History of the New England India Pale Ale

By Mark Bowers

New England IPAs are arguably the most important recent trend in brewing–both currently and for the foreseeable future.  Wrapped in controversy since their very beginning, NEIPAs have had a well-storied path to acceptance by the brewing community as well as many beer aficionados.  Even the name is contentious: there is no official name for the NEIPA. However, a number of names are in circulation for this style, including New England-style, Northeast IPAs, Juicy or Hazy IPA, Vermont style, or simply “Hazies.”  Nevertheless, in the last few years the beer drinking community, including nascent beer imbibers, have embraced the style and vaunted their sales so much that NEIPAs are quickly becoming the leading style of beer throughout the US–and much of the world as well.

History and Background of NEIPA

NEIPA is essentially a sub style of the IPA or India Pale Ale.  Even that statement was controversial just a few short years ago.  It is interesting to note that so much surrounding NEIPAs has been in contention.  But more on that as we dive into the background of New England style IPAs.

As I wrote in my recent blog post History of the India Pale Ale, the revived IPA by American craft brewers started in California and was boosted by other craft breweries on the west coast including Oregon and Washington, where most of America’s hops are grown.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s these west coast breweries led the way in brewing innovative IPA–mostly resulting in beers that were higher in both bitterness and alcohol content. New hop varieties were also experimented with and became popular in IPAs including the “older” Cascade (citrusy with grapefruit) plus now there was Centennial (Cascade on steroids) and Chinook (piney & herbal, some grapefruit).

Meanwhile, on the east coast, craft breweries were beginning to follow the trends in beers emerging from the west coast.  Harpoon came out with its version of IPA, a style that remains popular to this day. Around this time, Smuttynose also released a popular IPA, Finest Kind, followed by other breweries further down the coast such as Dogfish Head’s 60 & 90 Minute IPAs and Victory’s Hop Devil. Despite this rash of IPA innovation, these beers were essentially just slight variations of west coast-style IPAs.

Vermont Does its Thing

Prior to the 1990s, Greg Noonan had already made a name for himself in the craft beer industry.  He had published the book Brewing Lager Beer: The Most Comprehensive Book for Home – And Microbrewers, which became widely read by new emerging craft brewers.  In 1988 after spending three years lobbying the Vermont legislature to legalize brewpubs, Greg opened the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, Vermont. A number of other craft breweries had opened around this time but most of them became larger production breweries focusing on a selection of, more well-known beer styles. Greg wanted his business to stay as a brew pub so he could brew many different beer styles as well as constantly innovating.  Not only did Noonan make numerous different beers, but several of them garnered medals at the Great American Beer Festival, GBBF, and other beer competitions. In addition, Noonan is credited with brewing the first version of a black IPA.  However, more importantly to the development of NEIPAs, Greg mentored and influenced the next round of inventive and pioneering Vermont craft brewers.  

Enter our next player in the story of NEIPA: John Kimmich. John Kimmich was an avid home brewer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania working in a home brew supply store who decided to make brewing his occupation.  He moved from there in 1994 to learn commercial brewing with Greg Noonan in Vermont. Starting at the bottom, waiting on tables, John eventually became head brewer at the pub, where he experimented with hops in IPAs, a favorite beer style of his.  

The Six Point Brewers Star which has its roots in alchemy

John and his wife Jen, who he met while working at the pub, decided to open their own brew pub nearly a decade later after working in a number of beer related occupations.  Opening in November 2003 in Waterbury, Vermont, they named their brew pub The Alchemist Pub & Brewery after noticing a small symbol in the Vermont Pub & Brewery’s old logo, which Noonan explained was the alchemical symbol for fermentation.  Before the end of January 2004, Kimmich brewed the first version of Heady Topper, arguably the first NEIPA. 

This beer, even though only labeled as an ale, was a big, double IPA clocking in at a respectable 8% ABV.  Although bitter at ~75 IBUs, it was not a palate wrecker like some west coast style IPAs, many of which were even higher in bitterness.  Instead it was the aroma and flavor of Heady Topper that drew the drinker in, offering a near overabundance of fresh hop aroma and flavor.  Reportedly the beer contains seven hops used late in the boil or in the dry hop: Apollo, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Columbus and Simcoe. All of these are new generation hops from the Pacific Northwest, several of which only became available a few years before Heady Topper was first brewed.  Besides the fruity, piney, resiny hop presence, this beer also had a mouthfeel that was softer and silkier than a traditional IPA, tending to round out its hoppiness both in terms of flavor, aroma and bitterness.

