A tap takeover at Forbidden Root in Chicago provided a chance to taste 13 hazy IPAs.
Hazy IPAs are the best thing to ever happen to craft beer.
And they’re the worst.
I could come to no other conclusion after six weeks of drinking hazy IPAs, discussing hazy IPAs, arguing about hazy IPAs, rolling my eyes at hazy IPAs and, ultimately, quite enjoying hazy IPAs.
Quite enjoying some hazy IPAs.
Plenty of trends have come and gone during craft beer’s short and fascinating life, especially in the realm of India pale ales. It only makes sense. IPAs have been the engine driving craft beer for years; trying to find the next new thing is inevitable. But few of the experiments have touched the raw nerve — and then hammered on it like a pogo stick — as hazy IPAs, which originated on the East Coast and are now made everywhere.
First, what they are: They are hazy. (We’ll get into why.) This is why people call it hazy IPA — though they also call it New England IPA, Vermont IPA, Northeast IPA, double dry hopped IPA or new era IPA.
Above all, they are IPAs, which means they get immense amounts of hops. They are so remarkably fruit- and citrus-forward that people tend to describe them as "juicy." Unlike a classic IPA, they are remarkably lacking in bitterness and stunningly easy to drink. Even when up around 8 percent alcohol, hazy IPAs have virtually no boozy burn.
You can hand a hazy IPA to beer drinkers who profess to not like IPA, and their eyes will brighten, they’ll cock their head in that, Oh, I like this! kind of way, and they will say, "Oh, I like this!" Hazy IPA is often so "juicy" that it’s compared to orange juice, both in appearance and taste.
And that is the principle reason that the style has scores of detractors. I was among the detractors for a simple reason: Beer is not juice. Orange juice is the guts of an orange, one ingredient imparting one flavor. Beer, at its finest, is the equivalent of a seasoned dish from an expert chef: multiple ingredients working together to create a greater whole. That greater whole should not taste like just one thing.
In the rush to lower bitterness, many makers of hazy IPAs have betrayed the notion of balance. Balance doesn’t just mean a prescribed degree of bitterness or malt character. It simply means a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Or, as I said to Forbidden Root brewer BJ Pichman, as 13 five-ounce pours of hazy IPA sat before us, "It needs to close the loop."
It was late May, the last night of Chicago Craft Beer Week, and Forbidden Root was hosting a hazy IPA tap takeover. It was probably the most comprehensive tasting of hazy IPAs the city had ever seen, due in part to the fact that the style didn’t exist in Chicago 18 months ago.
During the next couple of hours, Pichman and I drank through all 13 hazy IPAs, discussing what worked, what didn’t and why. I went in skeptical and left ready to stock my fridge with three of them: Forbidden Root’s Snoochie Boochies, Noon Whistle’s Gummypocalypse and Mikerphone Brewing’s Check 1, 2. They all closed the loop. They all had a beginning, a middle and an end.
The rest ranged from good for a few sips — Stay Lit (a Forbidden Root collaboration with Three Floyds), Fresh IIPA (Hubbard’s Cave) and the wonderfully named Van Hazen (Corridor Brewery & Provisions) — to a handful of messy duds.
The ones that worked were often quite similar to the ones that didn’t, which made them just as fascinating as they were delicious. What made them work? They walked an impossibly fine line: sweet, lush, fruity, soft, gentle, approachable and, yes, balanced by just the faintest wisp of herbal bitterness. Pichman made an astute observation: They’re so thick and devoid of bitterness that hazy IPAs can have more in common with fruited wheat beer than traditional IPA.
The best examples had low carbonation and creamy textures (or "mouthfeel," as the beer nerds say). Even though the alcohol itself is well hidden, the bigger versions — the hazy double IPAs at about 8 percent alcohol — held together best. They had more body, oomph and continuity to close the loop.
The ones that didn’t work didn’t close the loop. They were one-dimensional. As Pichman said, they would "disappear" — floating away on the palate. Even licking a cut orange would have offered more balance; at least there would be a degree of acidity.
I told him I didn’t love his Stay Lit, a 6.5 percent IPA that was bright luminous orange in the glass, for this reason. I’d tried it twice and came to the same conclusion both times: It tasted good but was so one-dimensionally fruity that drinking more than 4 ounces became a labor.
Pichman didn’t flinch. He didn’t even disagree that such an intensely sweet IPA would be tough to slug down.
"I think there’s a place for that," he said.
