Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.

32 thoughts on “Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion”

  1. I keep saying that I have in mind a post which is at the cross-roads of the two I’ve written on haze and hop aroma – because the NE IPA as a concept is closely linked to these elements. I am going to get round to writing that blog post one of these days. Honestly.

    But a quick response on the style: the intent is first and foremost that it is juicy and refreshing in flavour, whilst soft and pillowy in texture. The primary intent is not the appearance of the beer (the haziness or cloudiness), that is merely a by-product of the means of achieving the goal. Some people (an increasing amount of people it seems) get the wrong end of the stick and think that the haziness if the point, or that a hazy beer will taste a particular way – based purely on its appearance. As I mentioned in my post on hazy beer, people even went as far as to add stuff to their beer to make it cloudy on purpose because they thought, through a lens of sympathetic magic, that if it looked cloudy it would automatically taste as good as any of the soupy-looking IPAs from Trillium or Treehouse… But, oddly enough, simply adding flour or apple sauce to your beer does not lead to a Tired Hands Milkshake IPA

    As for bitterness, the juicy fruit character/soft mouthfeel is the goal. A high level of bitterness would oppose that (in this style of beer). It’s not intended to be as bitter as it is fruity. If people don’t enjoy that then the style is not for them. It’s a personal preference.

    As for yeast – again, people assume when they see a hazy beer that the opacity must be related to yeast present in the finished beer (this attitude is a product of the whole ‘clear beer’ thing we had in the UK I would guess). This is not always the case. In fact, since the style has been around for a while now, some people have actually checked to see how much viable yeast is present in some of the more popular NE IPA. Not much at all was the answer. The particulate matter in the finished beer is proteins from the grains used in the mash, e.g. oats, and proteins from the huge amount of hops used in dry hopping.

    As with all beer styles, if you don’t like one there will certainly be others you can enjoy instead.

  2. I’ve not drunk any of the NE/Vermont-style IPAs brewed over here, but I first came across craft beer as a concept in New England 20 years ago, and have visited regularly since, each visit including Vermont. Although most of the Vermont breweries have included an IPA, very few of the older-established ones have tried a Vermont-style one – the long-dead Catamount, Long Trail, Magic Hat aand Harpoon, for example. In fact the only one I’ve tried out there (several times, too) is the originator of the species, Alchemist’s Heady Topper. And to be honest, I didn’t even know when drinking it that it was hazy, because they more or less insist that it’s drunk straight from the can to avoid losing volatile hop oils. And maybe they’re right, because it’s certainly always tasted bitter enough to a hophead like me, for all that it is not really defined just by bitterness; it was remarkably well balanced. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t subscribe to the hype.

  3. The lack of bitterness is my favourite thing about them. I used to put up with what I considered overly bitter beers to get the hop flavour and aroma I liked, but then they came along and I realised I didn’t have to. From a homebrew perspective I’ve now started mimicking their hop schedules but forgetting about the oats and wheat and using a more flocculate yeast, so I can get a similar flavour/juiciness and bitterness profile of the style without the stability issues that the less flocculant, conan especially, yeast seems to give me.

  4. IPAs are often geared towards the extremes, whether that’s extremes of bitterness (Stone Ruination/Mikkeller 1000 IBU) or extreme fruitiness/lack of bitterness in NEIPA. A little bitterness as in the Cloudwater NW DIPA you mention is preferable for me, but the juiciest IPA is, for me, infinitely more enjoyable than those that brag about levels of bitterness, which usually end up with a nasty lingering taste that reminds me of accidentally getting hairspray in my mouth.

    1. There’s always going to personal preference involved. My (clearly quite dull) taste buds aren’t hugely sensitive to bitterness, which means I tend to go for bitter IPAs (as well as very dark chocolate, espresso etc.)

      The odd juicy number is fine though – as long as it doesn’t run oniony (Citra seems to do so sometimes).

  5. Cloudwater have made a point of regularly brewing lagers alongside the hoppy stuff (I believe their head brewer worked at – I think – Heineken for years, so knows his stuff when it comes to precision brewing), so it’s not really surprising that their DIPL is particularly good.

    I love their lagers, being of an age where my ‘beer awakening’ came necessarily pre-craft. For me it was Czech pilsners that did it.

    On topic, I have no problem with haze or murk at all, but agree that the fashionable ‘juicebomb’ lacks the bitterness I prefer in a hoppy beer. Magic Rock seem to have got the balance right with their recent Other Half collaboration, Half Cut.

  6. Off at a tangent – I attended a recent lecture given by Dr Keith Thomas of Brewlab. He suspects that people who regularly drink beers with very high bitterness are permanently affecting the biochemistry of their palates such that they can no longer taste the subtleties of low-bitterness beers. He says “there’s a PhD in this for someone”.

