Two big brewers try to cash in on an IPA craze

The New England-style India pale ale, with its juicy hop flavors and hazy look, has become a phenomenon among craft beer fans. They camp out overnight to be among the first to buy rare releases, and flock to hazy-IPA festivals in New York City; Buffalo, New York; Toronto; and Portland, Oregon, to celebrate the new vanguard.

Now comes proof that the groundswell is more than just a passing tremor: Two of the country’s largest craft brewers are making their own versions of the style. In December, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. introduced Hazy Little Thing IPA in a few areas, and this month has released it nationwide. The Boston Beer Co., which makes Samuel Adams, has begun selling its New England IPA in that region, and will go nationwide in February.

For these companies, the move is both a logical next step and a big risk. Much of the appeal of the hazy IPAs stems from their origins as small-batch, indie brews that are sold at the source. And unlike any earlier styles, these beers require freshness in the extreme. After a few weeks, they literally fall apart — the haze disappears as their proteins fall out of suspension, destroying the hop flavors and, in most cases, rendering the beer fit for the drain.

“Hazy IPAs are pretty tough to make if you’re hoping to distribute nationally,” said Bill Manley, who helped develop Sierra Nevada’s recipe for Hazy Little Thing before leaving the company in November. “The haze that’s in beer is, by and large, pretty darn unstable.”

But the big brewers think they can guarantee freshness, win over the skeptics and appeal to parts of the country that this young style has not reached.

“There are still many drinkers who have yet to experience the hazy, citrusy brew,” said Meaghan Quinn, a spokeswoman for Samuel Adams.

The fervor around these beers is ripe with hyperbole, but in the best examples, it is warranted. Hazy IPAs offer lush, juicy flavors that beers have never had before. Brewers are harnessing the citrus and tropical notes of new hop varieties while eschewing their characteristic bitterness, a trick they achieve by loading their hops late in the brewing process, and in huge quantities.

These beers seem to defy large-scale production and cross-country shipping; many brewers intentionally keep batches small to ensure freshness through high turnover. But Sierra Nevada in particular has consistently made world-class beers in big volume, and these ephemeral IPAs will be its biggest test.

The beers’ haze has traditionally come from hop particles that mix with yeast in suspension. The result is hop flavors that, rather than wafting up to your nose from the glass, burst in your mouth after each sip.

As the New England style has proliferated, breweries have turned to high-protein grains, like oats and unmalted wheat, to build a more stable haze for their beloved hops to nest in. Others use additives like pectin or even flour, igniting debate in the most fervent corners of the craft-beer world.

Sierra Nevada uses oats in its recipe for Hazy Little Thing. But it also employs other tricks for quality control, including one common among wheat beer producers: When sending kegs to restaurants and bars, the company instructs distributors to ship them upside down. That way, the bartender is forced to flip them upon delivery, stirring up the proteins and restoring the haze.

Today, an IPA’s cloudy appearance has become its signifier, even a status symbol, flooding Instagram feeds and inspiring hashtags like #hazyipa and #newenglendipa. Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, has declared the New England ales “the first beer style based around Instagram culture and based around social media.”

But in the beginning, haze was not the goal; it was a side effect. “We never set out to brew an IPA that was hazy,” said John Kimmich, a founder and the head brewer of the Alchemist in Waterbury, Vermont. “Our IPA was hazy because we brewed it the way I wanted it to taste.”

Kimmich is the creator of Heady Topper, the ale that popularized the style. Heady Topper brims with flavors of tropical fruit and pine, balanced with a keen, citrus-peel bitterness. It continues to sell out hours after a shipment hits New York City, but like many brewers of this style, Kimmich is intent on keeping his operation and availability regional. In true Vermont fashion, it does not take much to get him started about corporate greed and his allegiance to helping the local community.

Some might question the need to sell a beer this perishable nationwide. Fresh, locally made beer is readily available these days in most metropolitan areas.

But the hazy-IPA trend has not swept the middle of the nation yet, and Samuel Adams hopes to bring some people their first taste of the style. The company is keeping an eye on distributors to ensure that consumers get their beer fresh.

“No beer is ever going to be as good as it is five days out of the brewery,” said Megan Parisi, the head brewer at the Boston nanobrewery where Samuel Adams researches and develops new recipes. But the company is banking on the beer’s staying good for a while; it is setting an expiration date of three months for its New England IPA.

Kimmich is most excited about the new beer from Sierra Nevada, a company he idolized early in his career, as a brewer in the 1990s at the Vermont Pub and Brewery.

“Sierra Nevada? Those guys,” he said. “How many countless beers have they inspired with their pale ale?”

How the new brews taste

New England-style IPAs walk a spectrum from bitter to sweet. This is a case where balance isn’t always preferred: If you already love IPAs, there are many bitter ones to satisfy you. If you don’t, the sweet variety could be your gateway drink.

Now that two of the nation’s largest craft brewers have entered the scene, with Sierra Nevada Hazy Little Thing (6.7 percent alcohol by volume) and Samuel Adams New England IPA (6.8 percent ABV), how do they fit into that spectrum?

In terms of flavor, both are a tier below their small-batch counterparts, missing the vibrant fruitiness that distinguishes the best of breed. Samuel Adams’s beer evokes citrus but not in the literal, tastes-like-juice way that is the New England style; it’s scarcely different from an ordinary IPA.

The Sierra Nevada beer has more pleasant flavors of dried apricot and dried pineapple, and is the better choice if you can’t find something fresh and local.

But in many parts of the country, local examples will be more expressive and worth seeking out. In New York, Other Half Brewing is the king of hazy IPAs, so much so that its cans are nearly impossible to find. But they are worth the hunt — lean, racy and sharp with hops.

Greenpoint Beer & Ale’s Instant Credibility (7.8 percent ABV) punches with aggressive bitterness and an undercurrent of pulpy orange and mango nectar. Also lovely is its spiritual opposite from upstate, Industrial Arts Wrench (6.8 percent ABV), which embodies the sweet end of the spectrum with a silky mouth feel and flavors that verge on pineapple juice. IPA skeptics, start here.

As the originator of the New England style, the Alchemist’s Heady Topper (8 percent ABV) has one foot in the traditional IPA style, with familiar notes of pine, grapefruit and resin turned up in the foreground, washing over a background of fruit-driven hops.

Its brewer, John Kimmich, calls it “balanced,” and hopheads will attest to that. It won’t bring new fans to hoppy beers, but it’s a treat for the already converted.

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