Monday, February 22, 2021

Falling out of love with New England IPA

About six years ago I interviewed for a job with a decent sized craft brewery. The brewery was looking for a sales rep in my area. I was a sales professional in another industry and thought that might make me qualified for the position. The brewery was gracious enough to bring me in for an interview despite my only industry experience being a brand ambassador. I subsequently met the candidate the brewery hired. He was infinitely more qualified than me. 

During the interview I was asked a question along the lines of "What was the most impactful or influential beer you ever drank and why?" I completely choked on the question. Beer for me has always been a slow journey of incremental steps. Budweiser, to Sam Adams seasonals, to relatively hoppy beers like Harpoon IPA, it was an evolution. In hindsight one of my answers could have been Double Dry Hopped Fort Point Pale Ale from Trillium.  

Six years after I drank that beer for the first time, it was unlike anything I had drank before.  Sitting here in 2021, I remember my boss at the time buying that thick belgian bottle for me. I remember opening it at my cousin and occasional brewing partner Andy's home and sharing it with everyone on our brew day. That beer was so aromatic, and yes so juicy. A true revelation.

To be fair to myself, based on my first visit to Trillium in 2015 I may not have appreciated the experience fully. In that era any aggressively hopped IPA was called a West Coast IPA, so I erroneously lumped Trillium in with that crowd. 

One of my first hazies from 2015. Clear by 2021 standards. 

My early attempts at brewing IPA were not great. I needed a lot of help to brew a clone of The Substance. That recipe from 2015 is nothing like how the beer is now. Bissell Brothers have intentionally made the beer softer and hazier. I did learn a lot about brewing IPA generally from that experience. Within months of that visit to Trillium, I brewed my first hazy pale ale. A year later, as part of my US of IPA project in 2016 I brewed another New England IPA. In 2017, I wrote a post for HomebrewTalk sharing best practices for homebrewing New England IPA. 

The last NEIPA I brewed was 28 July 2018. Well, that's half true. I attempted to brew a Double NEIPA recipe I believe one of our commercial customers screwed up. I ended up screwing up the beer myself and dumping it. One of these days I have to give that recipe another try just to prove a point.

Anyway, over the last few years my brewing has shifted mostly to sessionable beers be it British styles, pale ales, lagers, or fruit and spice beers. As store shelves have become more and more full of New England IPA, we would buy commercial examples and I would brew styles that were becoming harder to find commercially.

The notion of regional variations in IPA isn't dead yet, but it might be dying. When I was in Michigan last year there were amber ales everywhere, but also plenty of hazies. Summer in Minnesota was similar, but with cream ales and kellerbier in place of ambers. During a whirlwind week in Texas where I visited Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, it was pale lagers and hazy IPA. A legacy brewery in Denver wanted pricing to buy one of our distributors entire yearly allocation of El Dorado hops.  Even in San Diego, the mecca of West Coast IPA, in the afternoon I spent there in early 2020 there was as much if not more hazy IPA than West Coast IPA at the couple of places I visited. 

The more I drank New England IPA all over the country a few things became apparent. The more I drank NEIPA, the more not great examples I found. Just being juicy or aromatic wasn't enough anymore. As I drank more beers that were too aggressively dry-hopped, or were packaged too soon, I was getting "hop burn", and getting beers that were overly phenolic. I've gotten off flavors and aromas like cut grass, smoke, struck matches, and even lighter fluid. This is to say nothing of oxidized cans that poured brown with no hop character.

I have even had poor experiences from hyped breweries with huge Untappd ratings. One homebrewer shared on a "Currently Drinking" Slack channel I am on that he was drinking a newly released NEIPA from a prominent brewery. When asked how it was he said, "It's a bit spicy, as usual with day-of releases. But the tropical fruit is off the charts." He, like a lot of beer drinkers have been conditioned that when they buy a beer at a brewery itmay not be at it's peak of flavor or aroma. I've had similar experiences where I let the beer sit in my fridge for a week or two to smooth out. Twenty bucks for a four-pack doesn't buy what it used to.

With any beer style there are only two ways to really make a unique product: ingredients and process. With New England IPA the ingredients and processes are becoming increasingly similar. This has resulted something else I have noticed: a lot of hazy IPAs that taste the same. The grists tend to be very similar. There's a better chance that a brewery will talk about the unmalted adjuncts in the beer like flaked oats and flaked wheat than the actual malt. That is if they talk about the grains in the beer at all. Most breweries ferment with some kind of London III or Conan strain. If a brewery uses dry yeast it's probably Safale S04. The esters that used to make NEIPA unique compared to American ales fermented with neutral ale strains are now fairly similar across the board. Breweries having a house yeast with a house character isn't much of a thing anymore.

Hops are one area where there can be a difference if the brewer eschews the ubiquitous, but admittedly delicious Citra/Mosiac combo. Hop growers are selecting for varietals with tropical fruit flavors. As these new varieties are used in beers, they do make fruity and juicy IPAs. I am sure there are drinkers that can, or at least think they can pick out unique flavors from all of these hop varietals. There are plenty of times that I can't.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of blaming NEIPA for everything I don't like about beer in 2021. Breweries are business and brewers have stakeholders they are responsible to. Instead of complaining about NEIPA, I go out of my way to buy other styles I like when I see them. That's also a big reason why after three and a half years in the industry I have never fallen out of love with homebrewing. If I wan't variety, I can brew it myself. I am finally at a point where I have the knowledge and equipment to brew almost any kind of beer that I want.

Just because I don't drink New England IPA as much as I used to, doesn't mean I don't drink it at all. When I am in the mood, I still enjoy a well-made example. While I am working to get healthier, Jennie will offer me a sip of her beer which is usually hazy and hoppy. Sometimes the beer is great; other times she asks for help identifying an off flavor.

For the most part what is gone for me is the love. It's rare that I pour a hazy IPA, take a whiff of hop aroma, and feel close to the same excitement that I used to. 

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