It turned out he didn’t particularly want 12 ounces of Stay Lit either.
"Maybe these are the bourbon barrel-aged stouts of the IPA world — meant for a small amount after dinner," he said.
I took another sip of Stay Lit thinking of it akin to orange liqueur, something intended to be had in a far smaller serving. Suddenly it made sense. I was quite happy with it in that context.
But then the beer devil on my shoulder spoke up: "But this is beer! If you don’t want 12 ounces, what’s it worth?"
Well, Pichman had already answered that question, and the best comparison is indeed bourbon barrel-aged stout. It’s now an industry staple, but when Goose Island pioneered the style in 1995, it faced the same consternation. This isn’t a stout! It’s too boozy! Too oaky! Now we laud stout aged in bourbon barrels as some of the finest beer in the world and accept that it is best enjoyed in smaller servings — usually no more than 8 ounces. If we can embrace an amped-up stout in modest pours, why not an IPA?
"The exciting thing is that we’re taking the most exciting style in existence somewhere new, and no one knows where it’s going," Pichman said. "We’ve been slingshotted off into a new direction."
The earliest examples of hazy IPA were often dismissed as "lazy brewing." Why else would the beer look so murky? Beer is supposed to be clear! Or, at least most beer. But "lazy brewing" is the fastest route to raising the ire of a hazy IPA maker, and for good reason. It’s a complicated process in which haze isn’t the goal — it’s a byproduct. And this, too, swung my opinion of the style.
Hazy IPA begins with tweaking water chemistry, which is not uncommon in American craft brewing, but an absolute must to increase calcium chloride, which both decreases bitterness and lays the foundation of that creamy juicelike texture. The malt bill gets heavy doses of adjuncts, especially oats and wheat, which soften the texture even more. Specialized yeast does much of the heavy lifting; it must be one that imparts maximum fruity characteristics.
Most crucial are the immense amounts of hops employed and when they are added. Classic IPA recipes call for hops to be added throughout the boil, when they mostly contribute bitterness. Those IPAs then get more hops at the tail end of fermentation to punch up aromatics.
In a hazy IPA, hops are only added late in the boil and again unusually early during fermentation, when the beer is still churning in the tank and hops interact with yeast in a way that withdraws maximum fruity-citrus character. It also results in — you guessed it — haze. The beer is then dry hopped again at the end of fermentation.
The classic sharp and bitter hop flavors — think fresh pine — are traded for juicy sweetness and, when done well, nuances such as orange rind, honey, grass or even fresh marijuana.
It’s basically throwing the rulebook out the window.
"It’s the ultimate version of questioning your parents," Pichman said. "The people who wrote the home-brew books don’t know what to do with it."
Pichman just so happens to work with one of those people. Randy Mosher, who has written five books about brewing and beer appreciation, is a partner at Forbidden Root and helps formulate many of its recipes. Mosher wasn’t initially convinced there was much to hazy IPA. But he sipped through a few and decided, yes, when done well, something new and legitimate is happening that deserves to be explored.
Forbidden Root has made about 15 hazy IPAs since last fall. Some have worked, and some haven’t. Some have become mainstays (Snoochie Boochies), and some will never be made again (Nantucket Gold, a hazy pale ale that I seem to have liked more than Pichman). They’ve experimented with four different yeast strains and close to 10 different hops.
I asked Pichman to describe what the perfect hazy IPA will taste like when he figures it out.
"Balanced at the end," he said. "Not a lingering bitterness, but it closes the loop. It’s slightly sweet and fruity, but there’s no discernible malt sweetness."
I told him it was interesting that for a beer skewing so intentionally low on bitterness that the first word out of his mouth was "balanced."
"Why else would you want to drink it?" he said.
My initial hazy IPA conversion experience happened at Corridor Brewery and Provisions, in April, where a guy at the bar was drinking a glass of what looked like some turbid intersection between mushroom soup and orange juice. I asked if it was any good. He wouldn’t stop talking about how good it was. I ordered one. It was called SqueezIt ("squeeze it" — as in an orange).
Sure enough, it was an epiphany: just enough citrus rind bitterness upfront, followed by an incredibly long juicy tropical fruit walk-off in a thick, savory body.
I went back a couple of weeks after my visit to Forbidden Root to recount the story for Corridor’s head brewer Brant Dubovick. He nodded.
"That SqueezIt was perfect," Dubovick said. "It hit all the notes."
