Today’s hazy IPAs are evolving. Many breweries are taking the haze and pumping up the bitterness, dialing down the mouthfeel and making more bitter beers that stand out from the rest. It’s yet another evolution of the IPA style, forging ahead while showcasing the style’s regional variations.
International bitterness units (IBU) measure bitterness in beer, though they are more applicable in a brewing setting and don’t tell the whole story when it comes to a beer’s actual bitterness. The pH of the beer and the “perceived bitterness” have a lot to do with how a beer tastes. Just because a beer has high IBUs, doesn’t mean it actually tastes bitter.
Perceived bitterness can be affected by a beer’s alcohol content, malt profile and residual sugars/attenuation. This is why an imperial stout with 85 IBUs doesn’t taste bitter at all, because the sweetness of the beer brings it into balance. It can be quite confusing for most beer people (myself included) so it’s something to keep in mind when bitterness is discussed.
Defining Hazy IPAs
If you’re looking at guidelines describing how a hazy IPA should taste, you can look at two sources: the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), whose guidelines cover homebrew competitions and some international commercial beer competitions, or the Brewers Association (BA), whose guidelines apply to beer competitions such as the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and World Beer Cup (WBC).
Last year’s GABF winner for hazy IPA was by Elk Grove, California’s Flatland Brewing Co. for their Anhyzer Kush, and the World Beer Cup winner for the style was Wherever You Go by Green Cheek Beer Co.’s Costa Mesa, California location. Yes, two breweries from California and not New England, where the style was born.
No brewery in New England has ever won gold for this style in either GABF or WBC.
The BJCP allows for 25-60 IBUs and says the beer should have a “low to medium-high perceived bitterness, often masked by the fuller body and soft, off-dry to medium finish.” Guidelines from the BA allow for 20-50 IBUs, but with the caveat that IBUs “may differ significantly from perceived bitterness.” Their notes say “the impression of bitterness is soft and well-integrated into overall balance and may differ significantly from measured or calculated IBU levels.”
At Bissell Brothers in Portland, Maine, the brewery’s flagship IPA, The Substance Ale, boasts 60 IBUs. In drinking The Substance, I never noticed a high level of bitterness compared to other New England IPAs.
Noah Bissell, the director of brewing operations, says The Substance is brewed “the standard way.” The IBU level has remained constant since Bissell first brewed the beer. The only change has been to the malt bill, which now includes the use of 90% Maine-grown grain.
“Our beers are more bitter than most modern IPAs,” Bissell says via email. “Not a conscious differentiation point, but I’m pro-bitterness and I think (for a period anyways) that became maybe too scarce in hoppy beer for my taste.”
Bissell mentions that when they created The Substance, it wasn’t their goal to create a hazy IPA but to make a beer they were most happy with.
The Substance shows that although the IBUs are high for the style, the perceived bitterness is slightly lower, allowing it to fit within the pantheon of New England IPA.
At the Judging Table
When I think of hazy IPAs, I think lower bitterness, fuller mouthfeel, juicy hops with big fruit flavors, and tons of dry hopping. This, to me, is the essence of New England/hazy IPA, but these sentiments I believe are growing less and less common among others.
Judging at the Oregon Beer Awards (OBA) in March of 2023, I was on the hazy IPA panel and evaluated entries in the style twice, once in the preliminary round and once in the medal round. After judging, it was interesting to talk with the judges around the tables because they were actively searching for bitterness in their IPAs while I, as a New Englander, was searching for more palate fullness and hoppy fruit forwardness. Beers I found that I gravitated towards were not the ones the Oregon judges liked or even wanted to move forward to the next round.
IPA Around the Country
Beer in America is very regionalized, and this regionalism helps drive variations and innovations.
The gold medal hazy IPA at this year’s OBA was Bend Brewing Co.’s Day Use IPA, which is 55 IBUs, slightly lower in IBUs than Bissell Brothers’ The Substance. The beer is made with two-row malt, wheat and oats, which is standard in New England IPAs, and is 100% Strata hopped, giving it flavors of strawberry and citrus.
When I asked Bend Brewing’s Head Brewer Sean Albrecht to define what makes Oregon’s IPAs and hazy beers stand out, he pointed out that they essentially have backyard access to the best hops in America. This contributes to their beers’ freshness and vibrancy. Perhaps that’s what the other judges were looking for, while I was in my own regional bubble looking for sweetness and full mouthfeel. Either way, Day Use was a really great example of this new age hazy IPA, with more perceived bitterness than typical New England IPAs. It was the best beer on the table during that medal round and hence the gold medal winner.
It’s not just the coasts that are taking hazy seriously. Pinthouse Brewing in Austin, Texas, brews the well-loved hazy IPA Electric Jellyfish, whose 70 IBUs are well above the threshold for both the BJCP and BA guidelines. That beer also uses a German ale yeast for a cleanliness and dry character, whereas most hazy IPAs use an English ale yeast to amplify the esters and fruit flavors in the beer. The beer also does not use wheat or oats in the grist.
“We like to think Electric Jellyfish as somewhat unique in the canon of hazy,” says Grant Weckerly, Pinthouse’s director of sales. “We’ve tinkered with this recipe over the last eight years and have adjusted the perceived bitterness (amongst other things) up and down, but have found something with some structuring bitterness more drinkable given our climate and drinking culture down here in Texas.”
Like Bissell Brothers, Weckerly says Pinthouse wasn’t out to brew a hazy IPA when it first brewed this style eight years ago. “To be honest, we never set out to make one then either,” he says. “We just wanted to make our own style of IPA.”
Despite the differences in yeast strain and IBUs, the dry hopping regimen is pure new school, with 5.5 pounds per barrel of haze bomb hop favorites like Galaxy, Citra, Simcoe, Azacca, Chinook and Ekuanot, some of which are added as lupulin powder.
Weckerly says the high hopping rate is where Electric Jellyfish gets its turbidity. In terms of pure technicals, Electric Jellyfish is not really a hazy IPA, yet it’s not an American or West Coast IPA either. But in the world of beer drinkers, this is a hazy IPA and it fits within the broad world of this style.
In talking to all these brewing professionals, it’s interesting how each of these beers feels different, yet wholly the same. Hazy IPA feels more like a window into a larger world of beer, and if it brings more drinkers into the fold, then they are apt to be happy with the amount of options greeting them at that door — whether bitter or not.
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