Beer Run

A bitter debate: Is the Northeast style set to upstage West Coast IPA?

The West Coast IPA is a revolutionary style of beer. There’s nothing subtle about it. It’s got big citrus and pine notes and big bitterness – up front on the tip of your tongue and raking across your palate on the finish.

But it’s not for everyone. Even if you love it, you probably have friends who can’t handle it.

Enter the Northeast-style IPA. It’s not bitter, it’s kinda cloudy and it finishes with this mouthfeel and flavor that can best be described as “juicy.” This is not to be confused with the East Coast-style IPA, which has a malty thing going on and can feel a little tame and/or dated when tasted side by side with something from Russian River, Stone or Ballast Point (or Track 7, Device and Knee Deep locally).

I recently got to taste a top-flight example of the hot new Northeast style with a beer from Trillium Brewing out of Boston. Called Congress Street (7.2 percent alcohol content), it’s an IPA that has, at the risk of hyperbole, some revolutionary things going on. It’s aromatic but not bitter, and that juiciness sloshes around in your mouth to such an extent that you’d be tempted to have it with your waffles and eggs. Yes, it has an OJ feel to it.

Sitting across from me during this tasting was Sam Blackmon, who snagged this and other beers in a recent epic beer trade. Trillium doesn’t distribute in California.

“It used to be East Coast-style was a maltier IPA and they still exist. I call this a Northeast-style IPA. It’s hazier, less bitter and a juicier IPA,” Blackmon said. “I tell you, they’re taking over the world. You could argue that Heady Topper may have started it.”

Turns out, one of the other beers we tasted that day was the famously unfiltered Heady Topper by Vermont-based Alchemist. Blackmon, a serious beer aficionado and home brewer who is president of the Elk Grove Brewers Guild, says this kind of IPA is achieved by taking a different approach with hops during the brewing process.

“The more hops you add to the beginning of the boil, the more bitter it’s going to be. Toward the end of the boil is more for aroma and flavor hops. With the Northeast style, they get a little bit of bitter up front, then they wait to the end (of the boil) and just bomb it with late hops and they don’t have time to bitter up,” Blackmon told me.

But this style of IPA is scarce in the Sacramento area.

“That is the great debate. Every beer nerd wonders, ‘Why can’t I get this in Sacramento?’ The reckoning is going to be when Fieldwork comes to town,” Blackmon added.

Yes, Berkeley’s Fieldwork will have a tasting room in midtown by summer. If you don’t want to wait that long, Pangaea Bier Cafe was slated to tap a keg of the brewery’s Galaxy Juice (and it might still be available by press time). Cellarmaker in San Francisco has also embraced this kind of IPA.

“I’m a huge fan of that style,” said Pangaea’s beer buyer Anders Kindall. “There is a time and a place for a bitter, clean IPA, but recently I have been looking out for a nice juicy IPA.”

Given the response and the potential demand, I wondered: Are Sacramento breweries missing out?

“While there are some amazing IPAs coming out of Sacramento, there is definitely an opening for a brewery to produce something like this,” Kindall said.

But wait! Isn’t the great hazy and delicious (and a good bit juicy) Separation Anxiety IPA, available only at Berryessa Brewing’s taproom, sort of Northeast-y?

I called Berryessa’s brewmaster extraordinaire, Chris Miller, to see if he had been hanging out at all kinds of hip New England breweries and taking notes.

“I’ve never even been to the Northeast and I haven’t had a beer from the Northeast,” Miller said. “I’m just becoming aware of this Northeast style.”

OK, so we may have to revoke his hipster card, but there’s no questioning Miller’s brewing prowess.

“I don’t like bitter beers and I like balance,” said Miller. “People have accused me for years of using fruit in my beers and I had to put the kibosh on that rumor.”

Miller likes the fresh taste of unfiltered beer but is quick to point out that his beers are hazy, not muddy. Some hops simply come out hazy. Separation Anxiety is all Mosaic hops, and Miller’s Markley Cove, one of the great pale ales anywhere, is brewed with Galaxy hops from Australia (the same as Trillium’s flagship IPA, Congress Street).

Which style do I prefer? West Coast? Northeast? Put me down for both. And really, that’s the great thing about craft beer. Lots of creativity, passion and options.

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob

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