IPA trends are a funny thing. A decade ago, the most respected IPAs in the domestic beer scene were aggressive, no-holds-barred affairs, characterized by heavy bitterness with thick, earthy pine and resin flavors followed by a bone-dry finish.
More recently, a new breed of IPAs has come into favor, recognizable by tropical fruit aromas and citrus-dominant flavors, balanced with a soft-but-present malt base.
You wouldn't think twice to hear a beer drinker commend an IPA for its aggressiveness, or its lush, tropical flavors. But how about the latest IPA trend, which has enthusiasts lining up for hours to snag fresh growlers of an IPA that proudly touts its lack of clarity — in other words, densely opaque — as a major identifying characteristic?
To residents of Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts, this isn't surprising. Breweries such as Hill Farmstead, the Alchemist, Maine Beer Co., Tree House and Trillium have positioned themselves at the vanguard of a new era of Northeast IPAs — a far cry from the malty, British-American hybrid IPAs previously characterizing the East Coast IPA style — that are easily recognized by their turbid appearance.
One of the most popular beers in this category is Julius, from Tree House Brewing. It doesn't take long to figure out where the name comes from, considering its murky, orange smoothielike appearance.
But what exactly is going on here? Many home-brewed IPAs and commercial IPAs alike have cloudy appearances but don't taste anything like these intense, bursting-with-flavor brews coming out of the Northeast. And why do we care about beer clarity in the first place?
I'll answer the second question first. Beer clarity is considered desirable in most styles for two reasons: aesthetics and quality control. The first reason is a given, but the second is not as clear (pun intended). Haziness in a beer that's not supposed to be hazy (e.g., a pilsner or British-style IPA) is an indicator of possible infection — wild yeast and/or bacteria that has gained traction in the fermentation cycle, causing undesirable flavors.
Some beers, like hefeweizen or witbier, are hazy primarily due to high amounts of wheat used in the brewing process, which adds protein to the finished, unfiltered beer. The protein particles suspended in the beer make it cloudy, which is exacerbated by cold temperatures, an effect known as chill haze. Chill haze does not affect beer flavor much, if at all.
Although the haziness of these new-school IPAs appears similar to what's going on in unfiltered wheat beers, the reason for the cloudiness is actually large amounts of hops. The full explanation is boring (trust me), but the short explanation is that polyphenolic compounds in hops bind to other particles in the beer, which contribute a cloudiness akin to the protein-based chill haze.
Home brewers are familiar with this effect, as a dry-hopped IPA always comes out less clear than it was prior to adding the dry hops. Additional cold conditioning, clarification, or filtering can remove the haze, but it strips some of the flavor, which is exactly what people have come to associate with these murky brews. These beers need to be as fresh as possible, which means no time to strip anything — they need that straight-from-the-bright-tank taste.
So is it all hype, or is there something to this hazy IPA craze? As usual, it's a bit of both. You don't need turbidity to capture some of the vivid, juicy, orange-and-apricot flavors that these beers are prized for, but you also can't quite replicate them without it. If you leave them in the fridge for a month, they'll clear up some, just like any other beer. But they won't taste quite the same. The haze isn't everything, but it's very certainly something.
Although you might not be able to get your hands on fresh cans of Heady or Julius, you can always wheel on down to Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg to try Crank, a Citra hop-based brew that owes much to the current turbid IPA trend in the Northeast. It looks like orange juice and it tastes a bit like it, too. Whether or not that makes for a great IPA is an exercise for the reader — an exercise that I highly recommend.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG