The India pale ale beer style is unquestionably the most popular craft beer style in North America.
However, this style has become a very large umbrella for many different hop-forward beers that craft brewers have developed during the last ten plus years. That makes it hard to define these days.
Early in the craft beer movement, IPAs from the West Coast were similar to the American pale ale style created by Sierra Nevada, but characterized by higher alcohol and with an emphasis on bitterness and hop flavor from citrusy American hops. As brewers and enthusiasts became enamored with hops, IPAs became scorchingly bitter with enhanced citrusy hop flavor. The evolution continued with a recent trend toward less bitterness and more hop flavor as new and interesting hop breeds became available to brewers.
At the same time, in the eastern part of the U.S., IPAs were generally based on the English model, of which Samuel Smith’s India Ale is an example. The East Coast style is more balanced, with substantial malt flavor balancing the hop flavors and bitterness — Bell’s Two Hearted Ale is an example.
Along this evolutionary journey there have been and still are red, white, black and rye IPAs, double IPAs and imperial IPAs and others to add to the interest and confusion.
The most recent trend in IPAs is a style that has been dubbed the New England-style IPA (NEIPA). This style is credited to a small Vermont brewery called The Alchemist and popularized by other breweries in the Northeast. These beers emphasize hop flavors, especially the tropical hop flavors. The yeasts used are varieties that emphasize the hop flavors — whereas most West Coast IPAs use yeasts that contribute little to the flavor. The style markers for NEIPA are a very hazy appearance, a big creamy head, and a taste featuring rich hop flavor that is best described as “juicy.” Alcohol is high, while bitterness is mild to low. This haze adds to the mouthfeel of these beers and enhances the perception of richness, while most other style of IPA are filtered and fairly clear.
The evolution of IPAs is not surprising. The profound bitterness, flavor and high alcohol of the early West Coast versions made these beers too challenging to be economically successful for the long haul. Brewers eventually realized that consumers wanted hop flavor and not bitterness, and that has led to reformulation of older IPAs and the popularity of the New England style.
However, this new trend in hopping has a major problem, which is especially true when it comes to the New England style. The brewing technique that is adding most of the flavor to these beers is dry hopping — adding hops during fermentation. This technique imparts lots of flavor, but this flavor is fragile and dissipates very quickly after packaging. NEIPAs rely on the dry hopping more than other IPAs so these beers must be consumed when fresh. There is no hard and fast rule to judge before you buy, but the closer to the packaging dates, the better — after a couple of months the hop flavor will be substantially diminished.
Here are a few tasty examples of the New England style that are available in Columbia.
Red Hare Brewing’s Soft J IPA (6.8 percent ABV): An excellent and approachable example of the style with its fragrant aroma of orange, tangerine and pineapple, creamy stand of foam, with soft, juicy flavors of the aroma elements. Bitterness is just enough to balance the malt and the finish is dry and mildly bitter.
New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger Juicy Haze IPA (7.5 percent ABV): This is another good example of the NEIPA with the typical style points, a bright aroma and juicy flavors of citrus and pineapple.
Captain Lawrence Brewing Tears of Green IPA (7.5 percent ABV): This one is loosely in the NEIPA style with its hazy light gold appearance and fragrant hop aroma. The hop flavor is not quite as juicy as you would expect, but there is a distinct perception of sweet malt that finishes with mild bitterness.
For this column, I tasted several other NEIPAs, some quite expensive, but all were a bit old and had lost the character of this interesting type of IPA. Buy only fresh versions. Cheers!