In an interview with the U.K.’s Morning Advertiser last year, Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, author, and all-around beer industry celebrity, dismissed the New England-style IPA, or New England IPA (NEIPA), as “a fad.”
Oliver also called it “the first beer style based around Instagram culture and based around social media,” with its draw dependent on waiting in line at a brewery to capture the limited goods. But even as Oliver championed quality control, scientific advancements, and, well, seriousness in the brewing process, he admits the controversial NEIPA is “fun to drink.”
And that is precisely the point.
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Beset by style debates and near-hysterical fandom, the NEIPA is a polarizing topic among beer makers, consumers, and critics. Yet they are among beer nerds’ most sought out and favorably reviewed beers. Granted, much of this success can be attributed to the style’s easy-to-love gustatory delights, like tropical hop aromas, fruit-forward flavors, barely-there bitterness, and soft, pillowy mouthfeel.
But there is another ingredient essential to NEIPA’s triumph: its appearance. NEIPA doesn’t look like any other beer. That photogenic palette, combined with each beer’s limited release, short shelf life, and “cool factor,” is precisely what makes it so shareable, online and IRL. Like any eminently shareable social media phenomenon, NEIPAs have gone viral.
Hey, Good Looking
Feast your eyes on a New England-style IPA, and you’ll find yourself gazing into a haze. These instantly recognizable beers are thick, bright yellow-orange, and often completely opaque. They’re packed with hop particles, high-protein grains (like wheat, flaked oats, and in some rumored cases, flour), and, in some cases (especially in the cases of “milkshake” IPAs), other ingredients like lactose and even apple purée (for the pectins). Some brewers, like Neil Fisher, head brewer at WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley, Colorado, opt for yeast strains that are low-flocculating and low-attenuating, imparting more cloudiness in the beer as it slowly conditions in the can or keg.
NEIPAs are photogenic liquid gold for social media users, be they brewers or consumers. Posting a photo of something so distinctive looking is an excellent advertisement, a neon sign saying, ‘You want this.’
“I don’t know exactly what it is, but there’s a certain appeal to the overall aesthetic to New England IPAs,” says Eric Bachli, chief product officer at Sixpoint Brewery. “They’re opaque, they’re brilliantly orange or grapefruit colored … there’s something beautiful about the art of taking photographs of that and posting it.” Formerly of Trillium Brewing, Bachli is widely regarded as a driving force in developing the New England IPA style.
Bachli notes the visuals of this unique beer style are key to the NEIPA’s sex appeal. “Pilsners are beautiful, too, but they’re bright and clear with a nice foam head,” he adds. “[With NEIPAs], there’s more magnitude and intensity of colors, and that’s why it’s so appealing when it’s on Instagram. Something draws you into that opacity and strong, textured color. We do it at Sixpoint. It’s one of best, coolest beers to photograph because it comes out so vivid and beautiful.”
NEIPAs are photogenic liquid gold for social media users, be they brewers or consumers. Posting a photo of something so distinctive looking is an excellent advertisement, a neon sign saying, “You want this.”
Economics (and Allure) of Scarcity
Another major facet of NEIPA’s appeal is its limited nature, in quantity as well as geography. The style is certainly not limited to New England soil, but the allure of can release day is dependent on exclusivity.
“For ephemeral-obsessed, Instagram-savvy beer drinkers, special releases are peak zeitgeist,” Nick Hines wrote in VinePair last year. “Breweries announce limited-edition beers on their Instagram feeds, drawing comments, tags, and likes. You can almost feel followers and friends of followers marking the date on so many Google calendars minutes after the release is announced.”
On a can release day, the moment a brewery hits “share,” the trading begins, and acronyms (ISO, DDH, DIPA) start to fly.
Many of these real-time transactions occur in the comments sections of Instagram, while expectant fans wait in lines. “Comments immediately flooded in [on Instagram] of people saying they were going and which beers they were most excited for,” Hines writes. “The breweries announce on Instagram, and the fans flock to the comments section, where they arrange trades for rare beers from other breweries.”
Like an Instagram influencer and her milkshake, the beer geek snags the milkshake IPA as much for the capture as for the actual joy of drinking (or trading) it.
This is a relatively new development. “The beer industry as a whole certainly uses Instagram and Facebook to advertise and showcase beers,” Bachli says, but he believes the trading network is new. “I don’t remember seeing that five or six years ago,” he says.
The shareability of NEIPAs serves multiple purposes. Brewers can post distinctive-looking photos on Instagram to advertise their limited NEIPA supplies; meanwhile, fans share comparable shots to self-identify as cutting-edge, in-the-know beer geeks.
“It’s less to do with the camera culture and more to do with the micro tribe of hop heads,” Merlin U. Ward, founder and brewer at Wartega Brewing, says. “Recent variants of IPAs point to the fact that they’ll drink anything with a DDH on the label.”
“[The] causality [between NEIPA success and Instagram] would be hype, limited local releases, subjective attractiveness of haze, and accessibility to the style,” Darwin Goh, a beer server, certified cicerone, and beer reviewer, says. Goh often reviews hazy NEIPAs on his YouTube Channel, Darwin’s Beer Reviews. “Instagram is a result and vehicle for spreading the hype.” (Full disclosure: Goh is a personal friend of the author.)
Then, there’s the simple love of the chase. In the case of NEIPAs, this urge is especially strong because the beer won’t keep long. Like an Instagram influencer and her milkshake, rainbow bagel, or ice cream cone held up in front of a wall, beer geeks snag that four-pack of milkshake IPA as much for the capture as for the actual joy of drinking it, or trading it.
And don’t even get us started on Untappd check-ins.
Tasty is Not a Trend
In many ways, the New England-style IPA shows signs of being a fad, a flash in the proverbial pan. The shelf life of social media trends is comparable to that of double-up hop flavors: short and unforgiving.
Yet, for as many brewers who roll their eyes at the thirst for “juice bombs,” just as many are brewing them. In many cases, they are the same person. Why are they doing it? Because they’re selling like, well, hazy IPAs.
Phenomena like cold-brew coffee or whole-animal butchery started out as seemingly faddish trends, but they stuck around because they back up sizzle with steak (literally, in the case of the latter). Big, juicy NEIPAs may be trendy and Instagram-friendly, but they also happen to taste really good. That never goes out of style.