New England/Vermont-style IPA Is/Not a Thing
“New England/Vermont-style of IPA is not a style. American-Style IPA is a style and it’s recognized worldwide.”
– Tyler Brown, owner/founder of Barley Browns Brewing
As IPAs continue to lead the “craft” beer industry in sales and growth, the beer world is buzzing about a new wave of IPAs that are cloudier and juicier and sometimes use real fruit. America’s favorite craft beer style is branching out of the west coast examples that have made them famous. Brewers and beer geeks have long searched for twists on the standard IPA by adding rye, wheat, spices, or dark roasted malts. The most major influences of recent note is not from the hop heavy west coast, but the lands down under of New Zealand and Australia and the cold and green state of Vermont on the east coast.
Our obsession with fruity and citrusy hop flavors have not subsided, but now we have the extra tropical and juicy varieties from New Zealand and Australia, like Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin, and new American-bred ones like Azacca, Equinox, and El Dorado. In Vermont and greater New England, a new type of IPA has arisen known for juicy citrusy hop aroma and flavor, lower bitterness, and, most importantly, a hazy color and body. Not content to be left behind, west coast pioneers like Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits have taken to actually adding real fruit and citrus to the beers, as that brewery did with the influential Grapefruit Sculpin IPA and, more recently, Pineapple Sculpin.
Though there are trends toward fruit/citrus, tropical hops, cloudy and low bitterness, and even sour/tart IPAs, they are all aiming for the same thing: capturing even more juicy fruit flavors. The New England or Vermont-style IPAs have recently made a big splash in Colorado and now Oregon, with some hailing them as the future of American IPA. In exploring this trend I talked to some of Oregon’s masters of the IPA, as well as Vermont’s brewing legends said to have created the style. What I found was a style more dreamed up by the press and beer geeks than actual breweries.
If cloudy, fruity IPAs with moderate bitterness are a new style, then Amnesia Brewing was making the style 10 years ago at its brewpub on N. Mississippi in Portland (now Stormbreaker Brewing). Most brewers have made it their mission to clarify their beer if not filter it; it’s a point of pride for many that includes expenses like conditioning the beer longer or investing in spendy equipment like centrifuges. For Oregon brewers like Breakside, Fat Head’s, and Barley Browns, the clarity of an IPA is a high level of importance. “I find the haze visually unappealing at best, and quite amateurish in many instances,” said Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds. In Vermont, John Kimmich, the founder and brewer of The Alchemist who makes arguably the prototypical Vermont-style IPA Heady Topper, says, “I love a nice hazy hoppy beer, and do not have any problems drinking them. I find it humorous and frustrating that so many people get hung up on this.”
It’s All About the Yeast (or NOT)
The cause of the New England/Vermont IPA haze is even up for debate. On homebrew forums people are suggesting to go as far as adding adjuncts like corn and flour to keep the beer opaque. Perhaps the most famous Vermont IPA, Heady Topper from The Alchemist, even clears up over time. The Heady Topper yeast itself has become the stuff of lore, with some believing it the key to the Vermont-style of IPA. Its exact origins are secret, but John Kimmich explains how it became The Alchemist’s house strain. “As I understand it, Greg Noonan obtained the yeast on a trip to England back in the early 90s. When Jen and I opened The Alchemist Pub and Brewery in 2003, I was lucky enough to have Greg grant me permission to use the yeast. The only condition being that I would never share the original culture with anyone.” Still, John does not credit the yeast for his beers slight haziness nor is it intentional. “Our beers are hazy due to the English barley that I use, and the techniques of hopping that I have developed over the last couple of decades. Like any beer, it will eventually drop completely bright in the can.” Even Shaun Hill, brewmaster and owner of what some call the best brewery in the world–Hill Farmstead Brewing–and who calls John Kimmich his mentor, says, “I’ve used several yeasts over the years, but there was never any intention to make the beer cloudy.”
This has not stopped other breweries from attempting their own variations of the beers that The Alchemist and Hill Farmstead made famous by culturing up the yeast from cans of Heady Topper. The craze for Vermont IPAs and that famous Heady yeast have extended to Portland’s recently opened Great Notion Brewing’s, whose buzz-worthy IPAs have ignited other writers like Willamette Week’s Martin Cizmar to proclaim:
“I think they’re poised to become the official IPA of New Portland”
Great Notion uses the aforementioned yeast, and the brewery’s beers seem even cloudier than those from Vermont. Beer geeks, homebrewers, and writers have become obsessed with this one feature of the beers that seems to be an unintentional side-effect of the yeast and dry-hopping that has become accentuated by off-shoots inspired by the originals.
