Controversy is brewing at your local tap house. One of the latest trends in the craft beer world has been the hazy beer, sometimes known as the New England IPA. This nontraditional beer has quickly become one of the most popular in the country. While fans of the beer line up for exclusive can releases, some craft-brewing purists see the new beer as an irritating fad disrupting the independent beer industry. To those who do not spend time engrossed in craft beer culture, the debates surrounding this new trend might be trivial. Yet, they touch on important theological issues and universal aspects of the human condition, such as identity and one’s relationship within tradition and authority. In other words, hazy beer can teach us something about ourselves.
Originating in the upper northeast of the United States, the New England IPA—also called NEIPA, hazy IPA, or juicy IPA—is a new take on the standard Indian Pale Ale, or IPA, which has been the most popular style of craft beer for the past decade and a half. Brewed with an exceptional amount of hops, the standard IPA is an aromatic beer bursting with hoppy flavor. However, with great amounts of hops comes great bitterness. For some, the bitterness from hops is part of what makes the IPA a wonderful beverage. For others, it is a complete turn off. This is where NEIPAs standout. They are especially distinct in their fruity hop flavors without the bitter hop bite. Yet, NEIPAs are not only known for their “juicy,” non-bitter flavor, they also have a reputation for their unique opalescence, which is why they are most often referred to as hazy. Brewers produce this haze a number of ways, using specific yeasts, and unique grain bills. However, common to all hazy brewing is the addition of hops during fermentation, a practice called dry-hopping, which imparts greater aroma and flavor to the beer, with little-to-no bitterness.Because a craft is only recognizable according to traditional standards, when consumerism dictates what is considered “good,” tradition and standards are reduced to marketing and the notion of craft itself is hollowed out. For craftspeople, this undercuts the whole point of their trade.
What has now become a craze began quietly in early aughts when a new brewpub called the Alchemist began selling a hazy and florally effervescent brew dubbed Heady Topper. The style then spread across the region, then the country, and now the globe. The quickly gained popularity shows no signs of waning. A search of the hashtag #hazy reveals hundreds of thousands of photos of the beer. It is not uncommon for many enthusiasts to leave work early to line up for limited edition can releases from the best brewers. Most notably, earlier this year, the style earned a place in the American Brewers Association style guide. Yet, as the beer has grown in popularity so have controversies over its place in craft beer culture. Arguments over the beer are continually found in beer magazines, online forums, and barstools across the country. Purists claim the production of hazy beer lacks important elements of the artistry and traditional techniques brewers cultivate, earning the moniker “craft.” There is contention over defining what counts as hazy. Some simply find the opaqueness of NEIPAs drab and unappetizing. Additionally, apart from aesthetics, the measures necessary to produce the requisite haze can lead to flavor instability and a short shelf-life. Hop particles and haze-causing yeast and proteins that can drop out of suspension quickly, results in a kind of living beer that changes week to week, and needs to be enjoyed as fresh as possible. Yet, appreciators of the brew are undaunted. They contend it is merely a delicious evolution in beer’s long history of innovation and experimentation. Thus, despite widespread criticisms, the style continues to grow, causing enormous demand for the beer.
While demand is often what a brewery hopes for, some brewers bemoan how the market has forced them to produce hazy beer just to stay relevant. On a recent episode of the Untappd podcast, the host made the proclamation that “any brewery not currently offering a NEIPA is surely falling behind.” One Washington, D.C. brewer I spoke with said, “I’ve spent the last 20 years trying trying to produce the clearest beer possible and now suddenly I have to try make them as murky.” Of course, not every brewer is aggravated by the beer’s popularity. Many enjoy brewing the beer and believe its popularity is justified. Many brewers give their hazy beers silly names—such as long winded movie quotes, or obscure 90s hip hop lyrics—suggesting that the brewers themselves understand the irreverent nature of their offerings.
The heart of the controversy over hazy beer pits the tradition of crafting well-made beer according to accepted categories and standards against a beer that is hard to categorize, which sometimes contradicts important standards of well-crafted beer, and seems to be largely driven by market forces. According to Canadian philosopher and practicing catholic Charles Taylor, such controversies find their nexus in our cultural conceptions of personal identity. He argues that we are currently living in an age of authenticity. In this era, we tend to think of personal identity in terms of the prioritization of authenticity, also called “expressive individualism.” Specifically, he believes our conceptions of personal identity, and what we as communities consider ultimately good, privileges Enlightenment and Romantic ideas of individual freedom and being true to oneself over ancient ideas such as tradition, authority, and teleology. In his book A Secular Age, Taylor describes this culture of authenticity as,
the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority. (475)
In other words, in our culture today, we expect meaning or goodness to be unmediated and clearly apparent to us, especially through our feelings. This is captured in the feel-good aphorism, “always trust your heart.” We do not expect to find meaning or to learn what our own purpose is from someone or something outside of ourselves. Moreover, we do not expect to discover what we consider good through someone or something’s influence on us. In fact, we often actively resist any tradition or authority that tries to impose forms on our lives, especially if those forms are from the past. Both tradition and authority are antithetical to individual freedom, because they naturally constrain our lives. That means our understandings of human life, our personal agency, and what is worthwhile, are now only understood in terms of individuation, not the authority of tradition. Manifestations of the this turn in the Church are plenty, from the prioritization of seeker friendly services that intentionally avoid being “too churchy,” to the battles over worship set lists in order to satisfy the ever changing musical tastes of those in the pews.
