Not Your Father’s IPA
There are over a hundred distinct styles of beer, but their popularity is not evenly distributed. The vast majority of craft beer sold in the United States is either a pale ale or an India pale ale (IPA). These bitter styles dominate the market. However, when you order an IPA these days, you may need to be more specific. The style is experiencing a split that’s dividing both brewers and consumers.
To understand the future of IPA, it’s worthwhile to look at its past. Its name harkens to an age before the advent of refrigeration, when commercial brewers couldn’t ship their beer across the seas to the colonies without the equatorial warmth ruining the product. Then brewers realized that hops had the effect of countering this spoilage — the more hops packed into a beer, the better the chances it would survive the journey. The reference to India was a nod to the cross-oceanic voyages pale ales used to make.
The IPAs of that early era were fundamentally bitter, relatively mild, and usually filtered and clear. These English-style bitters and IPAs are what David Geary and Alan Pugsley brought to Maine in the 1980s. Pugsley went on to install brewing systems across New England that used this style. Through the success of Geary’s, Shipyard, and other brands that followed, the English IPA became the standard for new breweries to match.
Ten years later, brewers on the West Coast began to develop new ideas about what hoppy beer should taste like. And, coincidentally, areas of Oregon and Washington were found to be suitable, if not superior, to European hop-growing regions. These hop varieties were selected for their strong flavors, bold bitterness and pine-y characteristics. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale disrupted the idea of mild-mannered beer, and soon beer fans were clamoring for bolder flavors. These “pale” ales were typically dark amber in color and smelled of pine, pollen, marijuana or resin.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the West Coast’s influence becomes obvious in the Maine beer scene. Maine Beer Company’s Lunch, Baxter Brewing’s Stowaway IPA, and Rising Tide’s Cutter bushwhacked the path around here.
Then a new cry rose up from the masses. Beers were just getting too bitter, too boozy, too harsh. Enter brewers like Trillium, Treehouse and Hill Farmstead, and suddenly there are beers on the market causing an uproar. They’re cloudy, unfiltered, strange in appearance. Because of their origins in Massachusetts and Vermont, people begin to refer to them as New England IPAs. Their aromas have left the pine forests for the orchards; craft-beer drinkers encounter scents of orange, peach, pineapple and mango.
The rapid rise of this style took some veteran brewers and beer fans by surprise. According to the technical definition of an IPA, these New England IPAs are wrong — wrong appearance, wrong taste.
In Maine, Bissell Brothers’ flagship ale, Substance, was one of the first to turn heads with its haze. Many others have followed. Lone Pine Brewing, Goodfire Brewing, and Mast Landing have endeavored to build their brands around this new style. Some brewers that made their names with the more traditional style are even adding a New England IPA to their lineup. Notably, Shipyard, which until recently has used English-style yeasts for nearly all its beer, released Finder, a solid IPA that uses a yeast more in line with the latest trend.
There have not yet been revisions to the beer-bible guidelines that would make this trend an official style, but that process can be notoriously slow compared to the market. Though purists may fuss and complain about the IPA labeling, these beers are surging in popularity.
One piece of evidence that New England IPAs are here to stay arrived while I was on a business trip to Paris. At a bar, I asked for something hoppy and received a pour of a cloudy ale from a brewery in Switzerland called White Frontier. The name of the beer? New England IPA — and it tasted just like a pour of Substance.