Oh Say Can You See (through your beer)

In the last couple years, we’ve been seeing the growth of what I guess you could call a new style of beer….The NorthEast style, usually made as an IPA.  The common factors seems to be a “soft” bitterness (often brought about by adding large amounts of calcium chloride to the water, rather than calcium sulfate which is more usual), a massive hop flavor with a pretty forward aroma, and usually a hazy appearance.  And by “haze”, I mean a lot of them look like gravy!  Proponents of the style say “who cares how it looks, it’s about the taste”.  Others, like myself, are mystified.  Why does a good beer need to look like a bad homebrew?  Do these beers even taste like what most people think of as IPA?

In a way, this goes back to the debate about East Coast vs. West Coast IPA.  East Coast IPA is generally less bitter and hop forward, being heavily influenced by English IPA.  West Coast IPA, which is widely acknowledged to have been led by Anchor Liberty years ago, has a sharper, more intense bitterness and usually a very prominent hop aroma.  Ever since, regional proponents of one coast have derided the other coast’s preference.  But, as well all know, beer preference is subjective, so both styles have survived.  Until recently, though, it seemed to be the west coast styles that got most of the press and adoration.

As far as I know, one of the first of the new East Coast IPAs was Heady Topper from The Alchemist.  Part of the appeal seemed to be from the limited availability of it, although people also raved about the flavor of the beer itself.  It was hazy, it was massively hopped, it was only available at the brewery and you had to drink it fresh.  Seems to me like that’s a lot of rules to simply enjoy a beer!  My one opportunity to try Heady Topper was at the National Homebrew Conference in Grand Rapids a few years ago.  I have no idea exactly how old the sample was, although I was told that it was fairly fresh.  I was a bit put off by the appearance, but the aroma was inviting.  Flavorwise, I found it to be a bit “flabby”, having an unfocussed flavor that really didn’t stand out to me.  It was by no means a bad beer, but after all the hype I was disappointed.  And I said so online….apparently, over and over, and over again.

So where does the haze come from?  There seem to be several possible causes.  Some people say that it’s hop haze caused by the heavy hop loading that these beers use to achieve their flavor.  That’s certainly possible, because they do have a very prominent hop flavor and aroma.  And we all know that the polyphenols in the hops will bind the proteins in the beer to create haze.  But I’ve had beers here on the west coast (I’m thinking of Sticky Hands from Block 15 in Corvallis OR or about anything from Bale Breaker in Yakima WA) that have similar hop flavor and aroma and are clear or only slightly hazy.

Another explanation is the yeast.  The Conan strain used by The Alchemist is not only a very fruity yeast, but also reportedly a slow flocculator. The sensations I got when drinking some of these beers would certainly be consistent with yeast in suspension.

I’ve also heard that sometimes flaked barley, oats, wheat or even flour are added late in the boil to create the haze and “soften” the flavor.  I have no verification of this, but it seems to be a popular theory.

A gentleman we’ll refer to as “Mike” was kind enough to put together a selection of 10 NE beers, most of them IPA, and send them to me.  I think he may be a bit aggravated at my reactions to some of the beers, but I want to assure him (and you) that I tasted them with an open mind and hoped to find at least some that I liked.  Mike, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the effort and hassle you put out and I hope to be able to reciprocate.

Tasting Protocol
A few overall tasting notes before we start….having heard that these beers are best fresh, I let them sit in my fridge only 2 days to “relax”.  I decided I’d taste one per day so as to give them a fair chance and not burn out my taste buds.  Keep in mind that generally I’m trying to describe the beers.  If I make a value judgment, it should be pretty clear, but some of the descriptors can sound negative when they’re really only words to describe the beers.  And also keep in mind that these are my subjective opinions.  Based on how well they sell and the vehemence of their defenders, there are a lot of people who really like the style.

Also, I asked around if I should pour the entire can or bottle into my glass or decant carefully.  I didn’t get a good answer anywhere, so the first three beers were poured with all the stuff in the bottom of the can in them.  That could account for my mouth feel comments in the first 3 beers.  After that, I decanted them and left all of that behind.

Terminology Q – What the Heck is Juicy?
And finally, the word “juicy”…..I’ve talked about this both on the podcast and online.  I have yet to really figure out how “juicy” describes a beer…but I’m trying.  When I think of “juicy”, I think of fruit like raspberries or a tangerine.  When you bite into it, the sweet juice explodes across your palate in a flood of liquid sweetness.  Is this what the advocates are talking about?  When I ask I can’t get consistent responses. It’s like “juicy” means different things to different people.  Is it possibly a combination of the fruity yeast and hops and thick mouth feel?  And why is that described as “juicy”?   I just don’t know yet, but I hope to get it sussed.

OK, enough of that…let’s drink some beer!

