Here’s Why You Hate Hazy IPAs

July 16, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, July 16, 2020

If you’ve ever cracked open a can of hazy IPA and almost gagged on the first slug, you’re not alone. While there are plenty of exceptional hazy IPAs out there, for every Toppling Goliath’s King Sue, there are dozens of others ranging from one-dimensional to downright undrinkable. The worst offenders induce a throat-searing sensation after delivering a tannic wallop strong enough to make even a die-hard haze bro dump the pint glass down the drain. 

Hazy IPAs are now so ubiquitous that it’s hard to fathom that a mere six years ago, the style barely existed. Until 2015, when Tree House Brewing in Massachusetts released the now-classic Julius, these murky, Creamsicle-colored New England-style IPAs were virtually unknown. As is often the case when a niche trend mushrooms into a full-blown phenomenon in such a short stretch of time, not all of the specimens flooding the market are of equal quality. 

Those bracingly astringent hazy IPAs are what happens when amateur brewers get a little overzealous with the dry-hopping. There’s also a term for it: hop burn.

“Hop burn usually comes from heavily dry-hopped beers that have a vegetal or a green bite to them. It’s not like the West Coast bitter IPA. It’s almost like if you eat a bunch of grass—it’s very intense,” says Andrew Burman, co-founder of Other Half Brewing Company. The Brooklyn brewery has built its reputation on IPAs—sour, session, double dry-hopped, hazy, West Coast, and everything in between. “We’re constantly looking out for hop burn.”

Hop burn usually comes from heavily dry-hopped beers that have a vegetal or a green bite to them. It’s not like the West Coast bitter IPA. It’s almost like if you eat a bunch of grass—it’s very intense.”

Part of the origin of hop burn has to do with the ceaseless more-is-more philosophy that has propelled IPAs as a genre for years. In order to stay on top of the media cycle, craft brewers have often been inclined to one-up each other, creating ever more extreme iterations of the style. This translated to a rise in double IPAs in the 1990s, followed by triple IPAs in the 2000s, along with a surge of ultra-bitter, sky-high IBUs culminating with Mikkeller 1000 IBU.

In a similar vein, some brewers have attempted to capitalize on the proliferation of hazy IPAs with an arms race toward bolder, boozier, hoppier, hazier beers. The thinking goes that if high-ABV juice-bombs are flying off the shelves, amping up the quantities of Citra, Mosaic, Galaxy, and other commonly used hop varietals can only improve the formula. 

There’s nothing wrong with hop-forward beers, but simply dumping more hops into the mix doesn’t necessarily yield the desired tropical, citrus-y notes. A great hazy IPA relies heavily on technique. If it sits too long on an abundance of T-90 pellets, you may wind up with a batch of OJ-esque swill.

“The longer your beer has contact with raw hops, the more likely you are to get that character. Like most breweries that make super heavily hopped beers, we’ve made beers that we felt were too green and had that burning quality to it,” says Sam Richardson, co-founder at Other Half. “Over time, we’ve found that there are diminishing returns with contact time. You sort of hit a peak, then after that, it’s no longer beneficial to have it on the hops. If you’ve gotten the hop character you want out of your beer, you want to get it off the hops.”

Courtesy of Other Half Brewing

There’s some scientific evidence that indicates that lingering polyphenols might be responsible for the ick factor. Since more research is needed, much of what we do know relies heavily on anecdotal evidence from brewers.

“I think some hops definitely are a little bit more open to that hop burn,” Burman says. “Sometimes Citra can develop those really grassy notes. It’s almost like a tongue-gripping, super tannic wine. Galaxy does have that at times.”

When used correctly, of course, Citra and Galaxy can provide the intensely fruity notes that many IPA-lovers crave. It’s a question of balance, as well as the delivery vehicle. For years, T-90 pellets have been the go-to source of hops for homebrewers and professionals alike. Made from whole hop cones that have been kiln-dried, milled, and molded into easily transportable pellets, they bring plenty of dank, resinous notes to an IPA. 

“You do run into more hop burn with the T-90 pellets, which have more bitterness and grassy notes,” Burman says.

In recent years, many of the pros have begun branching out to other hop products. Unlike T-90 pellets, Cryo hops are concentrated using extreme cold rather than the heat of a roaring furnace. The process concentrates the highly aromatic lupulin, resulting in a smoother product that packs in roughly 40 to 50 percent more flavor by volume. Even newer on the market is Incognito, a viscous, ultra-concentrated hop extract.

“Incognito is like the thickest honey you’ve ever seen," Burman says. "One-half gallon is about 44 pounds of hops. It has the most candied and citrusy notes of all the beers we do. We’ve never run into hop burn with that.”

Since each hop product has its own distinct character and advantages, Burman and his colleagues have experimented with all three. For a recent series of IPAs called HDHC, the brewery opted for different combinations of each.

Homebrewers hoping to craft their own turbid, juiced-up hazy IPAs often run into hop burn, but that should never be cause for despair. If the first batch doesn’t turn out quite right, consider spending the time and money to seek out better ingredients.

“The biggest thing is high-quality hops, which is a little bit harder as a homebrewer,” Richardson says. “It’s always worth opening them up and seeing what they smell like. If they don’t smell good, that will translate to the beer. If you choose the right yeast and the right hops, the rest should take care of itself.”

If you were to look on any Facebook group, they’ll talk about how this beer is better in two weeks or settles out well.”

Even with all sorts of precautions in place, hop burn can happen to the best of brewers. Rigorous taste-testing is the only true way to safeguard. If all else fails and a batch seems off, however, there’s an almost surefire way to at least mitigate the impact of hop burn: let it sit. Though IPAs may not age like a barleywine or imperial stout, fresh is not always best here. A beer that tastes caustically green may improve drastically if allowed to mellow out a bit.

“If you were to look on any Facebook group, they’ll talk about how this beer is better in two weeks or settles out well,” Burman says. “Time is the biggest thing in terms of letting the flavors develop. The yeast will referment and redigest a lot of the off-flavors. It can take two days or it can take a week.”

Even a perfectly packaged, shelf-stable IPA has an expiration date. Still, if that first sip feels like swallowing a Brillo pad, it might need a few days. It’s a simple extra step that will dull the burn on most beers.

“It’s kinda like pasta sauce. When you first make a tomato sauce, that first day that you’ve made it, there are all these flavors all over the place. It’s not necessarily a mess, but it’s not as melded and complex as it should be,” Richardson says. “Over time, the hop flavors meld together and the beer improves. I think that burn just lessens over time.”

Finally, if you’re attempting to homebrew a hazy IPA, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to copy the giants. There are loads of New England-style IPAs—good, bad, and dear-God-what-the-hell—out there. Brewing a good one doesn’t mean shamelessly mimicking what’s already out there, or attempting to better it with an abundance of hops.

“Take your time. Homebrewers don’t have a time crunch like we do,” Burman says. “As a homebrewer, what’s fun is you can research recipes and you can create your own hazy IPA. It doesn’t have to taste like ours or Tree House's or Trillium's.”

In other words, there's no reason to brew just another hazy IPA. The style is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. Hopefully, as the trend continues to mature, brewers will continue to innovate with eye for nuanced, balanced beers.

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