Hazed and Confused – The Blurry Future of Modern IPA

Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Ferment and has been republished with permission. If you would like to subscribe to Ferment then you can do so here

Is the increasing prevalence of hazy, juicy pale ales and IPA the future of these styles, or is it just a flash in the pan?

Back in April I was in Philadelphia for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, organised by the Brewers Association of America. With half a day of downtime available, I jumped on a train and headed to the nearby suburb of Ardmore, home of Tired Hands Brewery. Tired Hands has been going for barely three years but already sees people line up outside the brewery for in excess of five hours to purchase cans when a new beer is released. On release days these beers typically sell out within hours, but you can still turn up to either its “Fermentaria” or its original brewpub just down the road to taste its excellent beers on draught, anytime.

One of the hallmarks of Tired Hands beers is that they are exceptionally hazy, to the point of being downright turbid. Beer such as its Hop Hands pale ale often resembles a glass of milk that’s been blended with fizzy orange soda. But the taste is redolent with bright, juicy hop flavours and a satisfyingly lingering bitterness. The mouthfeel is perhaps what makes it stand out the most. The haze, which is mostly made up of protein and hop compounds – and yes, some yeast – is rounded and silken, very similar to what you’d find in a Belgian Wit or German Weissebier. Despite the haze, these beers are still as satisfyingly refreshing as the transparent hop forward beers that sit within the same style. 

The thing is though, unlike with Wit and Weisse, IPA is not generally expected to be hazy. Many see these modern, juicy IPAs, often called “New England IPA” due to this being an origin point of the style, as being faulty or unfinished. Personally, I’m a fan of this modern way of presenting a hoppy beer.

Hazy IPA is generally unfiltered and often contains no additives known as ‘finings’ such as Protofloc or Isinglass, which naturally clear the beer at various stages of the brewing process. This kind of beer is also made with a large amount of barley, plus a high percentage of other grains with a higher protein content such as wheat or oats, and one hell of a lot of hops. The leftover particulate from the raw materials forms what’s know as a “colloidal haze” – very fine particles that if left in the beer add flavour, aroma and mouthfeel but leave it looking like that glass of fizzy orange milk.

"Beer fans are becoming more forgiving of appearance in the search for natural flavour." - John Keeling, Fuller's

While in Philadelphia I met with noted beer author Randy Mosher and we chatted about the emergence of this new style over a hazy pint of Tired Hands IPA. “Making a beer cloudy makes it seem more different than it may actually be,” Mosher says. “The sweet spot for new products has always been things that are just a little bit different. People want to feel like they're adventurous and trying new things, but in reality, they are also most comfortable with familiar things.” 

“Here's the problem: we drink with our eyes.” Mosher continues, “My guess is that if you presented some "normal" IPAs with added flavourless haze, or clarified some of these cloudy New England IPAs, it would change their perception in a similar manner.” 

It’s true that there are plenty of exceptionally juicy and modern tasty IPA’s out there that are crystal clear. Take Oskar Blues' recently launched IPA for example. It’s redolent with tropical fruit flavours from Australian hops, while still being pin bright. 

The reason why many beer drinkers dislike the appearance of hazy beers is that it can be indicative of faulty beer. Perhaps it’s a cask ale that’s simply reached the end of the barrel and yeast is being pulled through the line. It can also be indicative that the beer is unfinished, with active, or worse – dead yeast still present in the beer when it’s packaged. Hop alpha acids, which impart beers bitterness, bind to yeast cells during fermentation, so while many yeasts are inherently tasteless, leaving it in the beer can create an unbalanced, tangy bitterness. If you’ve ever tasted beer from the end of a cask then you’ll know how unpleasant this can taste.

The majority of brewers go to great lengths to avoid this happening, such as John Keeling, former head brewer and now brand ambassador at Fuller’s. 

“Beer fans are becoming more forgiving of appearance in the search for natural flavour,” Keeling says. “[At Fullers] we have just spent £2 million on a new centrifuge and filtration system, and are experimenting with can conditioned beers and keg conditioned beers. I want the most natural flavour possible in all of our packaging formats.” 