The Tasting
Eureka with Citra – Tree House Brewing – Monson MA – American Blonde Ale – 4.1% ABV

Beer pours hazy and opaque with a straw color.  It has a tight white head with pretty good retention.  It has an herbal aroma with dank hop notes-you can almost smell the hop cones.  The bitterness is low, but not so low as to be unbalanced.  It has a dry, tannic (not in a bad way) hop flavor.  There is some back of the palate bite, a little bit if bite up front and a mid palate “hop vegetation” taste.

Not a bad beer.  I kinda like it and I certainly wouldn’t send it back, but I also wouldn’t order another one.  As I continue drinking, I get a back of the palate minerally aftertaste.  There is a slightly gritty mouth feel and what I detect as an astringency from the hops.  Remember, I poured the entire can here!

Green – Tree House Brewing – Monson MA – AIPA 7.5% ABV

This beer is hopped with Galaxy hops, one of my favorites.  The label says the aroma has notes of pineapple, orange sorbet, and tangerine and is “massively juicy”.  You’d think that would give me a clue about what “juicy” means, but no such luck.  The character is very fruit forward, but I have to admit I’d never think “juicy”.

The beer pours completely opaque, and has a tight white head with good retention.  But it looks uninviting and…well…ugly.  There are dank notes of orange and tangerine in the flavor.  The bittering is very soft.  There are some fruit notes up front, more mid palate, and then it dies.  There was no finish.  The mouth feel was gritty and astringent and left my mouth feeling like it was coated with fuzz.  The fruit flavor lingers on and is quite tasty, but the bitterness and flavor both seem muted.  There is eventually a nice tangerine aftertaste that comes on.  It’s not a bad beer at all if you don’t look at it, but if you do it leaves you wanting to see the light playing through the beer.  There is a huge hop flavor and good aroma, but the coated, dry feeling it leaves in my mouth makes me certain I wouldn’t want another one.  Is that from hops, yeast, starch?  Who cares…I don’t care for it.

Alter Ego – Tree House Brewing – Monson MA – AIPA 6.8% ABV

Pours hazy, opaque, orange gold color.  Tight white head with pretty good retention.  Aroma of oranges with notes of lemon and lime.  There’s a little dankness and a mango aroma emerges as the beer warms.  Flavor is a little bitterness up front, an herbal mid palate, and some bitterness in the finish.  It has the same dry, coating mouth feel but not quite so strongly.  It’s my favorite so far, but I have to admit I wouldn’t go out of my way to drink it.  It’s also the first of these that has what I would call “apparent bitterness”.  The flavor of this one is great, but the mouth feel is very off putting.

NOTE: After this beer, I started wondering if I was missing something by not pouring the dregs.  I’ heard people say that one reason Heady Toper is supposed to be drunk from the can is that it continually stirs up and remixes the dregs on the bottom of the can.  I decided to do both…I poured the first half of the remaining beers carefully, but after drinking that I poured the entire remainder into my glass to see what the difference would be.

The IPA – Building 8 – Northampton MA – 6.5% ABV – &) IBU Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic

YES!  Clarity!  Straw gold color, tight beige head with good retention.  Just short of brilliant, but very clear.  Aroma of tangerine, lime, orange, mixed berries.  There’s bitterness up front, citrus fruit in the middle, and a lingering dry finish with fruit and hop notes.  A very well made beer with no apparent flaws.  Medium body and a lively mouth feel.  Crisp, clean and refreshing…really liking this one!

Sap – Tree House Brewing – Monson MA – AIPA – 7.3& ABV

Appropriate name because on opening the can I was hit with a huge piney aroma.  Pours with a tight white head that dissipates quickly.  Very hazy and opaque.  Aromas of pine, orange, mango, maybe a bit of lemon.  There’s an orangey bitterness up front, herbal notes mid palate, and more like mango in the back.  It’s not as “crunchy” and astringent as the other Tree House beers I’ve tried, but still a very drying finish with some cotton mouth.  A fairly full mouth feel but still enough bitterness to make a statement.

Haze – Tree House Brewing – Monson MA – IIPA – 8.2% ABV

Hop aroma wafts up to me as soon as I open the can.  The beer is hazy (well DUH!), opaque, and a straw yellow color.  It has a tight white head with good retention.  The aroma is full of fruit…orange, lime, lemon with some dankness mixed in.  The flavor is delicious fruit up front and mid palate with some bitterness at the back.  There is a very dry, astringent finish.  Full body, slight grit in the mouth feel.  I love the flavor and the mouth feel isn’t as objectionable on this one.  I kinda like this beer!  If only it was clear….I’d love to try a clear version of this beer against a hazy one to help me understand what it is that haze brings to the party in my mouth.

