Tod Mott brewed the first IPA in New England in 1993 for the Harpoon Brewery (Boston, Massachusetts, and Windsor, Vermont). It was clear and balanced, and—for its time—it was an aggressively hopped beer.
Harpoon IPA is still a popular beer, but IPAs in New England have changed significantly in the twenty-plus years since Mott first poured the hops into the boil. “I think people’s palates have changed,” says Mott, the veteran brewer who now owns and operates Tributary Brewing Company in Kittery, Maine. “Nowadays, people expect it to be hops-forward and not too bitter. Compared to today, the Harpoon IPA is like a pale ale.”
India pale ales and their bigger brothers rule supreme in world of New England breweries, with breweries such as The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont; Trillium Brewing Company and Tree House Brewing Company in Massachusetts; and Bissell Brothers in Maine being responsible for some of the most sought-after beers in the country.
“Back in the 1990s, Harpoon IPA was the standard beer, and there were beers like Wachusett purple [the IPA has a purple label] and Redhook’s Ballard’s Bitter, but there weren’t many IPAs that were flagships or year rounds,” said Ben Roesch, brewmaster at Worcester, Massachusetts’s Wormtown Brewery, known for IPAs such as Be Hoppy and Hopulence. “You could kind of see the snowball rolling down the hill and becoming more prominent. They just popped.”
John Kimmich, owner/brewer of The Alchemist in Waterbury, Vermont, says it was those early beers and his early brewing experience at the landmark Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington that helped guide him to his beers today (and provided his yeast, Conan—see “Gather No Moss”).
Kimmich began brewing Heady Topper in 2004 at the former Alchemist brewpub. He opened his canning brewery in 2011 and now brews 180 barrels of Heady Topper a week. The beer is so popular that he had to close the brewery’s retail shop because so many people were coming to buy the beer that neighbors complained.
More Flavor, Less Bitterness
“The reason Heady Topper is so popular and continues to be popular is it lives up to expectations,” says Kimmich. “If you have had it and you come back to it, it’s just as good as it was. That’s a testament to the incredible amount of detail on my part and my team’s part. That is something that is underestimated today. I taste many beers that were at one time great and now are not.”
Although Kimmich won’t go into details about his brewing process, he says he doesn’t think he’s “doing anything wildly different from other breweries. My palate has always steered me to the cleaner, brighter, later fresh hops character, as opposed to long hops additions throughout the boil,” he says.
Noah Bissell, co-owner and brewmaster at Bissell Brothers in Portland, Maine, says the old school of brewing IPAs was to add hops at different points during the boil. Now, when he brews his beers, such as the popular Substance, he adds the hops late in the brewing process, and there is additional dry hopping. That method, Bissell says, significantly cuts down on bitterness while bringing out the natural flavor of the hops.
“Five or six years ago, it was all about the bitterness: ‘How tough are you? Can you handle this?’” says Bissell. “Now, it’s more about the myriad of flavors. I think a lot of brewers are making beers that are similar and have lots and lots of late hops and lots of dry hopping. In Substance, the first bittering addition is 1/30th the size of the hops addition after we turn off the heat on the kettle. Years ago, the bittering additions were what it was all about—they were getting 100 IBUs from the first addition. Now, we don’t even care about IBUs.”
Another difference is the number of hops available, says Sean Lawson, owner of Lawson’s Finest Liquids, a small-batch brewery based in Warren, Vermont. “It used to be all the classic ‘C’ hops, such as Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus,” says Lawson, brewer of the popular IPA, Sip of Sunshine, and the double IPA, Double Sunshine. “Now you have all these New Zealand hops and hops such as Mosaic and Equinox. It gives me a lot of flexibility.”
“I try to let the hops shine through,” continues Lawson. “The hops are the predominant flavor, and the malt really plays a supporting role. Brewers today use techniques, including hop bursting, where you add hops late in the boil and even in the whirlpool. This brings out tons of flavor and allows you to really show the hops flavor in the finished product.”
At Trillium Brewing Company, Jean-Claude Tetreault (brewmaster and owner) draws inspiration from such breweries as Jolly Pumpkin in Michigan, Allagash Brewing Company in Maine, and Cantillion in Belgium. But his IPAs and double IPAs, such as Congress Street IPA, Mettle, and Artaic (a double IPA brewed with 100 percent Mosaic hops and wildflower honey), bring the crowds to his small Boston brewery.
“New England brewers have figured out a way to put their own stamp on it and to create their own version of the IPA,” said Tetreault. “There’s now a New England IPA moniker, which was something created by the beer fan.”
Roll Out Those Hazy, Crazy IPAs
One of the characteristics of the so-called New England IPA is the haziness of the beers. Traditionally, IPAs are clear beers, but many of the more popular IPAs in New England are hazy—or “turbid” if you talk to the founder of a popular chain of beer stores in New England.
“It’s a pretty controversial topic,” says Tetreault. “We’re primarily holding aroma and flavor in the highest regard. Everything else falls secondary to that. It was pretty jarring when we brewed our first batch and we looked at it in a glass and asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ Then we tasted it and said, ‘This is right.’ Now, when we have a beer that isn’t hazy, people ask whether something went wrong.”
Bissell agrees. “Our beers are pretty hazy. Beers don’t have to be clear if you’re making hoppy beers.”
With all of the various IPAs available today, how much more can IPAs evolve? Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead (Greensboro Bend, Vermont), for one, doesn’t know. “Nearly every yeast, every barrel, every hops, and every citrus fruit has been used in combination with the three magic letters,” says Hill. “Surely, something new will transpire, but I do not see a revolution.”
(Full disclosure: The Wormtown Brewery brews a Chocolate Coconut Stout named Norm for the author of this article. The author did not participate in the brewing of the beer and does not receive any compensation for the beer.)