Brewer’s Perspective: West Coast Haze

Does the world really need another kind of IPA? What if it's already here? Connor Casey, cofounder of Cellarmaker Brewing in San Francisco, sketches out what may be the next inevitable evolution of the style.

Connor Casey Oct 10, 2020 - 10 min read

Brewer’s Perspective: West Coast Haze Primary Image

When we consider the many IPA subcategories that have flourished in the past decade, I find it surprising that some hybrid of West Coast and New England–style IPA hasn’t been discussed more in depth. Think of all those brewers using large amounts of fruit puree, enzymes to aggressively dry out the beer, milk sugar, vanilla, and even coffee—we as an industry have certainly pushed the limits (and fantastically so) of the consistently most in-demand style of beer.

Personally, when I drink IPA, I am looking for intense aroma—trying to capture the same experience we have when cracking open a fresh bag of killer T-90 pellets. In addition, I want medium-plus bitterness (55–80 IBUs) and hop flavor that is some combination of resinous pine and tropical fruit.

I do not like sweet IPA at all. In fact, I despise it.

So, let’s go back. It’s 2013, and hoppy beer looks like this: Heady Topper is the gold standard for NEIPA (and is getting us all stoked about 16-ounce cans); Treehouse is still brewing on a 7-barrel system and filling growlers; Tired Hands is pioneering obscure and beautiful culinary IPAs; and people speak of Hill Farmstead beers as if they have been to Narnia and back to obtain this magical liquid. On the West Coast (specifically, northern California), we’re drinking Ballast Point Sculpin and Russian River Blind Pig: clear, bitter, and beautifully aromatic.

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Locally, most brewers found what was happening back East to be some sort of fad, and they scoffed at it. The only hazy IPA from the West Coast I drank before 2013 was Alpine’s Nelson, a beer that holds a special place in the hearts of many California brewers and beer fans, myself included. I’ll never forget getting growlers of Nelson back in 2010 and seeing how intensely hazy it was—an appearance that, back then, was jarring. Then you smelled and tasted the beer, and it was one of the best IPAs you’d ever had, appearances aside. Sante Adairius also was making unfiltered West Coast IPAs as early as 2012.

When we opened Cellarmaker in 2013, hazy IPA was still sacrilege to most other brewers in our area, and it remained that way until well into 2015. Our Head Brewer and Cofounder Tim Sciascia and I were not opposed to making hazy IPAs, and we had certainly enjoyed them. However, we were also opening a brewery on the West Coast, and we felt that consumers would want mostly clear and bitter. We were inspired by what was happening back East though, and we wanted our beers to have those beautiful tropical characteristics—and yet still have the bitterness that we feel is necessary in IPA. We certainly didn’t want to drop the IBUs down to 40, but a nice, assertive-but-not-tongue-numbing 50–70 IBUs range seemed appropriate.

To achieve the aromas we were finding in these East Coast beers, we decided to up the dry-hopping rates significantly. The norm seemed to be 1 to 1½ pounds per barrel, and we really wanted to give this 3 to 4 pounds-per-barrel dry-hop business a shot. Let’s get this beer to smell amazing … from like five feet away. The aromatic experience while consuming a hoppy beer is damn near as fun as actually drinking it. A side effect of these massive dry-hopping rates was hop haze—not a milky beer by any means, but a light haze. We were using a fair amount of fining agents (1.5 liters of Biofine per 10-barrel batch) in these beers, but they were still exhibiting significant levels of haze. That haze also brought a softer mouthfeel.

A key point: We used California ale yeast, aka the Chico strain. It’s what we knew, it’s what we could “borrow” from other breweries in our first year when we were short on cash, and it’s a strain that contributes very little in the way of flavor—i.e., it’s neutral, and it leaves plenty room for the hops to rip!

Something that really plays into the selection of that yeast for West Coast haze is hop sourcing. We go through a ton of effort to source the best hops the world has to offer. It felt like using any estery yeast would be a step backward from trying to express the raw character of those hops. With any expressive yeast, those hops will show themselves so differently—and, in my opinion, muddled. Am I getting X fruit flavor from the Strata hops or from the yeast? If there is a fruity flavor from my yeast in every beer, isn’t that repetitive?

We never set out to make hazy beer, plain and simple. It just sort of happened while we were on our aromatic mission. Because we were not using an expressive English yeast strain, these beers had little-to-no yeast character in the way of the pure hop character they were exhibiting. We pared our grain bills down from other West Coast IPAs, which had a fair amount of crystal malt. Ours were closer to that of lagers.

I’ll never forget when we were five or six months old, and a taproom regular approached me and said, “Hey, I think I really like the hazier beers you’re making, and it’s been about a month. When’s the next one coming out?” That stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew the guy well enough, and he wasn’t a trend chaser. He just made an assessment that he personally preferred the beers with a hazier appearance to those that were clear. Fair enough! Nothing is more important than your instincts and the “Do you like it?” factor when drinking/eating anything. Never let other people tell you what you “should” like.

Ultimately what you drink (and brew) should be about your preferences more than anything else. To us, this is a style that brings out the best of the two leading styles of IPA on the market in a way that is unique enough to be defined as its own thing.

Characteristics of West Coast Hazy IPA

  • Lighter-bodied, dry finish, minimal residual sugar
  • Hazy in appearance, not milky
  • Hop-derived (not yeast-derived) aromas similar to NEIPA
  • Bitterness somewhere between an NEIPA and a West Coast IPA

To elaborate on those characteristics a bit further:

  • The body is similar to what some now refer to as California IPA or even a lager. A hazy beer is not always thick. This may throw people off, but the availability of thousands of London III bombs will do that.
  • Haze brings softness to beer. You can achieve bitterness and softness simultaneously, which is kind of cool.

Things to Consider When Brewing a West Coast Hazy

  • Certain hop varietals (especially Australian and New Zealander varieties) can leave more haze than others.
  • A tall, skinny fermentor can clear a beer that would have stayed hazy in a fatter, shorter one.
  • If your drinkers are dead set on full-bodied, estery, hazy IPA, this will be different to them and may be perceived as “thin.” I personally like a leaner-bodied IPA.
  • I’ve been told that people brewing with White Labs WLP001 California Ale or equivalents (we use GigaYeast’s Norcal strain) have trouble keeping their beers hazy. Experimentation with haze-inducing grains and hop dosages may be needed to keep a West Coast hazy, well, hazy.

This is worth noting: If you need to make a hazy beer (i.e., the beer you are making is branded as “hazy”), these beers will occasionally drop clear or clearer than you may want. This means that if you were to submit beer to any of the “hazy IPA” festivals that began occurring on the West Coast around 2016, you would really need to guarantee haze. That would mean using an estery English strain, and not the California ale yeast, to ensure that you weren’t sending clear beer to a haze fest.

Commercial Examples of West Coast Hazy

  • Any Cellarmaker IPA (San Francisco, California) that doesn’t mention “expressive yeast” and isn’t crystal clear. Currently about 80 percent of our IPA production is made to be West Coast hazy.
  • All the IPAs from Sante Adairius Rustic Ales (Capitola, California)
  • Green Cheek Reverse Engineered IPA (Orange, California)
  • Modern Times Clear and Present Dankness (San Diego, California)
  • Highland Park Brewery Partly Cloudy (Los Angeles, California)

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