Brewer’s Spotlight: Jim Koch on Sam Adams’ New England IPA

Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down with Jim Koch, brewer and founder of Samuel Adams and chairman of The Boston Beer Company to discuss the launch of Samuel Adams New England IPA. We talked about the evolution of craft, the role of iteration in product development, and what it takes to brew a kinder, gentler IPA.

There’s not-so-suddenly a lot of different IPAs on the market. How are New England IPAs different from the IPAs we’re used to drinking?

Jim Koch: The current American IPA style originated on the West Coast. There have been thousands of good West Coast IPAs brewed over the last 25 years, but the New England IPA style is different and distinct from its western counterpart. I think of the classic profile of a West Coast IPAs as being clear and bright with a big, in-your-face bitterness that lingers between sips and a piney, resinous grapefruit character. A New England IPA is the opposite of that. For example, instead of being clear and bright, it’s hazy and juicy. Another distinction is that West Coast IPAs typically have a low malt body, while the New England IPA has more body and smoothness—or silky softness, really, from the oats—rather than that clean, sharp body and bitterness. The IBUs may measure the same because of the way the instruments lump together isohumulones and non-bitter hop compounds from dry hopping for example, but the perception of bitterness tends to be lower. And instead of the piney, resiny, grapefruit part of the hops spectrum, New England IPA leans toward orange, fruit, peach, mango, guava…it’s almost juicy. There will be a lower RDF, which gives you that drop of sweetness that brings the juiciness out. So, in some ways, it’s a kinder, gentler IPA.

New England IPA can be an almost divisive topic among brewers and beer drinkers. Some brewers even resist classifying it as an IPA. Did your R&D team and brewers have any of that dissention?

Jim: This situation is somewhat ironic—or maybe it’s just history repeating itself— because, when the American IPA style appeared in the mid-90s, there were people who said, ”This isn’t really an IPA.” Until that point, IPAs had been defined by the British IPAs, which tended to have different hop characters—Goldings and Fuggles. They were more earthy, more herbal, and they didn’t have that top-smack of bitterness. American hops had a piney-ness, even cattiness in them and more fruit character. That wasn’t an IPA taste, historically, but it became the defining hop character of IPA in the United States and then copied in Britain by non-traditional brewers.

Today, when you say IPA, you don’t mean Golding and Fuggles…you mean Cascade or Simcoe® or Citra® or Amarillo®. So 25 years ago the IPA style evolved and to me, New England IPA is the next evolution of it. Just like West Coast IPA, the origins of it are unclear. It’s emerged in the last few years here in New England as something new in the IPA world and it’s quite different than previous IPA styles. There have been hazy IPAs for a while, but this juiciness, unique fruit character and silkiness are a defining part of what makes New England IPAs so unique.

Is that because the hops are added so late in the whirlpool?

Jim: Part of it is, yes. But it’s more complicated and some of it is not understood yet. We’ve had some very interesting conversations about the biochemistry of how New England IPA is produced—and everybody does it differently. We think there are some new compounds not previously found in an IPA that make this juiciness happen. This is a new element in beer.

We wanted to do some trials and analytics to try to find the biochemical pathways and operations that were producing it. But our science guys said, “You know…don’t do that. We’re better off coming to an understanding of what’s going on through trial and error.” The biochemistry behind New England IPA is so complicated and unknown, and the analytical instruments are not sensitive enough to pick up the compounds along with the dozens, maybe hundreds, of other flavor-active compounds. They said, “If you ask us to go find them, we probably couldn’t. We’re better off tasting and brewing and tasting and brewing.” That sounded like a good plan to me.

We started brewing New England IPA in 2016 and we’re on, I think, version 46 now. Because there are also challenges when it comes to physical stability—how do you create a stable haze? Historically, New England IPAs have had a very short shelf life. Conventional wisdom says, for beer that’s been properly packaged and stored…six or eight weeks old is pretty fresh. But as we tasted some of the pioneering New England IPAs, we found that the flavor profile wasn’t holding up. Those physical and aroma stability issues are still being understood. We waited to release our New England IPA until we had solved those issues—and even with that, we give it a shorter shelf life than our other beers.

We’ve been talking about whether New England IPA will grow beyond the region—and it has—but will it grow globally? Does that stability issue pose a problem for the beer’s expandability?

Jim: Honestly, we believe we solved a lot of the problem. And that’s why we’re on version 46. We’ve trialed beer that’s three-and-a-half months old and it was still clearly identifiable as a good New England IPA, it still had that juicy aroma, and it hadn’t broken down physically. It’s a pretty primitive way to do it but I open a can of Samuel Adams New England IPA, then pour the 16-ounce can into five equal pours. We look at beer from the top of the can, the middle and the bottom, and if they look the same, that’s good. If the beer from the bottom of the can is hazier, that’s bad. It means the haze is unstable and has started to settle.

As one of the standard-bearers for New England Beer and driving force for the craft industry, did you feel any added pressure launching a New England IPA?

NEIP_Tasting_EventsJim: We knew we’d be introducing a lot of people outside New England to this style, so we wanted to make sure that we had a version of New England IPA that presented the best of what the style can be. And, with great respect, we were
doing this knowing that we are building on what other New England brewers have been doing for several years before us. Hopefully we’ve added some quality and some understanding of the process to what those amazing brewers have done.

I still think we’re in the beginning of the growth and the development of this style. We didn’t invent New England IPAs, and I hope we’re adding to the knowledge and interest in this style. And I hope people will come along in the future and contribute their own ideas and interpretations—it’s dynamic and I’m excited to see it continue to develop as more brewers join in.

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