The latest East Coast trend

Photo: A Vermont or New England sytle IPA; photo: Jim Witmer

By Jim Witmer

It’s approaching the noon hour on a bleak Sunday in mid-Ohio farm country. Is spite of the stark landscape and matching weather, a spirited line has formed outside a small building for the latest release. No, this is not an iPhone launch, but rather an exclusive gathering of self-proclaimed beer nerds who have traveled from near and far to purchase a style of beer that has become the latest trend in craft beer.

The ones in line are a select group. The rationed 400 ticket allotment of this beer was depleted within a minute by savvy ticket stalkers on Eventbrite for the privilege of purchasing one case and a growler of hoppy, cloudy, silky, softly bittered India Pale Ales that will be consumed or traded for other similar rare “whales” that are not available at a retail establishment.

This particular brewery is a small barn full of tanks and a small bar in Morengo, just off I-71. A recent start-up with the irreverent name Hoof Hearted, it’s known for producing beers named with 80’s references and names just as cheeky such as Konkey Dong, Sidepipin, and I Must Look Like A Dork.

This is a new version of IPA with a movement toward a whole new category that is referred to as New England IPA (NEIPA); it was born in that geographical area of the country where it gained traction from breweries such as the Alchemist with its Heady Topper. This style’s easy drinking, cloudy, tropical juice-forward character is a stark contrast to the west coast style that brought IPA into prominence in the late 1990s with bitterness and dank tropical notes, and also a dry finish and all the double, triple, and imperial versions along with it. With long lines constantly forming to get their allotment of this new style hop juice at startup breweries, other traditional breweries have taken notice and have thrown their professional IPA brewing standards out the window in favor of producing something that may go against their traditional practice of finishing a beer for appearance’s sake. It is likely a judge would toss this murky looking mess out of a competition as a failure to meet fundamental style guidelines.

That’s where the controversy seems to begin. In order to create the silky soft body of this brew, an unusual amount of haze-producing ingredients such as oats and wheat must be used. While a wheat or oat beer is expected to be cloudy, for most traditionalists an IPA should not behave this way. Yet the brewers of this style don’t seem to think appearance matters. Instead they just issue the directive “Drink From the Can!” printed in no uncertain terms around the top as in the case of the Alchemist’s Heady Topper, insinuating that the flavor and aroma is what one should focus on; so don’t bother pouring it in a glass and then concluding something went wrong in the brewhouse when one observes the odd looking opaque liquid.

Some detractors have called this new style “lazy brewing” as it gives the appearance of a beer that hasn’t yet been filtered (yeast and hop particulate haze has been stripped out by finings or a quick crash into low temperatures). But that stuff contains flavor and the NEIPA brewers see no reason to strip it from your palate. The massive amount of hops used are selected for their tropical characteristics and are employed at the end of the boil and as multiple dry hop additions in the fermenter. Sure, it could have been unintended at first, but it then was turned into gold, the way it looks now.

Yet there are careful considerations to keeping this style from becoming a hot mess, and the skillful brewers making it work shouldn’t be arrogantly dismissed as being incompetent. The water profile and yeast selection is carefully considered. Our standard American version is far cry from what was originally a British creation, and the New England version just goes in a different direction. Critics have a legit point that there are likely problems with the shelf stability of this kind of beer, so it should be consumed as quickly as possible. But isn’t that the same game-plan for buying most beers – fresh is best?

Shorts brewing of Bellaire, MI has approached this issue with an annual release of a triple dry hopped IPA named Psychedelic Cat Grass that is delivered directly to customers the same day it is packaged, skipping the line jockeying or distributor’s warehouse phase. Logistics have been a challenge, but it comes as an alternative to buying tickets to wait in line at the brewery for the freshest IPA possible.

One advantage that these cult-like NEIPA breweries have when selling this hoppy fruit juice in 16 oz. cans is selling to a pre-paid audience for $15 per 4 pack and $22 a growler, effectively cutting out the expense of distributing and retail markup: they are making maximum profit selling out their front door. Instagram posts provide the free advertising. All this does not sit well with the competition as they watch them laugh all the way to the bank.

So if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.

Well-known and respected breweries that have been around since the beginning of the craft movement like Stone, Heavy Seas, and Dogfish Head have released unfiltered versions in a trendy move, but still mostly stick to the bitterness level of a traditional IPA. Locally, many area breweries have done unfiltered releases. Yellow Springs Brewery has been the one to produce the most New-England-like soft expression of fruity hop juice with recent releases Noodle Burner and Dr. Bunsen. Those have seen successful in the draft-only release to local taps.

In short one of the most prolific and appealing styles of craft beer has certainly shot off in new direction and has elevated the ever growing culture of standing in line and trading for the latest new and rare releases. Everything on earth is in a constant state of change, and so is beer. The IPA style is no different. The best thing about it is that it keeps the craft beer world from dying of boredom. Like Rock and Roll, it’s here to stay.

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Jim Witmer
Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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