For Keeling, that natural flavour doesn’t necessarily go arm in arm with haze. I ask him what his thoughts are on the rise in popularity of modern hazy beers such as New England IPA. 

“I would hesitate to call good tasting hazy beers true innovation, because before the advent of glass beers would have been hazy and wheat beers have always been hazy,” Keeling explains. “Some hazy beers are just bad brewing and the problem is how do you know till you have bought a pint.”

James Kemp, head brewery at Manchester’s Marble brewery echoes Keeling’s thoughts. 

“The extremely hazy pale ales and IPA’s that are in prevalence I would say aren’t flawed - in that the brewer has chosen to present beer in that manner much as the Hefeweizen brewer requires yeast in suspension as part of the presentation of their beer,” Kemp says. 

He also expands on why producing hazy beer might not necessarily be a good thing. “The claims that hazy beer has more flavour are entirely true, but that's also like saying that eating a banana with the skin on means that you're eating a more flavourful banana.”

The greatest challenge for the consumer is identifying the beers that are intentionally hazy from those that are inherently faulty. South London’s Brew By Numbers are one of several UK breweries developing intensely flavourful, hazy beer and are passionate about convincing people that there is nothing faulty about their beers. 

“Haziness as a perceived flaw has some root in fact, but only when applied to certain brewing practices and beer styles.” Brew By Numbers Sales and Media coordinator Chris Hall says. “Ultimately every beer needs to judged for what it actually is, not what it’s pre-supposed to be.”

In some of Brew By Numbers most recent releases the brewing team have ceased to add a substance called Protofloc to its beers, which is commonly added during the boil process of brewing to help clear up the beer. It is very rare for professional brewers not to use this additive, which is made from seaweed, but the team at Brew By Numbers believed its use was directly affecting the desired mouthfeel present in its beer. 

“Protofloc pulls down proteins and helps make our beers brighter, but the brewers felt they could also be affecting the body and mouthfeel negatively,” Hall explains. “Two of our recent Pale Ales (21|03 and 21|04) used zero kettle finings, were brewed with lots of oats, were hopped heavily at flameout and also dry-hopped on active yeast. The haze is partially proteins from the oats, the rest from hop compounds and flavour compounds from hop-yeast interactions. They’re heavily inspired by US East Coast-style pale ales and IPAs.”

These turbid-looking beers won’t be to everyone’s taste - but if you can avoid tasting with your eyes first, then you might be pleasantly surprised at how bright and nuanced they actually taste – despite looking nothing like what your preconception of a pale ale might actually be. 

Web Hazy Beer 8 - Crystal Clear .jpg

Marble’s James Kemp isn’t completely convinced, although does make an admission that haze doesn’t just mean a beer is faulty. 

“There have been a number of brilliant hazy beers out in the past few years; Ibuki’s Beer, Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine and Heady Topper, that doesn't mean all hazy beers are automatically good, however,” he says. “Sadly I think there are a fair few not too great beers achieving an assumed status based largely on their appearance.”

And its true that the sudden surge in the popularity of hazy beers has seen some brewers jump on the bandwagon – even going as far as to reportedly add wheat flour or whey protein to induce an opaque haze. In an industry that thrives on quality, this is the kind of counter culture that the brewing industry needs to avoid. There’s no doubt that brewers such as Brew By Numbers and Tired Hands are trying to make the tastiest beers they can and that those that try and imitate them with cheaper brewing practises will only detract from their efforts. 

"People seem to want to drink beer that other people think is good, rather than trying to sort it out for themselves." - Randy Mosher

But could these extremely hazy beers just be a passing fad that’s being spurred on by a minority of people evangelising them via social media? 

“People seem to want to drink beer that other people think is good, rather than trying to sort it out for themselves, which I find a little sad.” Explains Mosher, “Like missing the journey just for the sake of getting to the destination.”

Whether you like it or not, it looks like hazy pale ales and IPAs are becoming an integral part of what beer looks like in 2017. For those that love these hazy, juicy beers, well there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker. For those that don’t like them, there’s greater choice than ever with plenty of exceptional, pin bright beers on the market. As I said, there’s never been a better time to be a beer drinker.