Ask a Beer Judge: Kristen England of the BJCP shares his tips for Unlabeled No. 1: Hazy IPA

Kristen England, photographed in 2015 at Bent Brewstillery // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Known from the blogs to the beirgartens as one of Minnesota’s most colorful, knowledgable, and outspoken brewers, Dr. Kristen England seemed like the perfect resource to tap for a primer on blind tasting before The Growler’s Unlabeled No. 1: Hazy IPA.

Prior to his work as the head brewer and COO of Bent Brewstillery in Roseville, Minnesota, England served as the education director of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a role he still holds in emeritus while advising and advocating for the program as a liaison. During his time at the BJCP, England and his team were responsible for a massive overhaul of the program’s style guidelines and education department, working to establish the detailed roadmap for beer quality that the BJCP represents today.

Thankfully, the good doctor was kind enough to answer a few of our questions in advance of our first blind tasting beer festival.

From England to New England: Charting the IPA’s journey into the haze

For more historical context, consider reading Michael Agnew’s 2017 piece about NEIPAs

“IPAs started in England. Things started to be called ‘American’ not because so much of the history, but to differentiate,” England explains. “Meaning, pale ale was always an English thing, and an American pale ale is a derivation.”

The haze factor flowered stateside in New England as a result of the hops-race waged between American breweries over the better part of the last decade. In order to impart stronger hop aromas and flavors to their IPAs, brewers began to aggressively ramp up the amount of hops used in the later stages of the brewing process with a technique known as dry hopping.

“Let’s say a nice IPA like Bell’s Two Hearted uses two pounds of hops per barrel for dry hopping. Those beers are crystal clear,” England continues. “When you start adding more hops, you start getting more hop oils dissolved in the solution and you get a ‘hazy’ looking beer. Properly, its like dirty sunshine, a hop ‘sheen’ if you will. You can see through it. It’s not murky nor chunky, it’s just got a boatload of hops in it to stop it from being clear.”

How did New England IPA come to be an official BJCP style?

You can study up on the BJCP’s official style guide for hazy NEIPAs here.

A group of people wrote the petition [to create an official style],” says England. “They cloned our IPA style and then made the tweaks to change it to [a characteristically hazy IPA].”

While folks have always been welcome to submit write-in campaigns for newer beers, according to England, the BJCP is pretty choosey when it comes to allowing new sub-genres into the fold. All prospective styles must pass the muster of the style committee, comprised of several high-ranking and well-traveled members of the BJCP, well-before the style is submitted to the BCJP’s board of directors for a final vote.

We read and vet [styles] and ensure they won’t be flashes in the pan. In order to be a style, it really needs to have staying power or proper history,” England says. “We do our own research, connect all the points, and then perfect the style, as much as can be, and proceed. There has never been a style proposed yet that we haven’t been talking about for a year or more. Much of the time, there will be probationary styles released and then, at a later day, approved as a ‘new’ style, if it merits it.”

What are a few key factors that Unlabeled participants should look for in a Hazy IPA?

Hops, hops, and more hops.”

Still, England cautions tasters not to confuse hop flavor and aroma with perceived bitterness, which is far less characteristic of the hazy IPAs than it is of other IPA styles.

“[The hazy style] really lacks a lot of bitterness most IPAs have,” England explains. “They can range from super fruit to super dank. The idea is the beer is a vehicle for hop flavor and aroma exploration. Malt only for balance. Very pale [in color].”

As far as the hops themselves, England points to so-called “new world” varietals like Citra, Amarillo, El Dorado, Mosaic, and Galaxy, as they contain a greater amount of thiols.

“[Thiols] are sulfur compounds, usually bound to sugars, that are only aroma-active when they are cleaved twain,” England says. “These new hops have a ton of them.”

For reference, he outlines some other thiol-derived flavors you might be familiar with: “Sauvignon Blanc (specifically from New Zealand), black currants, passion fruit, pineapple, mango, guava.”

For negatives, England is strident about a variety of attributes that tasters should keep a sharp eye out for when making their ratings. All of the following qualities are undesirable, according to style:

Fat (flabby), sweet, chewy, yogurt-y twang (loads of yeast), chunks, gritty, etc. No f***ing vanilla. NO F***ING LACTOSE! Anything that doesn’t jump out of the glass as ‘hoppy’ is wrong. No overly grassy or ‘green veggie’ flavors from the sheer amount of vegetable matter put in it. Old, cheesy, oxidized are right out.”

What’s the difference between “not brewed to style” and “flawed beer”? 

When rating beer, it’s important to temper your personal taste against a structured style guideline. While beer ratings are inherently subjective, these guidelines can help differentiate a truly flawed beer with off-flavors from a beer that’s simply playing in the wrong ballpark. 

Let’s say I give you a straight German Pils, blindly, that’s absolutely gorgeous, but I tell you it’s an IPA, and you judge it as such,” England illustrates. “No matter how amazing that beer is, its still not an IPA. But it’s a wonderful beer. All that said, flawed beer is never good, regardless of one’s liking for it.”

How should participants differentiate a “good” beer from the “Best in Show”?

First things first, England doesn’t like the word “good.” He instead prefers “solid.”

When I say solid, I mean a beer that not just checks all the stylistic boxes, but also is delicious,” he explains. “There are preferences between solid beers. Some people prefer more dank beers, some prefer citrus, some straight juice, and then there are those of us that appreciate all types but specifically the ones that combine flavors and aromas for complexity.

“The best of the best are usually the ones that do just that,” England continues. “[These beers] aren’t single-note. [Standout hazy IPAs] are bright, nearly nasally abusive, complex, aren’t cloying, and, regardless of strength, beg you to drink more.”

What are some best practices that one should attempt to follow when conducting a larger blind tasting like Unlabeled?

The first step, according to England, is to think like a beer judge, which means limiting your consumption of each individual sample when you can afford to. Unlabeled is a marathon, not a sprint.

What do I do? Just smell them,” says England of his initial eliminations. “If I’m looking for the best of the best, it not only has to be fantastic, it has to hit the style, too.”

“If I don’t like it, I won’t drink it,” he continues. “I only have so many alcohol units I can consume in a day. Sip [the beer]. If it’s meh, dump it. Move on. Saves the palate and also usually keeps you from being a drunken taint before the evening is over.”

If assessing a beer on aroma alone sounds a bit advanced, you can follow the spirit of England’s advice and sip samples sparingly. Responsible consumption will help you make more accurate ratings as you attempt to find your own “Best in Show.”

England recommends whittling down our full list of 48 to a top tier of 5–10 beers (responsibly) as early as possible and circling back to parse the differences between your absolute favorites. Take frequent water breaks to help prevent palate fatigue, and be mindful that food flavors can affect your palate while tasting.

The Growler’s Unlabeled No. 1: Hazy IPA is taking place on July 18, 2019 from 5:30–9:30 (sampling ends at 9pm) at Upper Landing Park in St. Paul. Tickets are limited. Buy yours today and find your Best of Show!