Santilli – Night Shift Brewing – Everett MA – AIPA 6% ABV

Pours very clear, just short of brilliant.  The beer has a light gold color and a tight, foamy white head with excellent retention.  The fruit aroma hits you from a couple feet away.  There are notes of orange, tangerine, and mango combined with a spicy herbal hop character.  Flavor os of fruit up front and bitterness mid palate with fruit and a dankness from the hops in the finish.  It has a very dry finish with a minimal amount of astringency from all the hops.  There is no grit in the finish on this one.  It has a medium full body.  It seems to have more bitterness and less “juiciness” than some of the other examples.  It still has a big fruit character but seems more like a “traditional” AIPA.  The fruit fades a bit as the beer warms.  Pouring the dregs from the can doesn’t make much difference in either flavor or mouth feel.  I like this beer, but maybe it’s just comfort from being more like I expect an AIPA to be.

Steal This Can – Lord Hobo Brewing Co. – Woburn MA – IPA 6.5 ABV

There are fruit, herb and spice notes in the aroma, along with dankness.  The beer is very clear and has a gold color with an orange hue to it.  It has a tight, foamy white head with excellent retention.  The fruit aroma takes a back seat to the spice, herbs and dankness.  There is an herbal, vegetal (not in a bad way!) tart bitterness up front, more of the same in the middle, and not much flavor on the finish.  Just a lingering bitterness.  There is a hint of lime in both the flavor and aroma.  It has a medium body and lively mouth feel.  Not a bad beer, very straightforward.

Sea Hag – New England Brewing – Woodbridge CT – AIPA 6.2% ABV

The beer is brilliantly clear with a golden color and a huge beige head with good retention.  Aroma of oranges and tangerines with a background of tropical fruit.  As it warms, hops dankness becomes more prominent, then the fruit fades back in.  The flavor is bitterness up front, fruit mid palate, and a lingering dry finish.  There is a very slight note of oxidation to it, but not so much as to be objectionable.  There were no dregs in this can to pour into my glass.  This is another more traditional AIPA, with a lower fruit presence and more bitterness than other examples.

Be Hoppy – Wormtown Brewery – Worcester MA – AIPA 6.5% ABV

This is the only example I had that came in a bottle rather than a can.  The label says they double dry hop it and use a hopback.  The beer is very clear with an orange gold color to it.  There is a tight beige head with great retention.  Big citrus aromas….orange, tangerine, grapefruit.  After the fruit, you start to get herbal and dank hop aromas.  A wonderful, well rounded flavor coats your mouth.  There is fruit up front, an herbal dryness mid palate, and a very dry, maybe slightly astringent, finish.  Medium body, lively mouthfeel.  Another winner, a very drinkable beer.

Conclusive Tasting Notes (or Something Like That)

So, after all of that, here are my thoughts on the NE IPA style….based on these examples, there seems to be more than one NE IPA style.  While some of these beers were extremely hazy, others were as clear as any other beer you’ll see.  All exhibited a lot of tropical fruit aromas and flavors and pretty much all of them had citrus notes, too.  The ones without haze and grit were great examples of the “traditional” AIPA.

But that haze…I’m still at a loss to explain how that improves a beer.  Yes, it does significantly alter the mouth feel, which is what proponents seem to be looking for.  But in my opinion (and remember, it’s ONLY an opinion) the mouth feel isn’t altered in a positive way.  It not only feels strangely thick and gritty in my mouth, it seems to mute some of the flavors.  And that seems to be a good thing also to the people who like the style.  I’ve heard it said that you can get extreme fruitiness with subdued, soft bitterness by making beers like this.  Tastes are subjective as we all know….they’re welcome to their opinion, but those beers just don’t offer the crisp, refreshing flavor and sparkling appearance that I enjoy in an AIPA.

I also can’t reach any conclusions about the source of the haze.  In some of the Tree House beers, for example, the grit in the mouth feel could be from either hops or yeast.  If I had to make a guess, in those beers at least, I don’t think the grit was from unconverted starches as I’ve heard surmised.  But there’s no way of knowing for certain what created it.  And it’s entirely possible that each brewery has their method.

I may have finally gotten a bit of an idea about what “juicy” means in relation to these beers, though.  Could it be that the combination of the intense citrus/tropical hop flavor and low bitterness, combined with the thick mouth feel, kind of remind people of orange juice, with the haze and grit being the pulp in the juice?  I dunno,,,,that’s about all I can think of and I haven’t heard a description from anyone to compare mine to.

In general, I really enjoyed these beers and I want to once again give a huge thanks to Mike for the trouble and expense he went to in order for me to hopefully finally understand the NE IPA style.  I hope he’s not too disappointed in the results!  I can assure him (and you!) that I’ll continue to explore the style.