Eastern Promise: After Years in the Shadows, the Balanced, Aromatic East Coast IPA Makes a Comeback

Feature by | Oct 2014 | Issue #93

Photo by Miguel Rivas

You don’t stumble upon Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing by accident. To find it, head to Carroll Gardens’ industrial edge, hard by the polluted Gowanus Canal and an exhaust-belching expressway. Look for a brick warehouse across from a McDonald’s—the blue one. Enter to find taxidermy, large rusty letters spelling ALE and a menu listing up to seven different IPAs. Order them all. As you sample the bright and fruity Hop Showers, melony Green Diamonds Imperial IPA and totally tropical All Green Everything Triple IPA, you’ll notice a theme. These IPAs are aromatic but not dank, balanced without being overly bitter. It’s an East Coast IPA with West Coast panache, something old and something thrillingly, deliciously new.

A decade ago, typecasting IPAs was easy. East Coast offerings, such as Harpoon IPA, Victory HopDevil and Brooklyn Brewery East India Pale Ale, possessed a sturdy malt backbone, a fruity or citrusy hop profile and balanced bitterness. West Coast IPAs were dry, with whittled-down malt bills that let bitterness wail, while aromas evoked grapefruit, pineapples, oranges, mangos and marijuana aplenty. “These days, I’d say one of the biggest differences between West Coast IPA and East Coast IPA is the prevalence of ‘dank’ hop aromatics out West,” says Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. “I love some West Coast IPAs, but like a lot of eastern brewers, I’m not into dank garlicky hops.” Dankness and bitterness, as championed by Stone, Lagunitas and Green Flash, have defined the modern American IPA, and inspired brewers from England to New Zealand. Even Sam Adams rolled out a West Coast-inspired Rebel IPA earlier this year. As of 2014, the mild-mannered East Coast IPA was old news, a relic of an earlier era of craft brewing.

But a funny thing happened on the style’s trip to the graveyard. Northeastern breweries such as Vermont’s Hill Farmstead, Maine Beer Company, and Trillium and Night Shift in the Boston area began embracing new-breed hops like tropical Citra, Jolly Rancher-esque El Dorado and lemon-limey Motueka. Instead of palate wreckers, they created IPAs that were smooth, soft, juicy and intensely fragrant. Bracing bitterness? You’d better look elsewhere. “We’re trying to bring out as many aromatics as possible,” says Other Half co-founder and brewer Sam Richardson. “You don’t need bitterness to make a good IPA.”

That was also the plan for Portland, Maine’s Bissell Brothers, which debuted last winter. When the brewery started tinkering with test batches, the goal was to devise a beer as hoppy as it was compulsively crushable. That meant dialing bitterness way down, cranking up citrusy, tropical flavors and aromas, and adding flaked grains to the traditional two row malt, making the ale as smooth as skiing on fresh snow. Dubbed The Substance, the cloudy hop bomb defies expectations. “Some people don’t think they like IPAs because they’re used to that bitter, in-your-face, get-you-drunk feeling,” says general manager Seth Vigue, who classifies The Substance as an American or hoppy Pale Ale. “Some folks don’t know that IPAs can be soft, juicy and refreshing.”

Vermont’s Jeff Baker also deploys those adjectives to describe his state’s headline-grabbing hoppy ales, which range from Hill Farmstead’s unfiltered and flowery Edward Pale Ale to The Alchemist’s cultish Heady Topper Double IPA. “They’re not super-angular,” says Baker, the “director of fluid assets” for Burlington’s Farmhouse Tap and Grill. Long a bastion of English-influenced Long Trail and Otter Creek, the state’s brewing scene started tipping toward smooth-sipping, highly aromatic and lightly hazy Pale Ales and IPAs about four years ago, Baker says. Hill Farmstead, Lawson’s Finest Liquids and the Alchemist “all pinged on this flavor profile right around the same time.” Hoppy but not tongue-numbingly bitter, the breweries’ ales soon summited beer-rating websites. “Because they gained respect, they solidified the style,” he adds.

As word of these well-regarded brews spread, beer geeks made a beeline to Vermont for a taste. “It’s the flavor profile that people are coming to our bar to try,” Baker says. And since there’s only so much Heady Topper to go around (Farmhouse gets 8–10 cases a week on Thursday that’s typically gone on Saturday), the scarcity has opened doors for newer locals, such as Fiddlehead and 14th Star, that also produce IPAs. “I tell people, ‘Oh yeah, it’s brewed in Vermont. Try this other Vermont IPA.’” Baker says.

