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.

Session #117: With a Chance of Meatballs

 Illustration: 'Bloggs Cumulo Nimbus IPA'.For the 117th edition of The Session our host Csaba Babak asks us to ‘capture ONE thing you think we will see MORE of with an explanation of the idea’ — admirably simple and clear!

We couldn’t resist taking this opportunity to revisit our predictions for 2016 from last Christmas:

  1. Another big brewery takeover of a British craft brewery. (Not yet.)
  2. More beers making a feature of malt, herbs and actual fruit. (Kind of.)
  3. Birmingham goes ‘craft’. (Also kind of.)
  4. A mainstream hazy beer. (Not yet.)

We put forward that last one as a ‘flyer’ but it doesn’t feel as ‘out there’ as it did even ten months ago. CAMRA has made (let’s word this carefully) small gestures towards acknowledging unfined beer. Most of the canned IPAs and pale ales we’ve picked up lately have poured hazy and the people we’ve been drinking with — not beer geeks — weren’t appalled, if they even noticed. ‘New England IPA’, of which cloudiness is a key characteristic, has become the sub-style of the day. As we said back in December 2015, cloudiness is great for marketing people because it’s a verifiable and easy-to-spot point of difference which is already being exploited by big cider makers.

So, we’re going to refine our original prediction to sidestep debates about wheat beer: we expect to see the UK launch of at least one mainstream, hazy pale ale or lager from a larger brewery and, in general, more deliberately hazy or cloudy beer on sale outside specialist venues. Bearing in mind it’s taken John Smith’s et al 25 years to get on the golden ale bandwagon it might not be through one of those really big brands but we can definitely imagine seeing something on the ale shelves in a supermarket, perhaps from within the Marston’s empire.

Now, this isn’t something we’re wishing for — it’s just our read of the way the wind is blowing. Whether the clouds it is bringing are fluffy, friendly ones or the dark harbingers of a storm probably depends on your point of view.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 May 2016: haze, dive bars, Keith

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading that’s grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from the science of hazy beer to New York dive bars.

→ Let’s get brewery takeover news out of the way: Dutch lager brewing firm Bavaria (confusing, right?) has taken a controlling interest in Belgian concern Palm. The deal includes Rodenbach, itself taken over by Palm in 1998, but not Boon in which Palm has had a stake on and off for some years. We can’t find a decent English language source but here’s one in French which Google Translate seems to cope with well enough, and a brief piece in English from Retail Detail.

Moor brewery wall sign: 'No fish guts.'

→ Right, now down the good stuff. Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey has written a post we’ve all been waiting for: a measured, informed consideration of hazy beer. Emma is a scientist by profession and so, rather than give us a bunch of stuff that she ‘reckons’, she set out to test a hypothesis:

[My] rough hypothesis was: ‘haze = hop flavour’. I don’t necessarily see it as an exponential relationship, i.e. ‘>haze = >hop flavour’, but there is definitely a positive association between the two factors in my experience.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 May 2016: haze, dive bars, Keith”

Beer Clarity, Ornamental Glass & Mirrors in the 1890s

In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.

It is a fairly short essay which first appeared in Visual References: An International Journal of Documentation in November 2012 and is readily available to anyone with access to an academic library. (We managed to see a copy through a more roundabout route.)

There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:

The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.

That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.

The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:

Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.

We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.

Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?

Hazy Beer in the 1920s

Detail from mild ale label.

Ron Pattinson has recently been sharing tons of data on the quality of mild in the 1920s, including its clarity, as judged by assessors at Whitbread.

As pointed out by one commenter on our post about beer clarity from last week, that can give us an insight into whether hazy beer necessarily tasted better, or was thought to taste better, in the past.

We put Ron’s figures into a spreadsheet (from 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11) and cut them various ways. Here’s what we found:

  1. Beers being rated on a scale of -3 to 2, of the 84 beers rated 1 and 2, some 22 were described as hazy, cloudy or variants thereon.
  2. Of the 60 beers scoring between -1 and -3, some 23 were described as bright or brilliant.
  3. Some beers described as hazy or cloudy were recorded as having ‘poor’ flavour, while others tasted ‘very fair’ or ‘good’.
  4. Beers described as brilliant were generally also found to taste good, though one was ‘poor’ and quite a few others were ‘fair’ (acceptable, with an overall score of 1).

UPDATE 13/2/2014: Ron has clarified in a comment below that the numerical scores are his addition, based on Whitbread’s more-or-less standardised flavour descriptors.

In other words, Whitbread’s tasters didn’t find any particular connection between clarity and flavour.  Hazy beer wasn’t somehow better or more virtuous, but nor was it necessarily bad.

What we’d really like to know is whether customers in the pub would have shown a preference for the beer that looked ‘bright’ but had ‘unpleasant flavour, going off’.