How Vermont Became the New IPA King

Lead brewer Jim Conroy moves a barrel of mash at the Alchemist brewery. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

We have California to thank for today's IPA dominance of the craft beer world. Brewers like Russian River, Stone, and Green Flash developed a winning formula in their West Coast–style IPA with a dry, strong, extra-bitter ale. These California-bred beers coat your tongue with earthy citrus hops flavors, and then pound your palate with bitter acids.

But the reign of California hop bombs may be coming to an end, thanks to a distinct new sub-style of the IPA hailing from Vermont. The granddaddy of these Vermont IPAs, of course, is The Alchemist's Heady Topper — less bitter, more balanced, and undeniably hazier than its West Coast counterparts. "We still catch flak for brewing hazy IPAs," says Alchemist co-founder John Kimmich of his unfiltered, unpasteurized beer made with British barley. "The barley that we use is essential to the kind of beer that I like to drink and brew. And if that beer comes out hazy as a result of it, I could give two shits," he says. "I'm looking for flavor, mouthfeel, a satiating quality of a hop character, and a brightness of aroma."

Despite what the beer may look like, its popularity became nothing short of a resounding success. "It's kind of crazy the way people responded to that beer," Kimmich recalls. "Our idea was that we were just gonna make 1,000 barrels a year to complement our pub." Since the inception of Heady Topper, Kimmich built a new production brewery and for a time brewed nothing but the 8 percent alcohol IPA.

When The Alchemist Pub first opened in 2003, brewers Sean Lawson and Shaun Hill were bar regulars who would talk with Kimmich about beer. "John was, to a great extent, a mentor in my early years," says Hill. But back then, Heady Topper was just a limited release. It was Holy Cow, the Alchemist's original 5 percent ABV year-round IPA, that directly motivated Hill when he opened his own brewery, Hill Farmstead, in 2010. 

Hill and Lawson, who founded Lawson's Finest Liquids in 2008, would go on to brew two of the most acclaimed double IPAs in the country: Abner and Double Sunshine. Over the next five years, other Vermont brewers would come forward with incredible IPAs of a similar ilk, including Fiddlehead, Lost Nation, and Foley Brothers.

It's not just Vermont that loves Vermont IPAs. Until the Alchemist started canning Heady Topper in 2011, you could only get the beer at the pub, says Kimmich. "Then, all of the sudden that beer was traveling all over the place, and more and more people were drinking it." As much as consumers enjoyed it, brewers from other states began riffing on the Vermont style to great success, in turn inspiring Kimmich and his fellow Vermont brewers even further. The hazy, juicy, sweeter style of IPA has since been successfully mastered by other breweries in the northeast such as Tired Hands in Philadelphia, Other Half in New York, and Trillium and Treehouse in Massachusetts.

Even the West Coast is starting to mimic the style. "I hear that breweries in Oregon are starting to brew 'Vermont-style' IPAs," says Kimmich, though he shies away from the phrase. "I've never been comfortable with the idea of laying stake to a style," he says. "It's just a different take, and still an IPA no matter how you make it."

Kimmich has the utmost respect for other skilled Northeast and West Coast brewers, especially when stylistic differences between coasts are increasingly being blurred. "Twenty years ago, people would talk about East Coast IPAs being super malty and not hoppy at all, very British," he says. "But then the West Coast started pushing the boundaries, and I feel like we're just taking the inspiration from that and turning it into our own thing out here."

The truth is that over the last dozen years or so, both East and West have traded influence repeatedly. Sometimes, quite literally: "I was just emailing with Vinnie [Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing] this morning," says Kimmich. "We're trading beer this week."