Hazy IPAs Dominate 2018 GABF Entries, But Will Freshness Impact Results?

After only being recognized by the Brewers Association (BA) as an official beer style in March, “juicy or hazy IPAs” have already become the most competitive beer category at the upcoming Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition.

In a post on the organization’s website, BA craft beer program director Julia Herz wrote that 414 different hazy IPA entries were received for the September event. Another 292 juicy or hazy pale ales and double IPAs were also submitted for judging at this year’s competition, an indication that the “haze craze” is a beer style trend with legs.

“This marks the first time in over a decade and a half that American-Style India Pale Ale — which received 331 entries — is no longer the top entered beer style in the U.S. commercial beer competition,” she wrote. “How’s that for a juicy year-one showing?”

Speaking to Brewbound, Wachusett Brewing president Christian McMahan called the hazy IPA category the “most buzzed-about style of beer” since the IPA category itself started growing in popularity.

Wachusett entered its hazy New England IPA, Wally, into this year’s GABF competition, and McMahan said he will be ‘”watching carefully” to see how judges determine the best examples of a style that is still being defined.

“Nobody has a handle on what the true center point of this category is, in terms of softness and bitterness,” he said. “Hazy IPAs haven’t been judged before, and all of us will be watching to see how the GABF judges that were selected for this category will define what they think is the center point for the style.”

In recent years, Hazy IPAs, which are known for having high hop aromas, low bitterness and a softer mouthfeel, have emerged as the most popular new craft beer style in the U.S.

The overall IPA category makes up about 4 percent of a 200 million barrel U.S. beer market, or about 8 million barrels, according to BA chief economist Bart Watson.

Watson, who examined off-premise sales data from market research firm IRI Worldwide in April, found that offerings with “hazy,” “juicy,” or “New England” descriptions make up about 1 percent of craft volume.

According to the BA’s own statistics, craft brewers produced more than 25 million barrels of beer in 2017, meaning that American consumers could end up purchasing more than 250,000 barrels of hazy IPA at off-premise retail accounts this year.

But a large chunk of the hazy IPA volume is also sold to consumers at brewery taprooms or on-premise, and not captured in the data that Watson analyzed.

In an email to Brewbound, Watson said he speculates that total hazy IPA production is both “higher” and “hard to measure.”

“[It is] really hard to know how many are being made, since most aren’t going to show up in scan,” he wrote.

But if the GABF competition is any indication, there are at least 706 “hazy” beers on the market.

That type of competition will make it difficult for any brewery to return home a winner – the odds of claiming a GABF medal in the “Juicy or Hazy IPA” category is less than one percent – but there’s a less obvious factor that could impact results as well: freshness.

New England IPAs are known for having shorter shelf lives, and the BA requires that all GABF entries be received before August 24. Judging will begin on September 19, according to Chris Swersey, the BA’s supply chain specialist who oversees the competition.

“As the competition has grown, one of our challenges has been managing the window of time between the beer’s arrival and the competition,” he told Brewbound, noting that all beers are stored cold in the four weeks leading up to judging.

“Beers that have really complex and delicate hop aromas tend to fall apart faster than other beers,” he added.

Most hazy IPAs – and presumably many of the entries in the 2018 GABF — aren’t sold through traditional retail channels, and brewers have struggled to strike a balance between expanded distribution of their hazy offerings while also maintaining freshness.

“As much as we love some crazy-hazy IPAs, we will probably never package and distribute one, due to its exceptionally short shelf life,” Colorado’s Avery Brewing wrote on its blog last year, arguing that the “nature of crazy-hazy IPAs make them great for enjoying straight from the source, but very difficult to distribute and maintain quality standards over time.”

So how will the four-week waiting period between when entries are received and when they are judged impact the outcome of this year’s GABF competition?

“It is definitely going to be a major variable in the category,” McMahan said. “Experience matters. A lot of the early innovators in the category have learned some lessons and adjusted their techniques. That will serve them well in this process.”

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