Five Boroughs Brewing faced a seasonal conundrum. Toward the end of Summer 2018, the brewery, based in Brooklyn, New York, needed a beer to bridge warm days and fall’s coming cool. Maybe a sustaining saison? A midstrength stout? Another double IPA?
Staffers batted about ideas until a sales guy suggested revisiting Tiny. It was one of Five Boroughs’s launch beers, offering a hazy IPA’s fruit-charged fragrances, cloudy hue, and smooth body—but minus the knee-buckling alcohol. “We decided to go after a hazy session IPA with a ton of flavor but 4 percent ABV,” says Kevin O’Donnell, the cofounder and chief operating officer of Five Boroughs, who notes that many hazy IPAs regularly reach 7 percent or 8 percent ABV.
Tiny Juicy, as the beer was rechristened, blew through kegs and cans, leading Five Boroughs to slot the beer in its 2019 year-round lineup. Sales for draft and, in particular, six-packs of 12-ounce cans (retailing for around $11) have ridden a fast-rising elevator to the top of the brewery’s sales charts.
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“We’ve done more than 2,000 barrels in the last 12 months,” O’Donnell says, adding that some summer seasonal accounts were ordering 100 cases weekly. That’s for a single location. “Sometimes,” he says, “we can’t make enough of it.”
The low-alcohol IPA is a poster child for contemporary beer’s boom-bust cycle. Four years ago, beer and grocery stores were awash with so-called session IPAs, which promised to deliver a standard IPA’s flavor profile with a more moderate ABV of around 4 percent or 5 percent. With the major exception of Founders All Day IPA, most market entries flopped, destined for the historical drain.
“It was really hard to get the body right,” says Nick Crandall, the head brewer of Redhook Brewery, in Seattle. Many versions were based on lean, piney, and resinous West Coast IPAs and ended up too dry, thin, and bitter, like “diet IPA,” Crandall says. “They were just hop water.”
Now breweries are rebooting session IPAs and hop-charged pale ales in the model of hazy IPAs, increasingly engineered for low calorie counts. They’re using wheat and oats to boost body and mouthfeel, as well as to lend opaque looks, while hops are added at the end of brewing for maximum aroma and flavor and minimum bitterness. Hazy session IPAs mimic the stronger stuff in everything but alcohol, creating opportunities for sipping—and selling—more beer.
The huge success of hazy IPAs can be credited to both elimination and addition. Breweries ditched divisive bitterness, using modern hops to craft alluring profiles of ripe papayas, just-squeezed oranges, and juicy mangoes. But just as with a morning orange juice, the fruitiness is accompanied by sweetness—sometimes too much.
“There are very good things about hazies, like the juiciness and flavor, but many are very heavy and sweet,” says Veronica Vega, the brewmaster of new product development at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon.
Elevated alcohol comes with extra calories and carbs, twin focal points for wellness-focused consumers. Given such concerns, this fall Deschutes released Wowza!, a 100-calorie hazy pale ale with four carbs per 12-ounce serving, plus 4 percent ABV.
“It has all the aspects people love in a hazy, hoppy beer,” Vega says of the citrusy ale, which is made with Belgian chicory root. In January, the draft-only beer will enter widespread distribution in cans (retailing at $10 per six-pack). The label copy calls it a lo-cal hazy, and the carb count is highlighted to tempt health-conscious drinkers who don’t want to sacrifice their waistlines for good taste. Says Vega, “We’re making the flavors that we want in an alcohol level that is appealing.”
Increasingly, brewers’ personal desires for big flavors and lower booze are powering the surge of hazy, low-alcohol ales. “Most of my recipes,” says Redhook’s Crandall, “start out with something I want to drink.”
Crandall used flaked oats and both experimental and Australian hops to create Atomic Robot (selling at around $10 per six-pack), released in cans in September. “I saw it as another chance to attack that session category with new tools,” he says. “I feel like we’re landing somewhere where the balance is working in our favor.”
Lower Alcohol, Larger Sales
The beer business is built on volume. It’s great to sell a single four-pack of a limited-release double IPA, but that’s not an everyday beer for the average consumer.
Hazy session IPAs provide an opportunity for brewers and retailers to boost sales. In an average week last fall, Resurgence Brewing Company, in Buffalo, New York, sold up to 100 cases of its crisply tropical Cosmic Truth Session IPA (retailing at $12 per six-pack). “That’s a crazy-high number for us,” says Jeff Ware, Resurgence’s owner and president.
Expect the market for hazy session IPAs to heat up as breweries seek to stake out this new niche. Last September, Oskar Blues Brewery, which brews at several locations including Longmont, Colorado, rolled out the One-y 100 Calorie Hazy IPA (around $11 per six-pack). In January, Stone Brewing, in San Diego, released the nationwide Neverending Haze, a 4 ABV IPA (around $12 per six-pack), while Firestone Walker Brewing Company, in Paso Robles, California, debuted the 96-calorie Flyjack, a 4 percent ABV hazy IPA.
In a sea of strong IPAs, with alcohol and haze reaching for the clouds, the session IPA 2.0 can provides consumers with an appealing option that leads to sale after sale. “We see that more people want the ability to have more than one beer, and Tiny Juicy fits that well,” says Five Boroughs’s O’Donnell. “Every bar needs to have a beer like that.”
Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.