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Style Disobedience: The Case for “New England” IPA

As someone who has previously sold beer but now brews beer for a living, I’ve always found it interesting how folks formulate their philosophy towards beer.  Whether I’ve been behind the bar serving patrons or conversing with someone over one of my own creations, there inevitably lies an intriguing story or foundational experience behind that individual’s opinion.  

Popularity should not necessarily equate with quality, but we do have to remind ourselves that our frame of reference for making beer-related qualitative judgments is draped in a litany of subjective determinations, pre-conceived notions, and otherwise non-scientific presumptions.

With all that in mind, I am here to make the case for “New England” style IPA (“NEIPA”).

From a stylistic standpoint, NEIPA is itself a bit of a conundrum. Opaque, cloudy, and occasionally turbid in appearance, NEIPA is most often characterized by restrained bitterness, intense aromatics, and “juicy” hop character. To that end, it is always unfiltered and unpasteurized. As as style, NEIPA is often defined in opposition to the San Diego or West Coast IPA, as epitomized by breweries such as Stone and Ballast Point.  However, the definition of NEIPA is largely consumer-driven, and many of the more prominent producers of NEIPA would argue against its existence altogether, such as John Kimmich of The Alchemist, the creator of Heady Topper (See Kimmich’s commentary here and especially here). Other notable producers of NEIPA include Trillium Brewing Company and Tree House Brewing Company, both from Massachusetts.

Despite there being no self-proclaimed progenitor of the style, it is my firm belief that the prominence of NEIPA is not without merit. As conscientious consumers and producers of one of the world’s oldest fermented beverages, we owe it to ourselves to resist the dogmatic temptation of placing limitations on what certain beers and beer styles can and cannot be.

I have immense respect for and enjoy drinking styles deemed classic (e.g., German Helles), but these styles have had the luxury of time to establish relevance in a broader context. Put differently, a given style’s relevance almost requires a retrospective purview in order to be deemed legitimate today. Additionally, the intellectual appeal of “historic” looms large, its presence filling a cognitive void within our modernized approach to beer. However, beer style is ultimately an artifact, a product of a culturally-specific moment or collection of moments in time. Beer style is not so much in flux as it is in a constant state of evolution; to deny that fact would be disingenuous to history. Of course, NEIPA is a product of this inevitability, but other styles such as Gose and Berliner Weisse have seen similarly vibrant resurrections and/or reinventions.

Perhaps the biggest gripe levied against NEIPA is its appearance, in that it doesn’t look like an IPA. Occasionally, brewers and consumers alike have either insinuated or outright proclaimed that it’s a likely result of poor brewing practice.

With few exceptions, this is a downright lazy response.

Without knowing enough about an individual brewery’s practices, those who espouse such opinions are more likely to have fallen victim to the seductive power of their own dogmatism. With that being said, let’s clear up a few things regarding haze. Haze can come from a myriad of sources, and in the case of NEIPA, it’s a synergistic combination of yeast in suspension and hop-derived polyphenols in conjunction with particular process techniques. The following “list” is by no means exhaustive, nor should it be interpreted as such.  It’s just a few musings from a rambling brewer. Sorry!

A Non-Definitive List of Reasons NEIPAs May Be Hazy

Yeast in Suspension

Upon completion of primary fermentation, typical ale yeasts “flocculate,” or sediment out, to the bottom of the vessel. This is true for yeasts used to ferment NEIPAs (which are typically of English origin), just like any other ale yeast. Misconceptions abound concerning “low” flocculating yeast and its purported use in NEIPA, especially with respect to a causal relationship between its usage and turbidity. If given an appropriate amount of time, all brewing yeasts, generally speaking, will flocculate out (unless you’re purposefully using a product such as Tanal A). When a comparatively higher hopping rate is used, it will further ensure the possibility of turbidity. Devoid of context, properly cared for brewing yeast does not and will not itself create turbidity.

Nonetheless, yeast selection in terms of its flavor contribution, specifically with reference to an increase in ester production (esters being "fruity" flavor compounds produced during fermentation), is critical to the NEIPA style. Many producers of NEIPA choose to begin their dry hop before fermentation is complete (a traditionally atypical choice), which facilitates the biotransformation (think flavor “unlocking”) of hop glycosides (carbohydrate + compound such as linalool [floral, spicy aroma] or geraniol [rose-like aroma]) into aromatic/flavor compounds otherwise hidden from our palate. Certain yeasts perform this function better than others. Unfortunately, the extent to which yeasts do this best remains largely unknown, highlighting the need for further research. Ultimately, most folks still seem to place their focus on hop selection when considering IPAs, but with respect to NEIPA, yeast selection is equally critical. Simply put, it makes or breaks the style.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a class of organic compounds which have two or more hydroxyl (-OH) groups attached to a phenyl ring, and are naturally occurring in both malts and hops. To help put that into context, tannins are a particular form of polyphenol. In terms of the production of NEIPA, comparatively higher polyphenol levels from high hopping rates help promote the formation of colloidal haze which “is generally the result of protein molecules within the beer joining with polyphenols to form molecules large enough to cause turbidity” (257). In other words, you’re sometimes seeing haze in NEIPAs, because in part, beer proteins and polyphenols are coming together to become big enough to be seen with the naked eye.

“Closed” Dry Hopping/Dry Hopping Under Pressure/Bubbling CO2

This is where things get nebulous, anecdotal, a bit hypothetical and…downright sexy.

Post-fermentation process handling constitutes a large component of how NEIPA ultimately manifests. With that being said, the following hypotheses are partial conjecture with respect to particular well-known producers of NEIPAs, but I have seen, heard from, or worked at breweries that employ at least some of the following methodologies in order to enhance the character of their dry-hopped beers.

“Closed” dry hopping usually refers to a pressurized vessel which contains hop slurry (mixture of beer and hop pellets). Hop slurry is created by adding hop pellets to the pressurized vessel, then pulling beer from the fermenter into it, thus creating the slurry. At that point the hop slurry is forced via CO2 pressure back into the fermenter without opening it. If done correctly, this allows all of the hop matter to become saturated, allowing a more even distribution of hop oil throughout the beer.

Dry hopping under pressure can happen several ways, but it’s done most commonly through adding CO2 directly to the vessel or by capping the fermenter during the tail end of active fermentation in order to create natural carbonation. Depending on the specific method for either of these options, one could add the dry hop charge prior to capping or directly adding CO2 to the fermenter so the increase in pressure would agitate hop matter, increase oil extraction, and more readily retain flavor.

Bubbling CO2 through a racking arm or standpipe during the dry hop will produce a similar result compared to some of the above methods, but it does so by rousing hop matter which has settled into the cone of the fermenter, effectively re-suspending it throughout the beer.

The Shape of IPA to Come?

Others (like the fine gentleman Bryan Roth in his article here) have done far better at articulating the supposed longevity of NEIPA in our rapidly changing craft beer landscape, but suffice it to say that NEIPA is not merely an ephemeral trend but a paradigm shift with substantial staying power. It’s also fair to say that turbidity or haziness is absolutely not an indication of quality, per se.

In some ways, I suppose antiquity has never cared for the new kid on the block, but if you’ve made it this far it seems that you are at least considering the possibility of looking at a “new” style with deference to what came before it and to what will inevitably follow.

Villa, Keith. “Colloidal Haze.” The Oxford Companion to Beer. Ed. Garrett Oliver. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2012. 257. Print.

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