Hazy Days and Brighter Futures: Are New England IPAs More Than a Passing Fad?
Craft brewing once defined itself by wide-ranging innovation. Brewers pushed past previously defined boundaries to explore the outer edges of what constituted beer. They based some ideas on long abandoned brewing traditions, conceiving others out of sheer boredom or pure devilish curiosity. The age of extreme was a wild one, where anything could (and did) happen. It was fun, brutish, and, thankfully, a stepping stone on the path to greater beer knowledge.
Today’s focus on IPA, and hazy, juicy New England IPAs specifically, is the opposite of that age of wonder. Our hyper focus on this new style has rendered beer homogenous and even boring. Instead of exploring the wide variety of styles and flavors available, we’re settling for a debate over whether an IPA is hazy enough. This is the death of creativity, the stifling of craft brewing’s spirit.
Under this hazy hegemony, many craft brewers must now, for the first time, brew a style they don’t even like. Stories abound of new breweries trying to start with German or Belgian styles only to pivot hard to hazy IPAs after a few tight months or years of operation. Lager and Saison brewers are now churning out canned NEIPAs in order to meet the loud demand of their consumers.
And you can’t blame these brewers. Faced with the prospect of brewing a hazy IPA you might not respect or closing your doors, the choice is simple. Just ask The Commons Brewery about the viability of shunning IPAs. Whether hazy IPA is a passing fad or a sustainable trend is unknowable, but for now, it’s a dominant force. Unfortunately, chasing popular trends instead of defining one’s own course is both painful to watch and portentous of future travails.
The explosive popularity of the hazy IPA trend has also resurrected that old craft brewing bogeyman: The moneyed prospector. As in the mid-’90s, we’re seeing pretenders without brewing industry experience jump into the fold with dollar signs in their eyes.
Now, we could be in a time when the concept of beauty in beer is being redefined. It may be a generational divide. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence in beer gardens around the country to support this theory. Yet, peering into hazy pints, it’s hard not to worry a little about craft brewing’s future prospects. Consumers used to care how their pints appeared, but no longer. Enticed by pleasant, juicy aromas, the muddled, cloying mess in the glass, hazed by hop particles, flour, or another unknown ingredient or process, isn’t anything to celebrate. They’re often beers for people who don’t actually want to drink beer.
There is room for optimism, though. Some brewers show genuine dedication in their efforts to explore all of the nuances of this new style. Talking to these brewers about hazing a beer parallels listening to jazz musicians dissecting the myriad facets of a Sonny Rollins riff. They’re akin to skilled painters trying to master the distinctive intricacies of a particular technique. Other less talented artists and musicians may attempt to mimic the style, but the details, when fully examined, reveal their amateurism. When it comes to lesser NEIPAs, which constitute a substantial majority of the commercially available examples, they lack the depth, nuance, style, and character of the more studied and trained versions.
Craft brewing has never been defined by a single style and I hope that continues. Hazy IPAs may yet become worthy of true reverence. But, for now, they’re a distraction from what makes craft brewing so remarkable. ■