Wednesday, 07 June 2017 10:27

Why many breweries approach New England-style IPAs all wrong

Written by  Joe Boomgaard
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The Alchemist - Focal Banger The Alchemist - Focal Banger Joe Boomgaard

On paper, the population of Greensboro Bend, Vermont was about 232 people as of the last official U.S. Census in 2010. 

But on any given week from Wednesday through Saturday, the number of people in the hamlet soars to many multiples of that figure as people stream in from all over the country to visit one of the world’s top craft beer producers. 

In just over seven years of operation, Hill Farmstead Brewery has skyrocketed from New England obscurity — it’s miles from any town or gas station, down twisting dirt roads — into one of the most sought-after brewers of farmhouse style ales and, more importantly for this article, hazy IPAs.

Standing on the back deck at the brewery, which overlooks the pastoral northeastern Vermont’s hilly countryside, I finally came to understand the cult-like fervor with which craft beer fans seek out New England-style IPAs — and why so many Michigan breweries are hoping to cash in on the industry’s hottest trend. 

Up until that point, I considered myself an appreciator of the Michigan interpretations of the style. (Astute Revue readers will remember our April taste-off highlighted several Michigan-made New England-style IPAs.) However, I’d been left wondering whether local breweries considered the style to be a visual variant — i.e., by focusing on the hazy color of the beer — rather than their signature floral, juicy flavors. After all, the darling of the Michigan moment, M-43 by Old Nation Brewing Co., looks like a glass of Tropicana, not an IPA. 

But assessing a beer by its “out there” looks seems akin to judging a book by its proverbial cover.

Back at the deck at Hill Farmstead, I was drinking a pour of Susan, an example of their many takes on the IPA. The beer itself featured a lovely blend of juicy flavors, a slight malt backbone and light carbonation. It was a delicate, citrusy IPA that seemed to celebrate balance and had that signature “sunshine through fog” look, as someone aptly described it on the interwebs. 

Sure, it was hazy, but that characteristic seemed to be a byproduct of the brewing process — the aggressive dosage of dry hopping, the malts and other grain additions, the particular yeast strain, the makeup of the water and so on — not the end goal for the unfiltered beer. 

Cue the epiphany: New England-style IPAs from their original sources are not focused on the haze, but rather on citrusy or juicy flavors and an incredible balance that contributes to them being so crushable. Said another way: The depth of the haze does not equate to the quality of this style of beer. 

Any of the offerings from Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, Fiddlehead Brewing or Lawson’s Liquids — or the dozen or more tiny brewpubs whose IPAs I sampled — were solid beers at the end of the day not because they were hazy, but because they were well-made IPAs. 

In the end, that’s why people drive for hundreds or thousands of miles to purchase these limited-distribution beers, and why relatively tiny breweries across New England have garnered such widespread acclaim. They defined a style, perfected it, delivered delicious beers to their fervent customers and told them to drink it as soon as possible to ensure freshness. 

It’s no surprise that West Michigan brewers would want a piece of that action. And, since none of the New England breweries distribute to Michigan, they clearly identified a void in the market. But even the best of them still haven’t been able to replicate the complete package one gets with Heady Topper, Focal Banger, Sip of Sunshine, Second Fiddle and others. Old Nation seems to have figured out the marketing angle with M-43 and its other hazy IPAs, but time will tell whether it will have staying power locally once all the other “me too” offerings hit store shelves. 

That time on the shelf will be key to drinkers’ experiences, as well. Brewers like The Alchemist purposely eschew pasteurization and filtration with their IPAs to boost the flavor and body of the beer, but that leads to a distinctly shorter shelf life.

As Alchemist co-owner John Kimmich says in his note on cans of Heady Topper: “This beer is perishable, and at its best when it is young, fresh and hazy. Drink this beer immediately, we are always making more.”

Naturally, I must oblige, with each sip serving as a fading reminder of how even tiny Vermont created a movement within the $23.5 billion craft beer industry. Here’s hoping some innovation based on the Michigan terroir will get its turn in the spotlight, too.

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