Brewers and brewphiles have been clamoring lately about Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA, as a new beer style. In that spirit I offer my proposal for a not-so-new beer style called East Coast IPA. Incidentally, I’m not the first to ponder this question. What is an East Coast IPA and how does it differ from a West Coast version?
In a nutshell, it is a malt-forward, moderately bitter ale, just a tad over average beer strength. Common flavors can include pronounced fruitiness, e.g. apricots, apples, or strawberries. Hop aromas and flavors can be a muddy mix of earthy, musty, or balsamy notes. And diacetyl, that wretched, oily butter flavor and sensation, is far too common. The last bit can be explained by the proliferation of the Ringwood strain of yeast on the oriental side of the continent. But as for the dearth of hops and the banal strength of these beers, the best answer is found by digging deep into the New England psyche and palate.
Now really, I’m a lover not a hater. I’m also a 9th generation New Englander, so bear with me as I make comments that could be viewed as specious. Some have speculated that the West Coast uses more hops because they are closer and fresher. I don’t buy that, what with FedEx and hermetically sealed bales of hops. It isn’t the water, because brewers adjust the water to whatever they want. The grains are from the Midwest or from Europe, so all American brewers have access to the same ingredients. Why the difference?
Think of it this way, the traditional foods around here are boiled vegetables, beef, and potatoes. There are no chilis and few tropical spices in this lineage. Excessive bitterness favors certain foods, including spicy foods. In New England you’d be surprised how many people think Taco Bell is good Mexican food. To me it is neither spicy nor good. That’s not to say things aren’t changing, but old habits die hard. Magic Hat amped up their IPA a couple of years ago and Otter Creek is launching a hoppy American black ale this fall. It is also colder, on average, than most of the West Coast. That’s why we like a little sweeter beer around here – we’re trying to burn the sugar to keep warm.
I’ve come to the conclusion that IPAs are interpreted differently on the two coasts because of the breweries’ mindset, not that of the consumer. I believe in the axiom that if you brew it they will come. Stone and Dogfish should be evidence enough on that score. In my own instance, I find most East Coast IPAs (except for Smuttynose IPA and some occasional one-offs), to be fat, flabby, or weaker than what I have come to appreciate as an IPA. Others, like Ipswich and Harpoon are dreadfully austere. East or West, an IPA should be a hop explosion, an aromatic festival, and the bitterness should cling in the mouth while building appetite and excitement. After all, when I want wine it is chardonnay over chenin blanc. When I choose a whisk(e)y I want a Scotch single malt, not a Crown Royal. When I want a dull, buttery beer I’ll order an
Abita. On second thought, probably not.
I decided to put my views to a simple test, relying on brewery websites and Beer Advocate for inputs. I tallied up ten major IPAs I can easily obtain when I’m in Vermont, and ten others that I would find if I were based in, say, San Diego. I stayed with the mainstream brands that are widely available in bottles and I didn’t list any of the IPA permutations: double IPAs, black IPAs, and one-off releases. In other words, I tried to avoid bias without getting too scientific about it. Here’s what I found (shown with 1 sigma standard deviation):
- New England – 10 IPAs
- strength: 5.8% ± 0.4% abv
- bitterness: 51 ± 10 IBU
- aroma: medium
- West Coast – 10 IPAs
- strength: 6.4% ± 0.7% abv
- bitterness: 62 ± 18 IBU
- aroma: strong
Not only do the West Coast IPAs use more bittering, they also put in more flavor and aroma hops. Since some of the New England examples relied on American hop varieties, it isn’t clear to simply say that East Coast IPAs are essentially English-styled IPAs, though many are.
Maybe it was the autumn chill, but I am hankering for an IPA with a bit more warming and a hop blast. I think I’ll pick up some Smuttynose on my next trip to the packy. Enjoy! TPJ