This historiographical view of personal identity might not seem to have much to do with controversies surrounding an emerging beer trend. However, Taylor finds evidence of this mega-cultural shift in all kinds of facets of human life. Debates over the appropriate clarity of micro-brews is a microcosm of his far reaching philosophical argument. In fact, Taylor also looks to consumer trends as evidence for his theory. He says, “one of the most obvious manifestations of the individuation in question here has been the consumer revolution.” (474) Throughout the 20th century, and especially after WWII, the consumer has become the chief arbiter when it comes to what is considered good. This shift should not be overlooked. Craftsmen are no longer the experts in any industry. This is not merely a case of the next generation failing to understand or respect their roots. What Taylor describes is a philosophical and religiously intentional rejection of tradition. In industries like beer, what matters now is what sells, and as individualist consumers we are more concerned with our own feelings and the ability to choose for ourselves, than with adherence to tradition or craft standards. Because a craft is only recognizable according to traditional standards, when consumerism dictates what is considered “good,” tradition and standards are reduced to marketing and the notion of craft itself is hollowed out. For craftspeople, this undercuts the whole point of their trade.
From the Taylorian perspective of the craft beer world, it does not matter to the beer drinker what the tradition of pale ales has been. The consumer is interested in new and novel choices in their beer consumption. The beer aficionados who post pictures of their beer on Instagram are less interested in whether or not the old guard of brewers and beer critics consider it ignominious to put flour in beer. They are more interested in showing that they are privy to the trends and have access to the most exclusive beer, in order to demonstrate their personality as a beer drinker. As Taylor points out, in this new era it is “self-expression which has weight and significance.” (478) The popularity of hazy beer, despite the criticisms of beer traditionalists, lays in the wake of this expressive individualism. It does not matter if the Great American Beer Fest recognizes the style. What matters is the beer drinker’s ability to choose, because we now feel as though our identities are only represented by what we choose. In fact, when authenticity is the only standard, our identities are reduced to our choices. As Taylor points out, we now live with “bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain.” (478) Hazy beer is just one instance of expressive individualism in the realm of beer culture. There are a number of other examples, including the brewing of “extreme beer” using the most surprising and unique ingredients, or the recent trend of chugging expensive beers normally meant for sipping and savoring, such as barrel-aged barleywines and rare Belgium lambics. Irreverence toward tradition is the most straightforward way to express one’s freedom to choose. It is also the easiest way to identify expressive individualism.
Taylor’s analysis of our age of authenticity should not be read as a call to return to traditionalism or authoritarian culture. Neither is this a tirade against hazy beer. Juice bombs are popular for a reason; they are often delicious. Furthermore, the techniques involved in making a quality hazy beer are impressive and doing it well is surely a craft. What we ought to learn from this controversy is that, like hazy beers, we live in tension between expressive individualism and a lineage that gives meaning to our life in the here and now. As Christians, we find ourselves in a constant tension between individuated authenticity and a faith that is not only rooted in historical tradition, but is also inherently authoritarian, as we submit to our Lord Jesus Christ. Meaning and purpose cannot be reduced to choice because God is the author of our lives, and our purposes are found in our participation in His story. Daily, we might feel this tension when we know we should honor God in our lives, but we also want to “find ourselves.”
However, by this we mean we want to find meaning on our own. Outside the Church, Christians and non-Christians alike find themselves in similar tensions. In order to produce a delicious hazy IPA a brewer still must to learn the techniques and standards for good beer. One needs to learn the rules in order to know how best to break them. However, as Christians we must understand that not all rules are meant to be broken, and in our culture of expressive individualism it is easy to be irreverent to all forms of tradition and authority for the sake of our freedom of choice, including our faith tradition and the authority of God. It is also tempting to view the Church through consumerist lenses, where choice is reigns supreme. We would do well to reflect on the ways we kick out against the important boundaries in our lives as members of the Body of Christ because of our proclivity toward expressive individualism.
The Bible tells us that God designed us for more than our modern notion of individual authenticity. We will not find our identity in our ourselves, our feelings, or our freedom to choose. Our lives are part of a larger story and have purpose beyond our choices. Also, our identity is found in God, the author of our lives. The apostle Paul tells us that our only true identity is as adopted sons and daughters in Christ (Galatians 3:7) and that our purposes are manifest in reality as we grow in likeness of Him in the Church (Colossians 1:18). The Church is not a marketplace and our choices are only meaningful insofar as they reflect the glory and providence of God. Despite the privileging of authenticity as a litmus for our contemporary lives, focusing on individual choice causes us to lose sight of what it means to be an authentic human, a person who bears the likeness of God in imitation of Christ who became man (Philippians 2).
We will never be our most authentic selves on our own. This struggle against expressive individualism maybe a recent problem, but as modern Christians we are only the most recent people to accept the timeless notion that the enjoyment of God is our only ultimate good. Thus, with our identities grounded in God, and our desires directed toward Him, we should embrace the true freedom to grow according to the boundaries we find in His authority revealed in biblical and theological tradition. Then, we may also properly enjoy emerging novelties, including hazy beer, as instances of newness in this life, as we strive to live a deeper life of faith in Christ, anticipating our complete enjoyment of God in the next life.