guava, melon, mango, and orange marmalade notes of the new hops being released by hop-breeding programs, and the stage was set for NE IPAs.

“You have that second wave of IPA breweries, including us, drinking Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead, but at the same time the hop market was also exploding and that was a big player in what made this new wave of IPA possible,” says Lauren Grimm of Brooklyn-based Grimm Artisanal Ales, which she co-founded in 2013. “There was a shift from hop growers and scientists working to produce hops for bitterness to producing hops for aromatics.”

Portland’s Great Notion was one of the first Pacific Northwest breweries to hang its hat on hazy IPAs when it opened in January 2016, and co-founder and brewer James Dugan credits much of the ability to produce those beers to the farmers who created varieties like Citra and Mosaic. He puts it bluntly:

“If you think about the tools in your toolkit as a brewer 10 years ago, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t make the beers we’re making without these hops.”

But hops are only a part of the equation, because the real magic of the NE IPA occurs in the interplay between those hops and yeast. The yeast strains used to brew NE IPAs are different from the Chico yeast brewers would have traditionally reached for: they create more esters, which are sometimes perceived as fruit aromas and flavors, and they tend to leave a fuller, sweeter impression.  

There wasn’t much chatter about the yeast used to brew IPAs until recently: Most American brewers probably used Chico yeast, and fermented the beer super clean. All the details were in the malt-hop balance. Brewers who were interested primarily in fermentation probably found IPAs pretty boring... until NE IPAs hit the scene.

"I'm pretty sure we couldn't make the beer we're making without these hops."

“The thing that changed our minds about it was tasting the very first generation of NE IPA or what we then called Vermont-style IPA. We had Heady Topper and also Hill Farmstead and we were like ‘Wow, this is actually fantastic,’” Grimm co-founder Joe Grimm says. “For people interested primarily in fermentation, it hit the spot for us in the way that the IPAs we were exposed to up to that point never had.”

Nationally distributed breweries -- the Boston Beer Companies and Sierra Nevadas of the world -- are exploring the phenomenon, too, with the benefits of giant labs and huge pilot-batch system where they can run experiments in yeast-hop interactions. When Boston Beer Company started developing an NE IPA in 2016, in fact, its innovation brewers started with the yeast before any other ingredient.

“We had to bring in a different yeast strain than we’d ever used before, because we couldn’t get the results we wanted with our normal ale yeast,” says Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch. “We did close to 100 test brews trying to figure out which combinations of yeast and hops and temperatures and timing of hop additions produced the juiciness. That took about a year of work. We believe there is a new set of biochemical reactions or activity between the yeast and the hops that we haven’t seen before.”

Sam Adams New England IPA debuted in February 2018, and Koch says Boston Beer Co. is “indebted” to the brewers who pioneered the style.

“It’s a real fundamental innovation and so we wanted to make this beer available nationally,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have heard these stories of the NE IPA -- t’s been the unicorn of craft beer - -but a lot of people out there have still never had one. Who better to bring it to them?”

Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

The perfect style for the hype machine

Beers attained “unicorn” status in the mid-2010s mostly through beer geek hype -- it’s not like The Alchemist or Tree House was taking out subway ads or Super Bowl spots. Chatter around NE IPAs grew in online rating and trading forums, which were hitting their stride around the same time the first and second waves of NE IPA breweries.

"When we opened the pub, that was really when BeerAdvocate was getting up and running and starting to grow the way they did,” Kimmich says. “The online presence and people having a forum to talk about beer and share beer and trade beer, that just exploded.”

Then came Instagram, and naturally beer photographers and traders staked their claim there, too. In such a visual medium, IPAs’ appearance in terms of both can art and haze factor were paramount.

“This style of beer is conducive to local breweries selling it from their own brewery, but social media has allowed the beer to go further,” Lauren Grimm says. “If you look at our Instagram account, you’ll see that the moment we put out a beer, there are people writing ‘ISO’ [in search of] or putting up requests for trading.”

Social media and forums enable feedback among beer drinkers, and like any subculture, status symbols begin to emerge. Certain breweries, especially on the East Coast, have developed a common visual language for their marketing -- 16-ounce cans with eye-catching, modern graphic design and merch to match -- that signifies status and beer-world hipness. (Bonus points if you can Instagram yourself in line for the cans.)

“Line culture and beer can culture and Instagram culture and conspicuous consumption really aided what we were all doing,” says Andrew Burman, a partner in Brooklyn brewery Other Half. “I love that people take such pride in grabbing a beer that they haven’t had before; I love that we have such great customers. The amount of messages I get on Instagram is amazing, from customers asking for information and details on beers. We love it and our business is built on it, but it’s also super fragile.”

Not all hazy beers are created equal

That brings us to now, 2018, when everyone and their uncle knows what a hazy IPA is and even my favorite local taproom in the decidedly not-New England location of Missoula, Montana brews one.

John Kimmich, Shaun Hill, and other pioneers of the style say it’s ironic that the word used now as a shorthand for the style -- hazy -- wasn’t what the style was originally about at all.

“For 10 years, we had to educate beer consumers that a hazy beer is not a bad thing. Of course now I feel like it’s totally been run in the opposite direction,” Kimmich says. “I get beers now that look like mud. The vast majority are so soft and chalky and there’s nothing bright and refreshing -- all the things that define IPA. What it’s evolved into is a whole other beast: hazy hop milk.”

Luckily for Kimmich, this new look for IPAs has been around enough that our vocabulary is beginning to expand. The Brewers Association in March released its guidelines for hazy pale ales, IPAs, and double IPAs, and consumers who’ve tasted many versions of the substyle are beginning to discuss them in more nuanced ways. Variation within the subgenre has emerged: Milkshake IPAs -- those brewed with lactose -- are becoming distinct from versions brewed with oats, or versions that achieve their appearance through extravagant levels of dry-hopping.

Regardless of what we call it or what the precise methods for its creation are, a more soft and less bitter version of IPA is here to stay.  And there’s likely even more evolution, experimentation, and juicy hop flavor ahead.

“There’s a gray area every day, a constant play of how much alcohol versus how much mouthfeel versus how hoppy, and there’s a sweet spot in between them all,” says Other Half’s Andrew Burman. “But hell, if I knew what that sweet spot was, I’d be talking to Budweiser, not you.”

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kate Bernot is the associate editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge. She loves German lagers and lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her @kbernot.