Engineering a 90-day Hazy IPA
Here’s the central conundrum of our time. Hazy IPAs are wildly popular but made in such a way that, like ice sculptures, they begin losing definition moments after their birth. In order to wend their way from lupulin-soaked bright tanks to customers in typical packaged form, cans and bottles must be loaded onto trucks and pass through warehouses, get loaded onto different trucks and arrive at retailers where they may sit, sometimes at room temperature, waiting for a hand to snatch them up, load them into yet another vehicle, and be deposited in a home awaiting their ultimate fate. Breweries know this process takes awhile, and they do everything they can to make sure a beer will still taste good up to 90 days. Hazy IPAs, by contrast, typically have less shelf-life than a fresh-picked banana.
The 90-day hazy IPA is therefore the unicorn breweries are trying hard to breed. The first example we have comes from Chico—Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing, the first cans* of which shipped in December. Boston Beer is also getting in on the action, with cans* of their prosaically-named New England IPA. I wanted to see how these nationally-released beers worked as 90-day hazies, and so in December I picked up a six-pack of Hazy Little thing, plopped it in a corner of the kitchen (to replicate average conditions), and drank a can every two weeks or so through the full 90 days.
Hazy Little Thing is brewed with oats and wheat for body and cloudiness, uses Magnum bittering hops (though not many) along with Citra, Comet, Simcoe, El Dorado, and Mosaic finishing hops. It's 6.7% and has a purported 40 BUs--though in hazies this information seems beside the point. The cans I purchased were packaged on December 5th and I had my first can about three weeks later, on the 28th.
Before I explain it, I should note that the "style" parameters here are dodgy at best. The level of cloudiness can range from light haziness to Orange Julius. Kettle bittering tends to be low, but a touch isn't uncommon. The main focus is on the saturated aromas and flavors, which may be sweet and candyish or sharper and more zingy. Hazies have developed this strange aura, though, and people carry gigantic expectations when trying them. Peruse the ratings sites and you find people not just going into rapture over these beers, but expecting to be sent there.
Not all hazies are made with mammoth intensity in mind, though. Some, like Hazy Little Thing, were built to be soft and balanced and very drinkable. It's at about the midpoint in terms of haziness, and has a lush but light aroma of tropical fruit. I was getting a lot of orange and mango, with tiny pinpricks of something tarter, like passionfruit. It is very light and fluffy, and has no hint of alcohol. It is therefore dangerously easy to drink--a gulper--which got me into trouble immediately. The early reviews I was seeing suggested mild disappointment that the intensity wasn't dialed up to 11. This was not a beer designed for rapture, though, but in the characteristic Sierra mode, drinkability. Some were calling it "hazy lite," but that seems unfair to me. I was personally very impressed.
Boston Beer's New England IPA has the same wheat and oats, but is cloudier. Patrick and I came up with a hazy scale, and I'd put Sierra's at about 6.5 and Boston's at 8. It's not fully opaque, but headed that way. Not too many notes on hopping except the varieties: Galaxy, Simcoe, Mosaic, Citra, and Cascade.
Blindfolded, I think many people would mistake this beer for a more standard IPA. The aroma is subdued, led by classic West Coast citrus scents, lots of grapefruit, and just a hint of the Mosiac underneath. The flavor follows suit. Listed at just 35 BUs, it is the far bitterer of the two. It has an assertive citrus punch, with that rindy bitterness citrus fruit have. It's got a bit of fluffiness on the tongue but the sharpness of the hops removes any sense of softness. It's a fine IPA--though I wouldn't call it special--but looks a lot more like a hazy than it smells or tastes like one. I will check back in with the other three cans the brewery sent me, also sitting in a corner of the kitchen, as they age. I expect it will do fine, though--the delicate aromatics and flavor compounds are mostly absent already, so there's not a ton of ground to be lost.
How Hazy Little Thing Aged
I tried to contact the brewery to hear about their development process for this beer. I expected that they'd keep mum about their precise process and how they built the beer, but I would have liked to know how long it was in development, how many iterations they went with, and whether they learned anything about process or hop selection along the way. Alas, no one got back to me.
Whatever they did worked; the beer performed very well as it aged. If I were to draw a sensory chart of aroma, it would look like a slow taper through day 45, losing perhaps 25% of its intensity, before flattening out the remainder of the way. The aroma did change, and it followed the same evolution in the flavor. Early on, it had that lush, fresh-fruit scent. As it aged, the aroma shifted into something more purely citrusy. I was getting an aroma a little like those air fresheners made of citrus oils by the 90-day mark. The final can was definitely milder and less beguiling than the first can, but still comparatively bright and aromatic.
The flavor shifted in the same direction. At the start, it was more a fruit-flesh quality, like biting into a juicy mango. It was sweet and delicate, which went nicely with the fluffy mouthfeel. Over time, the fruit flavors shifted to the quality of essential oil, with bright, spiky citrus notes. It had a touch of rind but also something that reminded me of ascorbic acid. This edged it away from the New England profile and toward West Coast flavors.
The idea is not to build a beer that doesn't change at all in 90 days. For IPAs, that's impossible. The best a brewery can hope to do is make sure that the development of the beer remains pleasing as it changes. This is something that is notably hard to do with hazy IPAs. Their positive elements vanish, and what they leave behind can be overly treacly or sharp and harsh. Hazy Little Thing goes from a pure hazy to something like half-hazy/half-West Coast IPA.
What a brewery fears more than anything is someone picking up a bottle (or can*) of beer and finding it oxidized, blown out, or otherwise objectionable. No 90-day beer is ever going to be as good as a one-day beer, but breweries are shooting for "good enough." The conundrum with hazies is getting past a few weeks. Hazy Little Thing promises that it is possible. People are never going to go nuts over it like they do Tree House beers (though I would love to slip it into a lineup of Tree House beers and see if people could pick out the imposter blind), but on the other hand a lot of people coming to hazy IPAs for the first time will be favorably inclined. Which, if you're a fan of the style, is a good thing.
* Because all hazies must be packaged in cans.