The idea of driving from Madrid to Tbilisi—a 3,000-plus mile journey that passes through 10 or 11 countries—seems daft. It’s really far. Such a trek would take you across Europe, through a portion of the Middle East, and to within spitting distance of Russia. You would encounter myriad languages, a number of religious traditions, and different cuisines, cultures, and fashions. It would never occur to you that the beer would be the same along that route.
Yet roughly the same distance separates Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. You might imagine that along that vast distance, you’d find differences in the way people make their beer. That was the initial idea behind this article—to document those differences in the ways that brewers in different regions make their hazy IPAs.
Yet, when I set out to investigate this question, speaking with brewers and writers across the country, they kept describing the same kinds of beers. As a control, I polled my readers on social media and my blog about their preferences. I was astounded to find that not only did drinkers from different regions prefer pretty much the same things, but they also agreed with the brewers, too.
Americans may be riven by political and cultural divisions, but in this one small area, we seem to speak with a single voice.
How We Got Here
It wasn’t always this way, of course—IPAs were once much more regional. Brewers started making IPAs in the 1980s on the West Coast, long before they appeared elsewhere. What we now call hazies started cropping up in New England almost three decades later.
Boston-based writer Andy Crouch has had a ringside seat at this evolution. “When I first moved here more than 20 years ago, New England brewers worshipped at the altar of malt-forward, slightly earthy, English-style IPAs,” he writes. He invokes Harpoon IPA as an example. That beer, developed in 1993, was so focused on the grist that brewer Tod Mott used to bake pale malt in his oven to get a toasty, English flavor. Hops were secondary.
According to the origin story, New England didn’t really “discover” hops until John Kimmich at The Alchemist in Vermont released a certain double IPA. “When we started putting Heady Topper in the can,” he recalls, “there just wasn’t anything like that.”
Others may remember it differently, but this roughly corresponds to my memory. Traveling once a year to see in-laws, I never encountered a hop-forward IPA until the 2010s. Heady Topper loosed something into the New England bloodstream that seemed to circulate almost instantly. Kimmich describes what happened next: “It … began to explode in evolution. You quickly saw the acceptance of haze in an IPA, and like everything else in craft beer, it’s like, ‘If you put in two, I’m going to put in three.’”
By the time New England IPAs reached the rest of the country, they had moved two or three steps beyond Heady Topper. “A hazy IPA has become synonymous with soft, extravagantly hopped beers that are way beyond hazy into the realm of murky and muddy,” Kimmich says. “It’s the nature of the business that more is better, more is better. But more often than not, more is just more.”
That definition of a hazy IPA—with abundant residual sugar, sometimes finishing as high as 5 or 6°P (1.020–1.024), a pillowy, fluffy body, an almost opaque cloudiness, and a dense tropical perfume produced by massive post-kettle hop loads—is often the one we think of now. The real question is how truly that describes what we actually find in the wild.
Increasingly, the answer is “not very.”
Reality Versus Reputation
When I started surveying brewers about how they made their hazies, I started hearing something similar. Here’s Will Golden, director of brewing at Austin Beerworks: “I think there is somewhat of a ‘soft IPA’ fatigue that has people requesting more bitterness and less-thick, sweet IPAs,” he writes. “I have seen a drift up in IBUs for hazy beers in Texas. Also, hops are not just tropical fruit cup, but pine, resin, and citrus-forward. Think Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial, and Citra.”
In San Francisco, John “Magic” Montes De Oca jokes that brewers are trying to get as close to a glass of juice as possible. Yet at Barebottle Brewing, he’s noticed that goal comes with a caveat. “This is still California and the home of the West Coast IPA, so dank, piney, and grassy flavors are also very commonly found, often blended with the tropical hops. If you can make a beer that smells and tastes like slightly dank guava and mangos, you’ve hit a home run.”
Down in San Diego—known for a drier, more bitter style of West Coast IPA—people are trading some of those IBUs for a juicier profile. Advanced Cicerone and Pure Project beer educator Chris Leguizamon points to the history there. “When I work behind the bar at Pure, the crowds will ask for a citrusy IPA more than a tropical or stone fruit or berry. You had pioneers like Stone IPA and Ballast Point Sculpin that all have an intense grapefruit zest and orange marmalade overtone.”
At Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, COO Brendan McGivney says they see tourists looking for the exaggerated forms of hazies. However, locals prefer what he calls “mountain-style” IPA, which “features a bright haze and hop notes of pineapple, tangerine, fresh cannabis, and lime.” He describes it as a “more balanced and refreshing IPA.”
In Portland, Maine, Bissell Brothers is one of the most lauded hazy IPA breweries—yet even cofounder Noah Bissell sounds more like a brewer from the other Portland when it comes to balancing these beers. “I think most of our hoppy beers would fall more in line with the Pacific Northwest interpretation than sweeter/denser versions that are certainly present here,” he writes. “I’m a staunch believer in the necessity of bitterness. Frankly, the ubiquity of IPAs overtly striving to eliminate bitterness altogether has played a big part in the shift I’m sensing more and more back toward West Coast IPAs.”
Of course, in a country this large, there are always going to be certain deviations. Lauren Lerch, brewing supervisor at Uinta Brewing in Salt Lake City, notes that Utah laws compel brewing under 5 percent ABV for the draft market. Still, she reports that hazy IPAs there exhibit “the full gamut of flavors and intensities seen coast to coast—and we celebrate them all! They can be juicy and sweet, dry and pithy, with or without lactose, and range from barely hazy to immensely thick and opaque.”
Remarkably, each brewer describing the scene on the ground in their own region observes similar trends toward increased bitterness, a drier palate for more balance, and some citric flavor components. They all mention it in the context of their local scene, and some even explain it in relation to regional history, climate, and tastes.
Yet they’re all pretty much on the same page.
The trends in hazies point to a convergence with West Coast IPAs, which have gotten increasingly fruity and juicy in recent years, coinciding with a drop in bitterness. What separates these two traditions is more a matter of degree now—or rather, they exist along a continuous spectrum.
The results of my survey bear that out. Fewer than 4 percent of the respondents said they wanted “full and sweet” hazies with “very low” bitterness—hallmarks of the style, in theory. Even more surprisingly, almost as many people said they preferred classic West Coast hops (“citrus, pine, dank”) in their hazies as said they preferred “tropical” flavors—and that was true even in New England.
Kimmich—who says that his beers these days fall halfway between the hazies he helped inspire and West Coast IPAs—seems to speak for many when he describes his hoppy happy place. “What I love the best is that fresh, out-of-the-bag aroma—that’s what I want in my IPAs,” he says. “Like opening a jar of perfectly cured, dank, sticky nugs, and that wall of aroma hits you?—that’s it. That’s the stuff.”
Because the United States is so big, we assume the forces that shape our own region are distinctive. We live and drink locally, and it’s challenging to think that trends halfway across the country would affect our local preferences. However, something more interesting appears to be happening. Independently, each region of the country seems to be shifting and changing course in harmony with the other regions, like fish in a school.
Being an American means sharing a larger national history that includes the Cascade hop fields of Oregon and Washington and certain landmark beers bristling with grapefruit and pine. Those beers never left—they’re still readily available on supermarket and package-store shelves—and they create a background of expectation. Much as Bavarians or Belgians have distinctive flavor preferences, Americans now seem to have their own particular “palate.” It’s stronger than our regional identities, and potent enough to guide a simultaneous, collective evolution in hazy IPAs in every corner of the country.
It may change, but for now, there’s no longer a distinctive New England or West Coast (or Southern or Midwestern) hazy IPA. Now it’s all—once again—just American IPA.