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Drinking Your Words: When Naysayers Become IPA Makers

August 02, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, August 02, 2018

When Belgian beer importers Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield were looking to open their own brewery in the late-1990s, they knew they wanted to bring what they loved most about Belgian beer culture to upstate New York and then, eventually, America. Their new brewery would look like a traditional Wallonian farmhouse and be set on a 140-acre farm. They would use traditional Belgian brewing methods. Their beers would be of styles then mostly unknown to American drinkers—witbiers, saisons, abbey dubbels and quadrupels.  

The brewery was instantly a hit, one of the key figures in America’s craft beer renaissance, and an important brand for me in my earliest days as a beer drinker, circa 2001 (I particularly loved their farmhouse ale, Hennepin). And, even as trends would come and go in this country’s emerging beer scene—IBU-jacked bitter bombs from the west coast, candy-coated imperial stouts you had to go to a “day” to score—Ommegang kept their head down and continued following their initial game plan.

As the new millenium moved on, Ommegang introduced many Americans to corked-and-caged packaging and bottle conditioning. They offered some of the country’s earliest (and easiest) available funky Brett beers. They infiltrated supermarkets with oddball styles like Flanders brown and biere de mars. They hosted Belgian Comes to Cooperstown, a uniquely Belgian beer festival. Even when they were acquired by Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat in 2003, and even when they partnered on a line of gimmicky Game of Thrones beers, they still remained true to their old-fashioned Belgian brewing ethos.

Then came the New England-style IPA.

To rabid fans of the style, all NEIPAs are pretty good; to guys like me, who are sick of the monoculture they’ve created, they’re all bad.”

Nothing in craft beer surprises me anymore, but I received a press release from Ommegang in mid-May that actually did. The email explained that the brewery was expanding (congrats), installing a de rigeur canning line (OK...) and would be using said canning line to release their first ever NEIPA (WTF?). Called Neon Rainbows, it looked and sounded like any of the bazillion other canned NEIPA being released by bazillion other breweries in America these days. Brewed with oats, a tropical and juicy flavor profile owing to such hops as Mosaic and Citra, double dry-hopped of course, and hugged by a bright and flashy sticker label can.

The internet was as surprised as I was, and Ommegang was roundly mocked in a Beer Advocate thread. “Wow, way to be late on two things: cans and New England IPAs,” wrote one user. “Is it bad that I’m against Brewery Ommmegang joining the Haze Craze™ (sic)?” wrote another. “About as off-brand as it gets,” wrote another user, summing up my thoughts quite neatly.

It’s almost irrelevant whether Neon Rainbows is actually good—though, actually, according to user scores on Beer Advocate and Untappd, it’s pretty solid. To rabid fans of the style, all NEIPAs are pretty good; to guys like me, who are sick of the monoculture they’ve created, they’re all bad. And, when even a Belgian brewing stalwart like Ommegang is taking part in this madness, you have to wonder if the NEIPA isn’t ruining the industry and causing breweries to betray the ethos that made them successful in the first place.

“We have always endeavored to live with one foot in Europe and one in America,” brewery president Doug Campbell tells to me over email. He for one doesn’t think an Ommegang NEIPA is off-brand by any means. Though he admits, “With our reputation for microbiologically-driven, balanced beers, Neon Rainbows is indeed a unique animal within our portfolio.”

Campbell further notes that the farm Ommegang sits on is actually a former hop farm in Otsego County, which was once known as “Hopsego” due to all its hops farming. He claims Neon Rainbow isn’t getting in the way of the brewery’s more Belgian-typical innovation either, like their just-announced Blenderie Ommegang, a gueuze-like operation. Most importantly, Ommegang fans wanted an NEIPA and the proof is in the pudding. The pilot batch sold so briskly they’ve had to scale up futures batches to meet demand.

Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, Ommegang isn’t the only brewery to have seemingly gone “off-brand” in search of the almighty NEIPA dollar. It’s something that’s infecting the whole industry at the moment.

No MSG, No IPA.”

When Monkish Brewing Co. opened in the Torrance neighborhood of Los Angeles in the spring of 2012, they famously hung a sign in their taproom which (jokingly) noted “No MSG, No IPA.” In a July 2012 interview with LA Weekly, brewer and owner Henry Nguyen explained that Flanders red was his favorite style of beer and he was focusing exclusively on producing Belgian-style beers, mostly tart and sour ones like The Feminist, a tripel brewed with hibiscus. The closest thing he had to an IPA at the time was a Belgian-style pale ale.

“They didn’t understand why we weren’t making an IPA,” Henry recalled to Good Beer Hunting in in August of 2016. Just a few months earlier, in April, Nguyen had collaborated on a beer with Other Half, those Brooklyn NEIPA maestros who would be betraying their ethos if they made something that wasn’t juicy and hazy.

That initial Monkish IPA, First Things First, sold out at the brewery in an hour. Their next NEIPA, Run the Pigeon, sold out in 45 minutes. Soon, this “No IPA” brewery was releasing an NEIPA or two nearly every other week. Today, massive lines show up whenever the brewery announces a new IPA release on social media, which is often twice a week.

To be fair, Nguyen claims he was never against making IPAs per se; he just had no good hops contracts in those early years and, well, making barrel-aged sours that take forever to age isn’t the greatest way to create cash flow for a new, family-owned business.

“I thought it would be funny to make that [‘No IPA’] sign, just joking around with it,” Nguyen explained. How the consumer view of his brewery quickly changed. On the east coast where I live, Monkish is now exclusively viewed as an “IPA brewery,” even if they have finally accomplished Nguyen’s initial dream of producing oddball barrel-aged beers. Beers like Soul Foudre, a mixed-fermentation bier de garde aged in a French oak foudre for 16 months, and Black Kisses, a saison aged in oak barrels w/ blackberries and black currants, are among many extraordinary non-IPA options currently available at the brewery taproom. You can’t help but think all that IPA money is helping fund those more avant garde beers.

