Imagine Dick Cantwell, the former head brewer and cofounder of Elysian Brewing, perched on one of the lipstick-red stools in his protege Steve Luke’s Cloudburst Brewing. In his glass, one of Luke’s many takes on the IPA. This scene happens fairly frequently but signals a shift in how two generations of brewers view, literally, the city’s most venerated beer style.
Most Cloudburst IPAs appear fittingly overcast, anywhere from a mist to an outright fog of hop haze in the glass. That opacity has been considered by many a flaw in this most regally serious of beers. Cantwell, Luke says, drinks his IPAs all the time but, looking at them, he often casts a questioning eye: What’s with this haze?
It’s a question, and a trait, increasingly on beer lovers’ minds. Sure, Luke could invest in pricey filtration to clarify the haze, but he doesn’t think it would improve the beer. And with increasing buzz around these suspended particles—something being termed the Haze Craze—it’s actually a boon for certain drinkers; Luke has lately had customers asking why some of his beers aren’t hazier. “It’s funny. Five or six years ago,” Luke said, “if my IPA came out too hazy I was almost embarrassed. It was a knock on the quality of the beer. And now it’s okay—now it’s hot.”
The prototypical West Coast IPA is brisk and bitter and so clear you can see your coaster’s warped graphic though it. Though we didn’t invent it, we’ve claimed it as part of Northwest identity—any good local beer geek is hasty to mention our proximity to all those Yakima hops. But brewers in Vermont and elsewhere in New England have a different take; an opaque, low-bitterness, creamy style that forefronts fruity hop aromas and flavors. At their most extreme—it feels wrong to say, and yet so right!—the beers evoke a sort of craft spin on the Brass Monkey, that collegiately adored union of OJ and Olde English: sweet, citrusy, boozy, viscous.
Now this Northeast style—often called hazy or juicy—has exploded across the country. That haze, though, is a byproduct of various brewing practices: dry hopping (adding more hops after fermentation) can crank up hop aroma; while additions of oats, wheat, even, it’s rumored, flour can offer a smoother mouthfeel and help balance the beer.
So far the handful of Washington breweries playing with the style have kept a foot in both traditions—Silver City’s Tropic Haze, Big Time’s Bill, Fremont Brewing’s BS, or Cloudburst’s Soft Shock, which nods to the softer palate and fruity nose of the East while retaining a dry balance. Though Luke, who learned to brew in New England, notes that he isn’t doing Northeast-style IPAs and that his haze is from intense dry hopping.
But no brewer in the city toys more with the style, or holds truer to its origins, than Adam Robbings, co-owner and brewmaster of Reuben’s Brews. Last October, Reuben’s rolled out Crush, a series of Northeast-style IPAs that rotates monthly. To Robbings, true Northeast-style IPAs come from fruity Vermont yeast strains, which heighten hop haze and demand a body bolstered by oats and wheat to achieve balance. This yeast yields beers like the Double Crush, a brew that looks downright creamy in the glass and smells of ripe orchards: peaches, tangerines, mangos.
But the style is touchy—many Northeast IPAs begin to degrade a month or so after being brewed, and they are more sensitive than many other beers to the temperature changes inherent in broad distribution. In the East, this has created a culture of long lines for hyped releases. A culture now being mimicked at Reuben’s, where each month the brewery offers a limited quantity of cans at the taproom only. The first two cannings sold out within three hours.
The style first appealed to Robbings because of the huge fruity hop aromas it generates and the way it broadens the understanding of an IPA, and even the term hoppy. He sees this word not as a descriptor of bitterness but as an expression of “that nose, that flavor, that fruit—whatever we’re trying to get out of the hop profile.” For many brewers these days, IPAs are a vehicle for hops, a broad genre more than a rigid form.
Robbings believes the movement toward restraint and balance that he’s seen in the city lately—whether in the very good pilsners that are increasingly available or in his Crush IPAs—is part of a beer drinker’s journey. “We go through this really bitter hit, because it’s like the opposite of Budweiser. Then we realize that this might be a good spot,” he said, gesturing to his glass of Mosaic Crush, an easygoing showcase for Mosaic hops. “Not crazy extremism, but nice flavor.”