A Deep Dive on the Claims About New England IPAs (Way Nerdy)
Last week, the ever-busy Jason Notte had a great piece on the rise of niche brewing. This is a point I regularly make to visitors coming to Beervana: one of the things that makes the city so interesting is the presence of breweries that don't make IPAs--like Occidental, Upright, and the Commons (among others). It's a city of diversity. For his piece, Notte chose Great Notion Brewing, which specializes in the fraught "New England IPA" category.
Miller and Dugan had spent years home-brewing and swapping beers with friends across the country before realizing that their brewery’s inspiration had to lie somewhere other than Portland. They were taken with the hazier, fruitier India Pale Ales being made by Northeast breweries including Maine Beer Co., The Alchemist and Tree House.
(To be fair, Great Notion is making a pretty broad line, and their puckery beers are for me their real calling card.)
All well and good. Let's not relitigate this particular debate. My bone of contention comes with a comment Great Notion's James Dugan makes--a pillar on which these types of beers seems to rest. The overwhelming trend in American beers now is toward saturated and intense hop flavors and aromas, not bitterness. Somehow the idea is that the New England IPAs have a greater abundance of these qualities due to their cloudiness. And here Dugan doubles down with some science:
People look at our beers and say: “You have too much yeast in suspension.” What it comes down to is educating people that there is some yeast in every beer — we don’t filter, we don’t fine, we don’t centrifuge — but we cold crash all of our beer, drop the yeast out and then do a heavy dry hopping. We dry hop about two and a half to three gallons per barrel. When you dry hop that heavily, you get hop polyphenols that are basically tannins that saturate beer with oils.
Without protein content from wheat or oats, those oils eventually drop out. What we’re finding to be the defining characteristic of our beers is this marriage of protein and hop oil saturation. What’s happening is that those two are binding. You have this hop oil stuck in suspension and when you pour it into a glass, you’re tasting the hop oil.
This seemed ... dubious. I set about looking into the science, but unfortunately, the mechanism of hop flavor and aroma hasn't been studied much. For decades, all hop research was focused on IBUs and paid for by big breweries who were trying to get ever more bitterness out of ever fewer hops. The state of the aroma and flavor research is still in the gestation state. I spoke with researcher Tom Shellhammer at Oregon State last year about a project to understand the mechanism of dry-hopping. He described it for me:
“What it’s getting at is, if you’re going to use hops for dry-hopping and make a consistent product batch-to-batch, should you as a brewer hop based upon the mass of hops, or the oil content of the hops—or based on something else?”
This illustrates how little we understand about these mechanisms. But we understand some thing. We know some of the constituents of hops, like oils and and acids and prenylated flavonoids (yes, I way out over my skis on that last one), and we have some sense of what they do and don't do. In particular, scientists have focused a lot of their attention on the terpenes like myrcene, linalool, geraniol, and so on that give hops their lovely citrus or floral kick. But we also know that hops are incredibly complex and not only are there many other compounds I haven't mentioned, but even the ones I have aren't inert. Some terpenes, for example are "biotransformed by yeast during the fermentation" into other terpenes. The question at hand is whether proteins enhance and preserve the behavior of hop flavor and aroma, as proponents of New England IPAs believe.
It doesn't really add up. There's no mechanism that I understand that would cause the polyphenols in hops to bond the oils to the proteins in grain. (It's not clear why the hops don't bond to the proteins of barley, which are also present in beer, except I suppose there is less of it.) Polyphenols affect the perceived smoothness or harshness of hop flavor, but they don't appear particularly relevant to that "juicy" quality prized by modern breweries. The thing you're worried about with hop oils is degredation from oxygenation, not dropping out of suspension. Terpenes in oils appear to be susceptible to this as well, and they are also volatile and can escape the liquid. There's really nothing we know that suggests wheat and oat haze is going to affect these hoppy properties.
I shot an email to Stan Hieronymus, the writer who literally wrote the book on hops, to find out if this sounded plausible to him. If he'd like to weigh in on this, I'll let him do so in his own words. The one thing he mentioned that seemed really important was this: we "have to get past thinking about oil and think about compounds," he said. Oils are part of the equation, but they're not the whole kielbasa.
For me, the proof is in the palate. I still haven't encountered anything different in these cloudy IPAs in terms of hop flavor and aroma than I do in typical (hazy but not milky) modern American IPAs. It's as easy to make a saturated IPA whether it looks like a milkshake or not. Dugan--and others, apparently--have argued that there's some science going on in these beers that make them especially juicy. Could be! But point me to the studies that demonstrate it, please. Sciencey language doesn't quite cut it alone. (Otherwise hive mind would let me get away with a lot more BS.)
For now, I think these are standard modern American IPAs with a ton of haze. And a special prize to anyone who managed to read through this post to get to that rather modest conclusion.