Kimmich and Noonan had both been tolerant of the increasing haze level of aromatic IPAs, but Heady Topper took this to a new level.  As is often said, “you drink with your eyes” and the very hazy, nearly cloudy appearance of Heady Topper is the first thing any beer drinker would notice.  Although haziness was historically considered a fault in IPAs, Kimmich was more interested in getting as much hop flavor and especially aroma out of his IPAs.  He also was eager to brew a beer that smelled like cannabis, hence the origin of the name Heady Topper. Despite its unorthodox hazy appearance, Kimmich’s IPA gathered a fairly devout following at the same time that online beer rating sites were becoming more popular..  As a result, many beer geeks started making pilgrimages to The Alchemist to try Heady Topper among their other hoppy, usually hazy, IPA offerings.

Shortly before hurricane Irene destroyed The Alchemist brew pub, John and Jen opened The Alchemist cannery on the outskirts of Waterbury, which luckily survived Irene.  The only beer they brewed and canned was Heady Topper, and although it was only distributed in nearby towns, people from all over made trips to the Waterbury area to stock up on cases of Heady Topper to bring back home and share with friends and family.

NEIPAs Spread Across Vermont

Not only were craft beer drinkers discovering Heady Topper, but other craft brewers were as well.  One of these was Shaun Hill, a home brewer turned professional brewmaster.  He hails from a small town in northern Vermont, Greensboro.  Hill ended up working at several breweries in Vermont and became a regular at The Alchemist brew pub.  As most brewers are wont to do, he spent hours talking to Kimmich about brewing, especially highly aromatic and flavorful IPAs.  After spending a couple of years brewing beer in Denmark at Nørrebro Bryghus, Shaun returned to his hometown. In 2010 he opened a small brewery on what used to be his grandfather’s homestead farm naming it simply Hill Farmstead.  His first beers consisted of several hoppy, hazy IPAs including a single hop Citra beer.  Hazy, but bursting with fresh, citrusy, fruity flavors it showcased what the new Citra hop could be.  From its very inception Hill Farmstead offered several softly bitter, unfiltered, and highly aromatic IPAs, which were denoted by Hill as “juicy,” possibly the first use of the term to describe an IPA.  Soon lines were forming at the brewery when it opened so that customers could get their growlers filled, as this was the only format sold at the brewery up until about 2018. 

A few other Vermont breweries also became caught up in this new emerging take on an IPA.  Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Matthew Cohen of Fiddlehead Brewing made a few similar hazy, hoppy, fruity IPAs of acclaim, further extending commercialization of this type of IPA.

NEIPAs Slow Spread

Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead IPAs soon obtained cult status.  Avid beer drinkers from across the country made pilgrimages to Vermont just to buy these hoppy beers. Heady Topper soon became the highest rated beer on Beer Advocate’s online rating system and held its position for several years.  Despite this popularity, other brewers were slow to bring out beers resembling these radical new hazy IPAs.

There were a few reasons for this.  Both Kimmich and Hill were secretive about their recipes and gave only very general advice on brewing beers like theirs.  The newer, fruitier hops were in short supply. Plus most other breweries appeared to be unimpressed with the beers, writing them off as defective, low-quality, and at best just a passing fad.  Much of this thinking comes from brewers long experience ensuring that their beers were clear in appearance. Cloudy beers often represented the presence of an infection or just plain poor craftsmanship, such as rushing the beer or failing to filter it.  Even today, when NEIPAs are in nearly every liquor store and bar, there are many who just cannot get past the hazy appearance, which they derogatorily refer to as muddy, sludgy, even chunky.  

Tree House Brewing Co.
“Very Green” by Tree House (via treehousebrew.com)

Nevertheless, the next phase in the proliferation and development of NEIPAs was with the formation of a wave of new craft breweries that from the start offered several different NEIPAs, and some offering only NEIPAs.  Several of these breweries acquired cult status and subsequently had long lines waiting for the next release of their hazy, fruity, juicy IPAs, including the now ubiquitous Trillium and Treehouse in Massachusetts, Bissell Brothers in Maine, Other Half and SingleCut in New York, and Tired Hands in Pennsylvania to name a few.  Many of these breweries were opened by innovative home brewers who had experimented with NEIPAs at home and had discovered techniques, ingredients, yeast strains and processes that yielded hoppy, fruity, juicy, silky, chewy, smooth NEIPAs pushing the style further than the original Vermont brewers.