John Kimmich explains why those influenced by the Vermont beers are even more muddled and milky:
“I find it interesting that so many brewers and yeast companies are now using our yeast. I have tried several beers from different sources, and find that, for the most part, they miss the mark. I can attribute this to one thing–they are all getting their yeast from our cans of beer one way or another. Some have cropped the tiny amount of yeast on the bottom of the can, or they bought it from one of the tiny online yeast banks. The problem with this is that they are all using a culture taken from the weakest yeast cells in the fermentation process. Although we do not filter our beer, we do a pretty good job of keeping yeast out of the can. Therefore, the only yeast left in the can are the weaklings that were never able to fully drop out of suspension. That is their starting point, so they are at a huge disadvantage from the start. I often hear about the fact that these beers being brewed around the country are very turbid and almost milky in appearance; again, not surprising.”
Great Notion head brewer James Dugan says his brewery’s IPAs are actually relatively clear before they are dry-hopped with boatloads of citrusy hops. While the haziness of these beers is a factor in a more pillowy soft body, it seems like it’s been overplayed even to those who pioneered it. As Shaun Hill says, “I never paid much mind to the hazy/unfiltered nature of these beers – it was all about flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel. However, it seems that this caught the attention of others…”
West Coast vs East Coast
In the end, the question of whether Vermont or New England-style IPA truly warrants its own official style is how unique and how influential it is. Its influence is quickly growing and inspiring many imitators, but is it a flash in the pan trend or a lasting category? The pros are split. Breakside’s Ben Edmunds says, “It’s clearly a ‘thing,'” but also goes on to say, “I don’t know that this is a ‘new category’ so much as basically a West Coast IPA that is using predominantly new hop varietals, specifically some of the following: Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado, Equinox, Galaxy, and other ‘new’ releases. In my mind, these beers are really just West Coast IPAs with some newfangled hops.”
The Alchemist’s John Kimmich (who debatebly created the style) does not even believe it is a style, saying, “I’m not reinventing the wheel here,” and “I find the very idea to be so arrogant and self-serving that I would never prop myself up as some sort of style-defining brewer. I love IPA of all walks of life, as long as they don’t suck. I definitely read a lot of the things that are said about Vermont beers, and I chuckle when people get so worked up as to what they feel defines a great beer. Usually the most vocal are the ones that actually know the least, although they certainly love to read their own work, and act like they know what they speak of.”
Backing up John Kimmich’s theory, beloved Oregon brewery Block 15 Brewing has been making cloudy IPAs for the last 7 years. But owner Nick Arzner was caught off guard when one of his latest creations, Intergalactic Hop Shop, was proclaimed his tribute to NE IPAs by beer geeks. Caught unaware of the juicy NE hop craze, Nick admitted, “Honestly, I was unaware of the ‘juice’ craze until after we released Intergalactic Hop Shop and folks were commenting on it being a NE style. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and did a little research.” Nick has been brewing beers since the beginning that could be described as New England-style, unbeknownst to him. Though he has no intention of following any trends, he notes, “we will continue to brew back hopped, unfiltered, hoppy beers with English yeast, just as we have years as a part of our hop forward offerings. I will continue to use 1098 one of our yeast strains and put less emphasis on clearing out the haze and cloudy look of some offerings.”
Is making a beer more fruit forward and juicy with a slightly lower bitterness than most an entirely new style? NO. But it is a trend, a trend that has been in the making across the country not just in New England. That makes the only truly unique aspect of the aspiring trend its hazy and pillowy body and appearance, but even that seems unintentional. Not one brewer we spoke to did it intentionally.
I even asked Brewmaster Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co.–who literally wrote the book on IPA–if he thought New England/Vermont IPAs were a thing. He said, “I just spent 2 weeks on the East Coast. Tasted a few of these. And yes, it’s a thing. I expect it will be considered a style by most craft beer people soon. I brewed at 3 different breweries in Philadelphia and we discussed this cloudy IPA thing at each one.” A nice endorsement, but it’s surprising considering Stone Brewing Co. fought against the Cascadian Dark Ale definition tooth and nail because of its jingoism.
As Tyler Brown, founder of Oregon’s Barley Browns Brewing points out, “As brewing trends emerge, the Brewers Association tends to notice and recognizes them with a name and a description. They do not recognize regional (US) beers.” After all, does anyone remember the Texas Brown Ale or the Cascadian Dark Ale? No, of course you don’t.
But is recognition by the Brewers Association even relevant anymore? Their definitions of craft vs crafty breweries and styles and sub-styles is murkier than a Vermont IPA.