The credit goes to Corridor’s lead brewer, Roger Cuzelis, a former home-brewing UPS dispatcher who became assistant brewer at Forbidden Root in May 2016 — where he spent six months playing with hazy IPAs with Pichman — before being hired at Corridor.
Dubovick hired Cuzelis with the intention of turning Corridor into a place known for hazy IPAs. Since opening in 2015, Corridor’s original mission of specializing in farmhouse ales had failed to elevate the brewpub much beyond a solid neighborhood joint. Dubovick wanted it to become a destination for beer drinkers. The answer: hazy IPA.
It worked. Enthusiasts have stormed Corridor’s hazy IPA releases, leaving with as many as a dozen 32-ounce sealed-to-order cans (called "crowlers"). Dubovick is seeing the cans pop up on social media in faraway places, presumably valuable chips on the robust beer trading market. Dubovick doesn’t mind, which is why Corridor, for now, hasn’t limited crowler sales (as some places do for highly sought-after beers).
"I love seeing people enjoying our beer outside of Chicago," he said.
The embrace of hazy IPA may smack of opportunism, but Dubovick doesn’t care. He said he believes in the style. He and Cuzelis waited in line for 2 1/2 hours to get into a hazy IPA tap takeover at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington D.C. this spring. Neither one is a fan of waiting in line for beer, so they made fun of themselves the entire time. But they said it was worth it.
Corridor has followed SqueezIt with close to 10 hazy — or, as they prefer to call them, double dry hopped — IPAs, pale ales and double IPAs. It plans to have at least one and hopefully two hazy beers among its six tap handles going forward. The biggest hit other than SqueezIt has been Van Hazen, which is tasty and easy drinking, but a bit too easy for my liking, and a touch too juicelike. Which I told Cuzelis.
"No, man, that’s the style!" he said, adding that he literally models the beers on orange juice as reference to sweetness, bitterness and aroma.
I told him that blew my mind.
"Craft beer is evolving," he said. "It’s changing. It’s art. When things get too comfortable, they need to change."
As I walked into Corridor, who did I see but two hazy IPA skeptics. Jason Klein and Brad Shaffer, co-founders of Spiteful Brewing, had stopped in for lunch. They wore matching black Spiteful T-shirts and were having a chummy conversation with Dubovick and Cuzelis.
Klein and Shaffer both shook their heads when I asked how they felt about the style.
"No balance, hazy, cloying — a mess," Klein said.
So Spiteful would never make one?
"Never say never," Klein said. "But no."
I admired the answer almost as much as I admire Spiteful’s clean, spry and fairly clear IPA. But I also could have really gone for a SqueezIt.
Drinking with a skeptic
I ended my tour of hazy IPAs by inviting Peter Anderson out for a beer.
Anderson is the assistant brewer at Metropolitan, which has largely brewed traditional German styles since opening in 2009. Why did I invite him out? Because of the bio on his Twitter profile: "I don’t like new england IPA." Yes. He dislikes them so much that he doesn’t bother to capitalize New England.
I wanted to drink with a skeptic.
"I understand why people like them," Anderson said as we each ordered the two hazy IPAs on Forbidden Root’s menu. "They’re super drinkable. But it feels like breweries are chasing what people want rather than making the beers that establish their own identity."
He made a good point: You don’t see the greatest established breweries making hazy IPAs. He named Half Acre, Firestone Walker and Founder’s.
"They don’t need to," he said.
We each took a sip of Forbidden Root’s latest hazy hoppy creation, the turbid Radio Swan, which prominently features rye in the mash bill. Anderson inhaled deeply.
"To me, this smells like a bag of hops," he said. "Like chlorophyll. Plantlike smells."
I thought he was winding up to a criticism, but he wasn’t.
"I really like that smell — for what it is," he said.
Radio Swan was 6.4 percent alcohol, incredibly soft and sweet, bathed in a rye bitterness that provided flavor, but not the balance I sought. I thought it was just OK. Anderson said he was "fine with it."
The other hazy IPA on tap was good old honey-colored Snoochie Boochies, the 8 percent double IPA. It was the third or fourth time I had had it, and yet again, it worked for me. It closed the loop. The hazy IPAs succeed or fail, at least to my taste buds, by the narrowest margins. Within a matter of degrees.
Anderson predicted that the style was more than a passing fad, but would ultimately endure in some diminished format and with less heat around each new release. It would become "something reasonable."
"The craft beer industry has never been shy about pushing the boundaries," he said. "This is just another example."
Then we both ordered Pilsners.
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