    1. Permanently? I can see an argument for habituation, like with caffeine – but that implies that if you go cold turkey, you reset your sensitivity. But “permanent” is a big shout.

    2. I’m going to have to say “peer reviewed research or GTFO” on that one. “Suspecting” counts for nothing, particularly if your suspicions neatly line up with a social stereotype.

    3. I Am Not A Doctor But I’ve been wondering about this for a while as well. It was the “hold on, when did beers start tasting of onion?” that made me wonder if it’s just because we can’t taste the bitterness any more…

      1. Dimethyl trisulphide (DMTS) to its friends. There’s always a little bit in the wort, but most of the DMTS comes from hops, particularly when added after the boil. Lower temperature hopping preserves volatile aroma compounds, both the good ones and things like DMTS. Also it’s one of those things that disappears or at least reduces with proper conditioning, either in a cask in a pub or at the brewery if it’s dispensed in keg, although that’s rather unfashionable these days (the conditioning, not the keg). So if you’re drinking more dry-hopped Born-To-Die-By-Lunchtime than you used to, it’s no surprise you’re tasting more onion.

        It’s also very dependent on hop variety – Summit is notorious for onions (but is popular Stateside for its huge alpha content and good keeping qualities), but you also get onions from high doses of things like Simcoe, Columbus and Galaxy. I’ve seen it suggested that it partly depends on the time of harvesting, it gets worse if the hops are left too long on the bine. You tend not to get it with British hops.

  7. I’m not bothered by haze, intended or accidental. What I can’t bear is a beer that might have come straight from fermenter to glass. As Moor Beer demonstrate, leaving out isinglass does not mean beer that resembles a scrumpy/orange juice snakebite. I’m damned if I’ll pay £6 or £7 a pint equivalent for a beer made by someone too lazy to do half a job. One draw back of cans is being unable to assess clarity. Too often this lurid opacity comes in a beer with no condition, no head and a wheelbarrow of hops. Phew, chest cleared. Now then, can we all try to find a good snakebite combination?

    1. Do you think that the beers discussed in this post were made by “someone too lazy to do half a job”? Or that they were made with considerable care and attention by people who specifically wanted the texture from a wodge of oats in the mash, and the aroma from a very large quantity of hops in the fermenter?

      1. no, sorry – not specific to the beers mentioned, but a general comment. Well spotted though. Some breweries are operating on an Emperor’s New Clothes basis, imitating those with the skill to do the job well. The breweries in the article are not examples of imitators – all are innovative

          1. really? I loved it to bits. I do enjoy trad cider a lot – I was impressed with the way it expressed cider character in a subdued/complementary way

          2. It’s inevitable when you get to the fringes — to those kinds of really interesting beers — that some people will love them while others hate them.

          3. Without doubt, extreme beer is pretty much the point of craft beer; experiments at pushing boundaries in a way old-fashioned breweries never would. (With some exceptions, Whitbread’s mid-90s seasonals for example – tame now, but extreme for the time.)
            What works becomes mainstream, and extreme becomes ever more so.

        1. I have a bottle hidden away at the back of my cupboard, in the forlorn hope it might become wonderful in a couple of years.

  8. I’m just thinking “£4.95 a half?” Surely that’s a bit OTT – it’s certainly top-end by Manchester standards. In fact it’s exactly what Buxton are currently charging at the eponymous Tap for the 12% ‘BA peanut butter stout’ Omnipollo collab, which (as you can imagine) is at the very top of their price, rarity & abv range. (They’re not in Manchester, of course, but their price range is similar to what I see in ‘craft’ places around here.)

    Oh, this was a BrewDog bar. As you were.

    1. It’s a 9% beer with a staggering amount of expensive hops in it. It’s never going to be cheap.

      Cloudwater have gone out of their way before to show why their beer costs as much as it does, there’s far less profit in this than, say, Heineken.

      FWIW the Brewdog by me is cheaper than buying the beer directly from the brewer..

  9. Tried the East Coast Crush at Brewdog?

    It’s a lower abv version of the style that comes in pints. Excellent when fresh, though it seems to have a half-life of about a week before the flavour noticably drops off.

    1. They had it but we didn’t try it this time. Having started up at 7-9% we figured it might be difficult to go back down the ladder.

      1. My feeling is that the next “superstar” beer (well as-ubiquitous-as-NeckOil beer) will be when someone finally nails NEIPA at a more sessionable “British” strength, say 4.5%. I’ve tried plenty of attempts, by talented brewers, but they’ve been no more than pleasant-to-Quite-Nice. It seems to be hard to get the body to keep everything in balance, in the absence of 6+% ABV. I suspect it needs more fine-tuning of the grist, which is perhaps something that modern brewers are less familiar with than hop-tweaking, maybe some niche ingredients like lactose, fruit concentrate, crystal oats (is that even possible?) or whatever.

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