Nearby to Monkish in Orange County, The Bruery had likewise forged a stellar reputation on everything but IPAs. It seemed Patrick Rue’s brewery could do no wrong, whether releasing funky Belgian-style offerings or fruited sours or hoppy lagers or beers such as Chocolate Rain, a vanilla beans and cacao nibs-stuffed imperial stout. In 2011, Rue bragged to the OC Weekly: “I love IPAs. They’re successful for a reason, but we don’t make one, and we promised never to make one.”

Last year, however, the siren call of juiceboys became too strong, and The Bruery had no choice but start releasing IPAs—although, in the cheekiest way possible. No, The Bruery technically didn’t betray their ethos; instead, they created a spin-off company called Offshoot Beer Co. to do the dirty work. The Bruery clearly understood the optics of this decision, jokingly choosing to call their initial IPA releases Fashionably Late and Better Late Than Never.

Having said that, in introducing the beers (and this new pseudo-brewery) on their blog, The Bruery seemed sad, and almost resigned to their fate, writing: “As we happily cross the threshold into our tenth year in brewing, our ban on IPAs has been justified to a point, but this promise is also beginning to serve as a quaint reminder of our stubbornness, rather than a commitment to innovation.”

You have to wonder if their hearts aren’t quite in the NEIPA game.”

While producing the exact same style of beer as every other brewery in America hardly seems like innovation to me, it’s definitely a good financial decision. Other Half is doing so well they just purchased a $1.8 million brewery in Rochester, with rumored plans to open another spot in Washington, D.C. Boston’s leading NEIPA maker, Trillium, now has two breweries plus a highly-popular beer garden in the city. Tree House, perhaps the highest-regarded NEIPA producer, has already expanded to an $18.5 million, 55,000 square-foot facility in Charlton, Massachusetts—and just announced plans to add 16,000 more square feet. I’m certainly not going to mock these breweries for making money.

Located almost halfway between Tree House and Trillium, Jack’s Abby pulled a similar stunt to The Bruery in 2016. That year, this unique, all-lager brewery in Framingham, Massachusetts, launched Springdale by Jack’s Abby in order to release experimental and barrel-aged beers. So far, that has included such efforts as Lavenade, an oak-aged sour with lavender and lemon zest, and Rhuby Bluesday, a sour lager aged on blueberries and rhubarb in Chardonnay and bourbon barrels.

It has also afforded them the opportunity to, yes, can some sticker-labeled NEIPAs, like You Had to Be There and But I Digress. Though, you have to wonder if their hearts aren’t quite in the NEIPA game. In May of this year they collaborated with Against the Grain Brewery to release Any IPA—a crystal-clear IPA meant to lampoon the NEIPA “haze craze.”

Finally, if there are any brewers you would think need not follow trends and betray their beliefs to have success, you’d think it would be the clergy. Trappist monks have been selling beer to support themselves since, oh, right around the Middle Ages. For the last century at least, these have always been staid, highly-traditional styles. So traditional, in fact, that for the most part they weren’t even filed under any sort of taxonomy until modern craft beer lovers got a hold of them and decided to label them such things as singles, dubbels, and tripels.

By 2010, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts was facing a big problem. Like other trappist monasteries the world over, their monks also strived to be, not wildly profitable, but at least self-sufficient. The St. Joseph monks did that by producing and selling jams and jellies. Unfortunately, of late, that wasn’t bringing in enough revenue for St. Joseph’s, which had been open since 1950. The monks decided to enter the brewing industry and, by 2013, were America’s first trappist-certified brewery.

Initially, they brewed, well, “trappist” beers. Their first offering was simply called Spencer Trappist Ale; a Belgian-style patersbier, DRAFT Magazine crowned it one of the best beers of the year. There are no rules, technically, about what a trappist beer needs to be, it’s more a know-it-when-you-taste-it kind of thing. Their corked-and-caged beers after that mostly fit that bill: Trappist Holiday Ale, a Belgian strong ale, and Spencer Monks’ Reserve Ale, a boozy, rich quad. Those didn’t really excite any geeks, nor did more “American” beers like a trappist pilsner and imperial stout.

I am not a native ‘IPA monk.”

“We don’t brew for ourselves only,”  explains Father Isaac of the monastery, “and we know an enormous swath of our friends consider the IPA and the NEIPA, in particular, their ‘go to’ style. Our brewery is an expression of our monastic life, especially our monastic hospitality, so when it comes to beer styles we think it is valuable to stretch ourselves a bit and create something our friends might appreciate easily.”

That’s why in May of this year, these Massachusetts monks released Spencer Juicy, their take on an NEIPA. Yes, it was canned in four-packs. Yes, it was only available at the brewery at their yearly open house. Yes, chubby bearded dudes waited in line to buy it. Most importantly, yes, it sold incredibly. Heck, even the monks like it. So, really, who am I to complain?

“I am not a native ‘IPA monk,’” notes Father Isaac of the monastery, “but this one, served extra cold, is such an aromatic, refreshing, tasty easy drinker on a humid languid summer late afternoon or early evening—perhaps down at the pottery shop overlooking fields that run to the horizon—it hard to do better than this.”

Still, I can’t but hoping Spencer and a lot of other breweries reconsider the style. And start returning to what they brew best. The NEIPA need not be made by everyone. As Campbell advises: “While we all like to play around, I think most breweries are wise enough to know that their long-term interests are best served by focusing on those styles with which they have something unique to offer to the consumer.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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