Joe Whitney has a story he likes to tell about an IPA drinker and peer pressure. Seven or maybe six years ago, Whitney, Sierra Nevada Brewing’s chief commercial officer, was at a hop harvest and talking to a guy in his 20s who was mostly consuming double IPAs. Following the era’s fashion, the IPAs were likely strong, aggressively bitter, and as approachable as a pissed-off porcupine.

“I was like, ‘Have you always loved IPAs?’” Whitney says. “He was like, ‘No! I hated them, but my friends were drinking them. I forced myself to drink them for, like, two years until I learned to like them.’”

He passed on the anecdote to the brewing and marketing team at Sierra Nevada, which made the piney, assertive Torpedo IPA. Its firm bitterness served as a virtue — the beer is one of the brewery’s best sellers — and a cross to bear. “We shouldn’t torture people for two years so they can have the ability to drink our beers,” Whitney says.

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Sierra Nevada dug into R&D and developed the Hazy Little Thing IPA, released at the end of 2017. The lullaby-soft, lightly filtered Thing balances candied orange rinds and ripe pineapple with a bass line of bitterness, an IPA that’s easy to love at first sip. This month, in October, Hazy Little Thing passed Lagunitas IPA as America’s top-selling IPA, according to Nielsen. “Hazy Little Thing is leading our growth,” Whitney says.

A half-decade ago, the hazy IPA hit the industry like a sticky tidal wave made from pineapple, mango, and orange juices. Lined up alongside the resinous, resoundingly bitter, and filtered West Coast IPAs, the foggy, fruity IPAs of Vermont and the larger Northeast were not so clearly different. Beer geeks paid pilgrimages to The Alchemist, Tree House, and Hill Farmstead, returning home with suitcases and trunks stuffed with New England IPAs (NEIPAs), more often referred to now as hazy IPAs.

Now, opaque IPAs that taste like pillows plumped with fruit juice are the norm, sold cold at grocery stores — and selling well. Year to date (through Sept. 5), hazy IPAs account for 6.5 percent of craft dollars, according to Nielsen, an increase of 81 percent from 2019.

“Hazy IPAs have experienced more than two years of strong growth, which typically is an indication that they will not be a ‘boom, splat’ phenomenon,” says Danelle Kosmal, Nielsen’s vice president of beverage alcohol.

The category is still growing, but “we most likely have reached the saturation point” on new brands, she adds. Nielsen now measures more than 500 hazy IPAs in its off-premise channels, meaning that new entrants “will need to find ways to clearly differentiate themselves.”

A Matter of Selection

In search of a flavorful edge, breweries are focusing on sourcing the choicest hops. Agriculture is variable, and a variety’s profile can annually vary from farm to farm. One batch of Mosaic might evoke sun-ripened blueberries, while another could smell like gasoline-spritzed raw onions. “The biggest thing for IPA producers is hop selection,” says Sam Richardson, a founder of Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing. “We take that very seriously.”

Since opening in early 2014, Other Half has built its name on IPAs with huge, hop-derived fragrances and flavors. A triple dry-hopped triple IPA is nothing unusual. “We cater to a more niche demographic that is really looking for that big hop character,” he says.

A little milk can also go a long way to setting hazy IPAs apart. Brewers started using lactose, an unfermentable milk sugar, to lend IPAs a sweet lushness and create the so-called “milkshake IPA” variant. To find white space amid the haze, Dogfish Head leaned on an alternative: Oat milk.

The brewery spent a year formulating Hazy-O!, an IPA containing four forms of oats: Rolled, naked, malted, and milk. They create a silky, creamy IPA complemented by coconut-y Sabro hops and other tropical varietals, as well as a vegan-friendly health veneer: Oat milk sales have increased more than 300 percent this year, becoming America’s second-most-popular alternative milk, after almond.

Dogfish Head will release Hazy-O! IPA nationally in the new year, and the beer’s price point — around $10 for a 6-pack — and flavor profile augur well for success. “It has the potential to grow to a top-five American hazy IPA in volume,” Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s founder, says.

Semantics can also be a selling point as brewers looking to rebrand the haze. Thirsty Bear of San Francisco crafts “foggy IPAs,” a tip to the city’s weather, while Pure Project in San Diego makes so-called “murky” IPAs that are impenetrable to light and look like “a solid in a glass,” says Winslow Sawyer, Pure Project’s head brewer and a partner.

“Haze is a spectrum, but murk is opaque,” he says. “We wanted to make a callout and brand it in a certain way and own it.”

What’s in Store

No matter what you call them, hazy IPAs are driving sales at specialty beer stores. At City Beer Store in San Francisco, “hazy IPA are dominating our shelves and the market,” says Beth Wathen, who owns the store and bar with her husband, Craig. They regularly stock IPAs from California standouts, including Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey and San Francisco’s Cellarmaker, as well as Equilibrium Brewery from Middletown, N.Y. “There’s an excitement when we pop up a true East Coast-style IPA,” Beth says. “It’s from the motherland.”

IPAs make up more than 85 percent of the dollar sales at Bier Cellar, which has two locations in and around Portland, Maine.

“IPAs in Portland are hazy IPAs,” says Greg Norton, the president of Bier Cellar. “It’s become the de facto standard.” IPAs from Maine breweries such as Bissell Brothers, Battery Steele, and Orono regularly top his sales charts. A year and a half ago, Norton says, he was talking to a brewer buying a couple of German lagers, and lamenting the store’s many IPAs. Simultaneously, two customers rang out with three cases of New England-style IPAs. Each. “Their total was $600,” Norton says. “What do you think I’m going to stock more of? Customers run the market.”

Essential to the hazy IPA’s sales appeal is its eternal ephemerality. Breweries can alter hop combos, swap yeast strains, and rejigger grain bills to create fresh haze, attracting customers chasing “the ethereal IPA that’s way better than the one they’ve had before,” Norton says.

After nearly nine years in business, though, Norton is noticing fatigue. “We have 24- and 25-year-old customers that are burnt out,” he says. “They did it for two years, spent thousands of dollars, and can’t taste anything anymore. They’ve moved to high-end lagers.”

Nothing in brewing is eternal. Today’s trends are tomorrow’s recycling. With hazy IPAs, we’re witnessing an ascendant category that’s splintering to satisfy different needs, both economically and aromatically. You can choose from widely available offerings like Bell’s Official Hazy IPA, or Dogfish Head’s forthcoming Hazy-O!, sold for $10 a 6-pack; or a $20 4-pack of Other Half IPA, its intense scent perfuming a room.

“You’re going to pay more for more hops,” Richardson says. “When people go into a wine shop, they don’t get nitpicky over the prices of different wines. They just choose the wine at the price point they want.”

For its part, Sierra Nevada is enjoying the unlikely rise of Hazy Little Thing, a beer never meant for a national star turn. “We were only going to sell it on draft in Northern California,” Whitney says. More than 40 years ago, the brewery’s Pale Ale helped redefine American beer. Now the future might be Hazy.

“It’s not inconceivable to think it’ll pass Pale Ale one day,” Whitney says.