New beers come and go all the time, but it’s rare that a new style emerges. It’s even rarer when a style explodes the way that New England India Pale Ale has in such a short amount of time. To trace the origins of this hazy, love-it-or-hate-it style, we have to travel back to Vermont, USA, and a little brewpub called The Alchemist in the early 2000s.
Heady Topper might not sound like anything fancy, but in the craft beer world it’s a name spoken about in hushed whispers. It’s the beer that spawned legions of die-hard fans willing to drive across US state lines and wait in hours-long queues for a four-pack. It started with brewer John Kimmich’s mission to create a double IPA that celebrated America’s fruity hops. With a boat load of hops, a careful dry-hopping process, a secret strain of English yeast handed down from his mentor, and due to the fact that the beer is not filtered or pasteurised, John created a smooth, hazy, 8% hop monster with an elegant balance of fruit-juiciness and moderate bitterness.
For years Heady Topper was only brewed twice a year and sold on tap at the brewpub. Word of mouth soon spread and the pub became a pilgrimage for many a beer geek. It became so sought after that there are stories of patrons decanting pints into bottles in the bathrooms, then printing out the artwork ripped from T-shirts online and selling it. There’s even the famous story of a South African family who flew their private jet to Vermont just to get their hands on the brew.
In 2011, disaster struck the brewpub when it was completely destroyed during Hurricane Irene. Luckily, John and his wife Jen had just finished building their new canning line and were able to can the first Heady Topper just two days later. The beer was now being made and distributed in volume, and the beer world went nuts. Even though they had dramatically increased their volume, they still couldn’t keep up with the demand. During their first year, they had to limit customers to one four-pack per person just so they would have enough stock to supply retailers. Some customers even kept wigs and a change of clothes in their cars so they could slip in again for another four-pack. A website called Heady Spotter popped up, which gave daily reports on where to get the beer and delivery van schedules to stockists.
In the years that followed, the hazy style of IPA became known as Vermont IPA or New England IPA, named after the region. Soon breweries around America were brewing the style, and it spread faster than you can pop the top of your favourite brew.
So what makes the style so special?
Well, if you’ve ever had an American IPA, you’ll know that it has huge tropical fruit and citrus aromas and flavours, with an assertive, lingering bitterness. New England IPA has even more tropical fruit and citrus aromas and flavours, with a soft, rounded bitterness. It’s unfiltered and unpasteurised, and is often full of compounds and enzymes from the brewing process, which gives it its hazy appearance and smooth fruit-juice quality. In short, it’s like hop fruit juice for adults, and it’s delicious.
In 2018, the New England IPA was recognised by the Brewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program as a legitimate style. Unfortunately for us, Heady Topper isn’t available in South Africa, but we do have a few solid alternatives. Keep a look out for Devil’s Peak Brewing Co. Juicy Lucy, or the hot-off-the-presses Drifter Brewing Co. Canned Grenade.