NEIPAs Go Mainstream

By about 2017, there were dozens of small craft breweries in virtually every state that were producing a version of a hazy NEIPA.  Many if not most of these were small breweries that served only a small, local area. Not only were these breweries and their NEIPAs popular, their success in brewing this stylewas gaining the attention of the bigger regional and national craft breweries, whose beer sales growth was dramatically slowing in part due to the new, smaller, local-serving breweries with their taprooms eating into the big breweries marketplace.   

Sam Adams New England IPA (via Drinkhacker)

Beginning in about 2018, a number of larger national craft breweries came out with their versions of NEIPAs.  Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams, spent a year or more developing their version of a NEIPA. Their R&D brewers spent time looking at nearly every aspect of the style including yeast strains, hop types and hop addition timing, temperature, and amounts as well as water treatment minerals.  In all they made nearly 100 test batches before releasing Sam Adams New England IPA, calling it “hazy & juicy.”

A few other big national craft breweries also joined the fray.  Sierra Nevada has its Hazy Little Thing IPA; Stone Brewing has Fear. Movie. Lions Double IPA; Bell’s Brewery has Incessant Double New England IPA and Harpoon has Juicer New England Style IPA

NEIPA Still Controversial

As NEIPAs reach mainstream America and many other places in the world the controversy must also be dying out, right? Well, not completely. I have already mentioned the haze issue and the different names; however, I will now expand on that a bit further.

None of the first pioneers in the style of NEIPAs were out to create a hazy beer or a new style of IPA.  John Kimmich, when asked about his new style of IPA, was always quick to point out that what he and other Vermont brewers were making were still just IPAs, saying at one point “Personally, I find it a little arrogant to try and claim that we do something so different that it deserves its own category.”  Making the beer hazy was not intended at least by these first brewers of NEIPAs; it was predominantly a byproduct of the process to get more hop aroma and flavor into the beer.  

So how did they get more hop flavor and aroma into the beer?  More hops of course! But that is a gross oversimplification. While the west coast version of IPA was developing, brewers had been adding more and more hops to their beers.  This was during the so-called bitter wars, where most of the added hops went into the boil, early on, where the hop’s bitterness was created and released by boiling in wort (pre-fermented beer).  

However, at this point a huge sea change was happening in the craft brewing industry, especially with NEIPAs.  Brewers were moving most if not all hop additions from early in the boil to the end of the boil and even after the boil in cooler, off boil steeps.  Traditionally, all beers, even ones that are not notably bitter, add the hops at the beginning of the boil, which typically lasts anywhere from 60-90 minutes.  As beer writer Jeff Alworth put it in his article “Hop Shift” in All About Beer (May 2016), states, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the history of brewing no one has ever approached beer this way.”  This results in the beer retaining more of the hops’ flavor and aroma without making it too bitter.

A side product of adding more hops is it adds haze to the beer.  Other aspects of brewing NEIPAs also tend to make these beers hazy.  These include hopping during fermentation, large dry hopping quantities, variety of hops used and type of yeast used.  Even though haze is not intentional by most brewers, its presence in NEIPAs has been shown to enhance the hop flavor and aroma as well as adding to the beer’s smooth mouthfeel. 

Abundance of fruity, citrus and tropical, aromas and flavors with low bitterness coupled with a smooth, silky, chewy texture that often looks like orange juice is definitely much different than all of the IPAs that had preceded NEIPAs.  Even so, it was not until 2018, fourteen years after Heady Topper first debuted, that the Brewers Association, a craft brewers trade association, finally added NEIPAs to its Beer Style Guidelines. However, they chose to name the style “juicy or hazy” IPA instead of New England IPA, even though most customers knew it as New England IPA.

Regardless of what you call it, NEIPAs have continuously gained in popularity with beer drinkers such that it has become the fastest growing craft beer segment of the major beer types.  NEIPAs have attracted numerous new beer drinkers–both people who are new to drinking craft beer as well as beer drinkers who in the past would never touch a traditional craft IPA. Much of this is due to the fact that NEIPAs are lower in bitterness yet high in fruitiness compared to other beer styles that people are familiar with.  NEIPAs are here to stay for now, but we will have to wait to see how it evolves in the future.

“Hyperfocus”, one of our NEIPAs

Mark Bowers is the Brewmaster at Aeronaut. The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original author, and they do not necessarily represent those of Aeronaut Brewing Co.

Illustration courtesy of Brit Weidel

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