The rise of the New England IPA

Fruitier New England IPAs are a hit in Sacramento

Moonraker’s popular Yojo IPA

Moonraker’s popular Yojo IPA

Photo by Lisa Baetz

While working the night shift at Moonraker Brewing Co., head brewer Zach Frasher met a man who didn’t drink much beer, preferring screwdrivers. But after trying Yojo, Moonraker’s flagship New England IPA, he shook Frasher’s hand and asked for another glass.

A couple of years ago, this sort of beer couldn’t be found in the Sacramento area. But with the proliferation of crisp, bitter West Coast IPAs, Frasher formed the vanguard of local brewers inspired by the opposite coast’s emphasis on a softer, less aggressive mouthfeel and fruity hops.

“If I mention that you’re going to get apricot and peaches and tangerines, people typically will listen and start picking up those flavors,” Frasher said. “It’s a lot more approachable to the palette with power of suggestion. I know a lot of people that don’t like IPAs. Then I give them Yojo, and they are converted.”

A little under a year old, the Auburn-based brewery has carved out a niche by embracing the New England or Northeastern-style IPAs more than any other area brewer. Frasher had been home-brewing similar varieties since 2011 and now, Moonraker has five other bright, hazy beers influenced by the style.

Frasher creates Yojo with Auburn’s soft water that has a mineral content so low, it’s close to distilled. Combined with high-protein malts like oats, rye and flaked wheat, the beer gains a cloudier, fuller body thanks to beta-glucans, the same compounds that make oatmeal gummy. He also uses a proprietary English yeast that yields fruitier flavors than the California Ale yeast used in West Coast IPAs.

Beyond that, he purchases artisan hops like Mosaic, Citra, Simcoe, Equinox and Galaxy, patented varieties that have a flavor and aroma closer to tropical fruit than the West Coast’s piney, citrus notes. He also dry-hops, or adds hops while the beer cools instead of during the initial boil, which reduces bitterness and pulls out more fruity aromas and flavors—sort of like a cold-brew coffee.

“Each of these specifics plays a part in the whole spectrum to make the beer,” he said. “It’s not just one thing. It’s all kinds of things.”

When the head brewer at Rubicon Brewing Co., Chris Keeton, could no longer tamp down his curiosity, he purchased a can of the Moonraker flagship. The self-described “skeptical, old-soul curmudgeon” brews clear beer and was certain that the opaque Yojo would curdle after a month in the fridge. But then, he poured it, watched a frothy, fragrant head rise, then drank his words.

So in a tongue-in-cheek move, he made the Helter Skelter IPA, named after a one-off Beatles song that broke from the band’s pop style to rock like the Rolling Stones and the Who. And just as the Beatles put their own spin on things, Rubicon made its NE-inspired IPA clear.

“With this beer we can do that,” he said. “If we’re making a Russian imperial stout, there’s guidelines that we need to meet. Am I doing a disservice to this beer by [making it clear]? Potentially. But we’re able to slip in while it’s in its inception. And now it’s, ’Oh, you can have a clear NE IPA,’ and boom, I’ve got my trademark down.”

Keeton prefers clear beers for their aesthetic. Plus, high beta-glucans in the malt can lead to inefficiencies in the older brewing system at Rubicon. Keeton wants to keep things consistent for the 30-year-old brewery’s clientele. But after taking over four years ago, he realized the market demands more variety in IPAs beyond the classic Rubicon IPA—winner of the 1989 gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

“The IPA is like the cheeseburger,” he said. “When you start curing your own bacon, or encrusting the patty with blue cheese—all of these extra things become the IPA.”

Over at Track 7 Brewing Co., brewmaster Ryan Graham went to the East Coast in August and saw that the New England IPA seemed as widespread as the West Coast version is here. He’s done several New England-inspired beers like Love and Hoppiness, which came out only a week after Yojo.

The beer is clear like Rubicon’s because Graham believes that the beer-drinking community still has a prejudice against cloudy brews. He blames West Coast fatigue for the New England IPA’s popularity surge, but also Sacramento’s tendency to adopt outside trends.

“Sacramento inherently looks at others for a way of constructing its own identity,” he said. “It’s really great that we have breweries making world-class examples of this style. But [if Sacramento] continues to build on farm-to-fork and develop an identity that’s its own, it’ll be most successful in its long-term development of its own artisanal culture.”

He doesn’t see the New England-inspired styles overtaking Track 7’s Panic IPA. But still, he thinks it necessary to keep pushing the envelope to stay competitive among the high concentration of more than 60 local breweries. In other words, the New England IPA’s effects will continue to ripple.

“There’s a place for it,” he said. “Really well done NE IPAs, are gonna be embraced just like really well done West Coast IPAs. People have been calling for the end of IPA for 10 years. And it’s continued to evolve. So I imagine there will be some lasting legacy effects from NE IPA for West Coast brewers no matter what.”