Given the interest in his state’s hoppy ales, Baker thinks the burgeoning style deserves a designation, one that sheds the past. “I feel like using the term East Coast IPA has dropped out,” Baker says, later adding, “If I went to a bar and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s an East Coast-style IPA,’ I’d pass.” Instead, he’d like to give Vermont beers appellation status, sort of how Bordeaux signifies a wine with a particular flavor profile. “It gives a nod to the beer style’s origin.”

Of course, appropriating a regional name can rub folks the wrong way. Remember the hullabaloo about Cascadian Dark Ale, Black IPA, American Black Ale? After all, it’s not like an India Pale Ale is necessarily brewed in (or shipped to) India. Still, there may be some merit to boozy cartography. “The resonance of naming it after a geographic place is that it tells the story of where the beer came from,” says Dan Kenary, the co-founder and president of Boston’s Harpoon Brewery.

Recently, Harpoon rebranded its flagship as the “definitive New England-style IPA.” To Kenary, this means an even-keel mixture of malt, hops and yeast, with an agreeably bitter finish. “For folks, it defined what a balanced IPA could be,” Kenary says of the Cascade-driven IPA, which debuted in 1993. For more than 15 years, Harpoon IPA represented the status quo. But as more ales entered the East Coast market bearing those three letters, confusion spread. “If you’re a regular Harpoon IPA drinker and drink one of the West Coast hop-bomb IPAs, it’s a very different experience,” Kenary says. “That’s why we started defining the New England IPA style.”

To many, the New England IPA is not a category with tight parameters. It’s defined by equilibrium, not an orgy of alpha and beta acids. It’s New England Brewing’s citrusy, resinous Gandhi-Bot, Tree House Brewing’s feather-soft, passionfruit-like Julius or Maine Beer’s silky and tropical Another One. “The vast majority of craft consumers love to have balanced, drinkable products,” Kenary says. Brooklyn Brewery’s Oliver agrees. “Bitterness is like salt,” he says. “It’s really easy to add it, but it’s not impressive by itself.” For example, Brooklyn’s Blast! Double IPA uses plenty of earthy English and citrusy Pacific Northwest hops, but the IBUs only register in the 70s. “Blast is certainly not sweet, but it’s not a bone-dry beer,” Oliver says. “It really emphasizes hop character and aroma as much as bitterness.”

The notion is spreading up and down the East Coast, from Asheville’s Wicked Weed to Charleston’s Westbrook, Tampa’s Cigar City and Washington, DC’s Bluejacket, where beer director Greg Engert takes great pains to dampen the bitterness of his beers, from Citra-accented Lost Weekend IPA to crisp and wheaty Haywire and Forbidden Planet, a Kölsch dry-hopped with otherworldly amounts of Galaxy. But keeping bitterness in check does not guarantee consumer approval. “There are definitely people who are surprised by the restrained bitterness in the IPAs we make at Bluejacket,” Engert says. “Then we have to have the conversation: How do you define hoppy brews? Is emphatic bitterness requisite?”

So where does this leave classic East Coast IPAs, such as Victory HopDevil or Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA? While the pendulum may have swung west, Engert can see it rebounding eastward again. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see people returning to the old-school style very soon,” Engert says. Underscoring that idea, Pabst revived the iconic Ballantine IPA, one of the 20th century’s torchbearers for the style. The coppery resurrection is earthy and lightly piney, supported by a sturdy malt platform of biscuits, toffee and caramel. It’s agreeable, not aggressive—an ale where the past feels right at home in the present. “Five years ago, that beer might’ve gotten credit for being a hipster, old-school brand,” Engert says, “but now its flavor profile is beginning to fit right in.”

As for Oliver, he sees Vermont IPAs and their regional contemporaries as tweaking a tried-and-tested template. “I’m not sure I see an actual ‘Vermont style’ of IPA,” Oliver says. “I’ve had a lot of Vermont IPAs, and they are mostly brewed in the classical East Coast style, but a little sharper and featuring a bit more American hop character.” To emphasize its own geographic allegiance, Brooklyn Brewery recently changed the name of its East India Pale Ale, first introduced in 1995, to the more succinct East IPA. Made with British pale malt and East Kent Golding and Northdown hops alongside American varieties, the beer is designed to echo its 19th century source of inspiration. “The name is a play on the original East India name, but we’re also saying that we’re proudly eastern,” Oliver says. “We’re halfway between Yakima and East Kent, and our IPA reflects that. We’re all about balance, structure and vibrancy.”