Are Hazy IPAs Due For a Fall?


I had an interesting experience about ten days ago. I was sitting under sunny skies outside one of Portland’s finer purveyors of hoppy ales. On a lark, I had decided to order an non-hazy IPA. I know—madness! It was a perfectly modern IPA, with a bouquet of tropical fruit detectable at arm’s length and a flavor profile to match. It didn’t court that ultra-low bitterness favored by fans of hazies, but it wasn’t a bitterbomb, either. It had a hint of malt sweetness and a nicely crisp finish. And I was smitten--oh non-hazy, where you been hiding lately?

For the past year or so, I’ve largely ridden the hazy wave. My ratio of hazies to regular IPAs must be running at least five to one, and weeks may go by when the only IPAs that touch my lips are the gunky, chunky-looking things that are flying out of breweries. What I’ve discovered is that those that hit their marks truly are exceptional. The perfumy aromatics and dense tropical flavors tickle my brain’s pleasure center like an addictive drug. Just seeing them on a taplist triggers my nucleus accumbens, and dopamine floods my brain. 

But unlike the rat who receives his joy-giving pellet when he pulls the lever, in nearly every case I find myself disappointed at the pub. Very few hazies really deliver the goods and, worse, a lot of them are below average or bad—a far higher percentage than for other styles. I haven’t done a scientific study, but I’d guess only about ten percent actually tickle that pleasure center—another twenty percent are decent enough, and everything else is disappointing. No pellet for me, too often, but a rock.  

A week ago, just after my encounter with that spectacular regular IPA, I posted my reflections on the blog’s Facebook page and sparked a pretty robust conversation. My lead-in was basically the same as above, and the bulk of comments were neutral or supportive. This is of course not remotely scientific--the people who comment on beer Facebook pages are non-representative of standard drinkers, and my initial comments were leading, to say the least.

Click to enlarge.

I followed it up this morning with a Twitter poll, which is again not remotely scientific, but it may be slightly more suggestive. About 60% of the respondents believe they're either a flash in the pan, or will at least fade a bit. Less than a third said they're here to stay. You'll see I tried to tease out whether people who thought they'd fade were fans or foes--that is often instructive both in teasing out bias. It's instructive to see that very, very few people think they're going to collapse altogether. Although the poll isn't scientific, I'd pay attention to what these numbers say--groups are better at prediction than individuals. (Where money is involved, they're even better. If all the respondents here were required to bet $20 on the outcome, we'd have a very good sense of hazies' fortunes.)

In short, there's every reason to think "they'll fade a bit" is the accurate answer here, for three reasons:

  • Hazy IPAs are crazy popular right now. Most breweries are experimenting with them, and a number of breweries offer several versions. This feels a bit like Alan Greenspan's irrational exuberance. But popularity cuts both ways. In thirty years of watching craft beer, I can think of no time when a trend got this popular. That indicates real interest, not just a fad. (Fruit IPAs and especially black IPAs were never more than peripheral to regular IPAs.) But with any gold rush, there are always losers who came too late.
  • Their batting average is too low. This isn't surprising. This gold rush phenomenon means many breweries are racing to market without dialing in their beers. Leaving aside subjective measures of what "good" is, it's hard to imagine breweries achieving widespread excellence given the sheer number of hazies flooding the market.
  • They are really expensive. Breweries love the sales figures, but they don't love the cost. Hazy IPAs began as a taproom phenomenon, where breweries weren't having to share profits with retailers and distributors. But does it scale? I've spoken to a number of breweries who are trying to figure out how to make these beers at a commercially-viable price point, which usually means using substantially fewer hops. The grocery-store hazies are often good--particularly because breweries take care in their development)--but they don't hit the pleasure center with the same force.

For my purposes, I hope people return to non-hazies in coming months to reacquaint themselves with their delights. Regular modern IPAs, with their drier and more balanced palates, can hit the pleasure centers, too. (In fact, I remember how, not too long ago, certain segments of the population were going crazy for them?) I suspect we're headed to a place of greater equilibrium--regular IPAs finding new, firmer footing, and hazy IPAs falling back a bit as people tire of paying for mediocre ones. As always, time will tell.

The beer that sparked all this thinking, incidentally, was Breakside’s Wanderlust. I used to drink it regularly, but I haven’t had a pint in months and months, during the bulk of my hazy dalliance. Sometimes it takes an old friend to help you see the light.