We tend to think of hops as one of the four essential ingredients in beer. But that just shows how modern we are: although people have been drinking beer for at least 5000 years, hops have only been a crucial part of the recipe since sometime in the 14th or 15th century. But they are a wonderful addition: not only do they help keep beer from spoiling, but they also balance the sweetness of the residual sugars so that you can drink a beer without feeling sick. And some styles of course, are specifically designed to showcase hop-derived bitterness (think not just IPA but German Pilsner, as well).
Much more recently, hops have also come to be appreciated for the wide range of flavors and aromas they can contribute, especially if added late in the brewing process. This is one reason why it’s often unhelpful to describe a beer simply as “hoppy”. In some contexts that word is used to describe where a beer falls on the sweet-to-bitter spectrum: Stone Ruination IPA is hoppy, whereas Left Hand Milk Stout is not. In this sense, “hoppy” is not a word that describes a flavor; instead, it describes the sensation in your mouth as the beer washes over your tongue. That sensation is either more like strawberries (sweet) or more like arugula (bitter). But in other contexts the word “hoppy” might refer to those deliciously fruity or citrusy flavors and aromas, regardless of how bitter the beer is.
Aubrey recently wrote an impassioned defense of the sexy-yet-hated-by-beer-hipsters New England-style IPA, and I agree with him that this style is here to stay. In fact, thoughtful beer-drinkers could easily have predicted its rise, since it’s the very distinction between hop bitterness and hop flavor that makes the style possible. But I also think that it can be confusing to have two styles calling themselves “IPA” that differ so dramatically in flavor profile. The solution is not to tell brewers what to call their beer, though. Instead, the solution is for beer-drinkers to get smarter, and in particular, to learn how to talk about the differences between styles. And to do that, we need the right words. So let me try to offer a bit of help.
When a brewer makes an American IPA, she knows she’ll be adding a lot of hops. But beyond quantity, there are two basic decisions she has to make. First: what hop varieties should I use? Second: when in the process should I add them? And there are two basic answers to each of these questions. As for type of hop: one option is the classic American varieties that mostly start with ‘C’, such as Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook. The other option is to go with newer and sexier varieties, many of which are proprietary, such as Citra, Galaxy, Mosaic, and Simcoe. As for when to add them: generally speaking your choices are “early” or “late”. These four options – classic hops, new-fangled hops, early in the process, late in the process – play a huge role in determining the eventual character of the IPA. In general:
Hops added early in the process contribute bitterness but very little flavor/aroma.
Hops added late in the process contribute flavor/aroma but very little bitterness.
Classic American hops taste of trees and bitter fruit (pine, resin, grapefruit)
Newer hops taste of sweet fruit (tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, melon)
With that general framework in mind, return now to the contrast between traditional American IPAs and New England IPAs. At a basic level, brewers of traditional American IPAs emphasize an early addition of classic American hops, so they end up with aggressively bitter beers that taste of pine and grapefruit. Think: Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, or Stone Ruination IPA.
Brewers of New-England IPAs, on the other hand, tend to emphasize late doses of new-fangled hops, so they end up with very low perceived bitterness and lots of sweet fruit flavors. Think not just Structures Fuzz, but also Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA, last year’s release of Fort George 3-Way IPA, and even the latest iterations of Aslan’s Batch 15.
Of course these are just generalizations, so take them with a grain of barley. Real-life IPA examples are all over the flavor map, but it helps to have a sense of the extremes, if only so that you can make more informed decisions about what to order.
But how about some practical advice? If a brewery advertises one of their beers as an IPA, you need a quick way to find out whether it’s one you want to drink. So instead of asking about hop varieties, instead let’s talk about flavor words.
The question I would ask of my beertender is this one:
Is your IPA more toward dank and bitter, or is it more toward bright and juicy?
The contrast between bitter and juicy is perhaps the easiest one to get a grip on. As I’m thinking of them, these two words describe flavors and also mouthfeels. If your beer has hop flavors reminiscent of guava, pineapple, and strawberry, then it obviously falls on the juicy side of the flavor spectrum. At the other extreme, an IPA might taste predominately of grapefruit pith. But bitterness and juiciness are also mouthfeels: it’s the difference between what the sides of your tongue and your throat feel like after you’ve taken a sip of grapefruit juice, as opposed to how they feel after you’ve taken a sip of an Odwalla. (Seriously, go try it.)
The contrast between dank and bright is perhaps less intuitive, so let me use images: it’s meant to be the difference between how you feel inside your soul when you are hiking up to Oyster Dome on a cold and slippery day in January, as compared to the state of your soul when you are sitting on the back deck at Pelican Brewery on the Oregon coast, watching the dune climbers on a hot August day. Or, to try another image: it’s the difference between grunge and pop music. You know Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? (Of course you do.) That’s dank. Alright, now go listen to this rendition, which is the result of someone digitally transposing it into a major key. That’s bright. (It’s also sort of creepy.)
I realize those are images of emotional states rather than flavor profiles, but to be honest I’m not sure there’s a clear difference between those two things. Choosing your beer is partly a matter of choosing what emotional state you want to be in, and from that perspective, traditional American IPAs and NE IPAs are as different as can be.
Still, in less metaphorical terms, you can think of dankness as a feeling in your mouth: it’s somewhat heavy, and hangs around on your tongue, weighing it down. Brightness, on the other hand, quenches thirst by lifting the beer off the tongue after you swallow. And these feelings are associated with flavors, too: the resin and pine flavors in a traditional American IPA might feel like they’re still stuck to your tongue after you swallow, whereas the guava, melon, and apricot of an NE IPA disappear after swallowing, perhaps leaving a pleasant afterglow in your throat, but your tongue is left primed for the next sip.
One important final note: I haven’t said anything so far about haze. That’s because I agree with Aubrey: the haze is a byproduct of trying to get a New England-style IPA to taste the way the brewer wants it to taste. I suspect part of the reason why craft beer hipsters are sometimes annoyed by the so-called haze craze is that haze seems like an odd thing to get worked up about. What matters, from my perspective anyway, is not whether the beer is cloudy, but whether it’s bright and juicy. Those are characteristics worth getting worked up about.
(For more on the flavor profile of NE IPAs from Grand Master beer judge Gordon Strong, check out this article.)