The most coveted medals at this year’s Great American Beer Festival competition are hazy.
For the first time, the Brewers Association will award medals at the festival Sept. 22 in downtown Denver for hazy pale ales, hazy IPAs and hazy double IPAs after creating new categories and guidelines for the styles earlier this year.
The styles are the hottest trend in the craft beer industry and the most controversial — making the competition a contentious affair ripe for debate.
Better known as New England IPAs, the hazy hop concoctions are known for their juicy fruit aroma and flavor with a full mouthfeel and cloudy appearance. The style is responsible for putting little-known breweries on the national map and bestowing cult status to others that perfect the style.
In Colorado, a handful of breweries made their name with hazy beers, including Odd13, Fiction, Cerebral, WeldWerks, Outer Range and New Image. And the broader popularity is evident in the fact three big craft brewers — New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer — all launched their own versions in the past year.
To the naysayers, hazy IPAs are imperfect, a sign of poor brewing technique and imbalance, and to put it bluntly, a marketing ploy. The haze, or turbidity, is a product of proteins from the grain or an overload of hops that remain suspended in the beer. Plenty of juice-flavored IPAs are refined, even clear, and still boast insane flavor and mouthfeel, like versions from Comrade Brewing in Denver.
The haze won legitimacy when the Brewers Association created the new categories, after two years of debate and a lobbying effort from some brewers, including WeldWerks’ Neil Fisher.
In the latest industry journal “The New Brewer,” Fisher wrote a definitive piece on the style, saying he is “incredibly excited to see the Brewers Association make the styles official.”
“And while it is highly unlikely that these category additions will change the opinions of critics of the style, it does help to further solidify its place in India pale ale’s storied history,” he wrote.
But the question ahead of the festival is whether you can even judge and award medals for a beer designed to break all guidelines. It’s like taking a wild animal, trying to put it in a cage and then trotting it before judges at a dog show.
Charlie Papazian, the Boulder-based Brewers Association’s chief of style guidelines, acknowledged this dynamic at the March announcement of the new categories. “What we discovered and verified was that there was a wide range of alcohol content for what was being perceived in the public as just one style,” said Papazian, the association’s founder.
The best hazy IPA brewers are expected to shun the competition, refusing to cage their rebellious brews. But others are not so coy. The three categories drew a staggering 700-plus entries for the GABF competition through mid-August, organizers reported. It became the most competitive beer style, a title once held by American-style IPAs.
The style guidelines are so broad that one beer can qualify for all three categories. So how do you judge the beer? John Carlson, a veteran beer judge based in Colorado, acknowledged it’s a challenge.
“This style is evolving,” he said.
What he looks for in a hazy IPA is multifaceted. He said: “In these styles, I think, the fermentation characteristics become very important. You do not want a harsh flavor profile from the suspended proteins.
“I am a big believer in both hop bitterness and hop flavor,” he continued. “The components that make the beer ‘juicy’ are really important. They need to be complementary. With these styles there is even more going on with the beer, so balance is important.”
Even with the broad category, it’s not broad enough for Cerebral Brewing, one of the leading purveyors of the style in Colorado. The brewery isn’t entering the new competition categories.
”Ironically, I think within the category that was built, we are still not to style,” head brewer Sean Buchan said. “I think what a lot of people mistakenly come to expect with the style is that they want it to be very sweet and very soft and not a lot of bitterness. We do dry ours out, so it is more drinkable … little more bitter.”
Ryan Scott at Odd13 Brewing in Lafayette is one of the first in Colorado to brew a hazy IPA. He’s entering his IPAs in the GABF competition for the first time in a couple years because they didn’t fit a category before now.
“I’ll be curious what ends up medaling this year,” he said. But he’s cautious about what it will mean for a style with so many interpretations. “I’m sure for the winner it will see a boost in sales, but I don’t think it’s going to be a precedent setter.”