Is it a beer? An orange juice? Or a mango smoothie?

Welcome to the world of hazy beer, a trend that started by accident, but has been accelerated by Instagram into an unstoppable beast.

First some background. For the best part of a century, beer has been crystal-clear – since glass became a popular vessel around 100 years ago, beer-makers have polished their products so they literally sparkle in the glass.

And yes, crystal clear, fresh, sparkling beer tastes great too. And it looks doubly good in advertisements. But that’s not beer’s natural state – it takes a lot of tools and technology to make beer that way, such as filtration systems and ice-cold conditioning tanks. There are traditional styles, like wheat beers, that are served “cloudy” – with yeast and other particles in suspension – but by and large most popular beer styles are clear and bright.

The craft beer revolution of the 21st century has often focused on small brewers doing the opposite to big brewers – and in the case of pale ale and IPA, brewers are creating drops that look more like bad home brew. So why have they become so popular? As always, flavour has a lot to do with it.

McLeod's 802 series is so-named for the postcode of Vermont where the haze craze was born.

McLeod’s 802 series is so-named for the postcode of Vermont where the haze craze was born.

It started in the 802

Tracing back the lineage, the craze for haze began at a small brewery in Vermont, USA, called The Alchemist and a beer called Heady Topper.

Jason Bathgate, head brewer at the multi-award winning McLeod’s brewery in Waipu, is a Vermont native and lover of hazy beer. He also makes some of the best hazy IPA in the country with his 802 series, a reference to Vermont’s post code.

As someone who drank Heady Topper at the source, he says the whole thing started a little by accident. “They didn’t set out to create a style of beer,” Bathgate says.

John Kimmich and his wife Jen opened The Alchemist brewpub in 2003 and Heady Topper – their 8 per cent IPA – was unfiltered and unpasteurised. As Bathgate explains, it was also brewed with loads of hops and Kimmich used a rare a yeast strain known as Conan, which in geek-speak is low-flocculating – meaning it floats around in the beer rather than falling to the bottom of the fermenter. Conan also gives off aromas of peaches and citrus.

Heady Topper was incredibly tasty – very fruity thanks to the hops and yeast – but also quite cloudy thanks to all the organic material that hadn’t been filtered out. It didn’t look like people’s expectation of beer but they loved the flavour; fruity and not overly bitter. In fact it was almost sweet.

With no marketing or promotion, the beer got a cult following, that only increased when The Alchemist decided to put it in cans in 2011. It was available for purchase only one day a week and you had to go to the brewery to get it, so there’d literally be mile-long queues snaking to the brewery on Heady Topper day.

Copy cats jump on board

Of course, everyone else then wanted to copy this mysterious cultish beer and thus a style was born – alternately known as New England IPA, Vermont IPA or Hazy IPA.

As Bathgate observes, when people start trying to imitate a beer they also exaggerate and experiment. To that end we now have beers that bear little resemblance to the Vermont source material. And Instagram doesn’t help, as everyone loves the photogenetic nature of a hazy beer which just gives more motivation to the makers.

The hazy beer craze began at Vermont's The Alchemist.

The hazy beer craze began at Vermont’s The Alchemist.

To that end, brewers are using ingredients such as wheat, oats and lactose to increase cloudiness and accent sweetness (it’s not unheard of in the US for flour to be added!). Throw in some fruit and vanilla and, voila, you’ve got what they’re calling Milkshake IPAs – so deliciously fruity as to be mistaken for a smoothie.

“It’s almost out of control,” Bathgate says of the Instagram-ability of these beers.

“When we used to go the pub in Vermont, the beers didn’t look like they do out in the market place today – they weren’t that hazy. What’s happened, is like every trend, people see something and start to imitate it and they go a little bit too far.

“Even some of the beers we released in the 802 series have been a bit too cloudy for my liking, but we’ve had such massive demand from our customers and we can’t seem to make enough of them.”

Bathgate says some of the cloudy IPAs he’s tasted often have too much yeast in suspension, which can give them an unpleasant “bite”. He favours as little yeast as possible in his beers – relying on proteins and tannins from malt and hops to do the hazing. And drinking yeast is no bad thing – it can actually be good for you.

The results of Michael Donaldson's attempts at making his own hazy beer.

The results of my own attempt at making hazy beer.

Apart from flavour and haziness, the other thing that makes these beers so attractive is the colour – ranging from lemon cream through to that rich orange juice look.

“It’s all hops,” Bathgate observes. “The base recipe for our beers hasn’t changed too much – the malt is quite consistent – but when I’ve used different varietals of hops, they’ve changed the colour creating an orange hue, it’s kind of cool.”

Andrew Childs is another big producer of hazy beer and he’s spent a lot of time in the US understanding the trend.

“It’s big in the United States – there are so many Instagrammable beers in the US. We’ve had complaints that some of our beers are not hazy enough, but luckily New Zealand has not got to the point in some parts of America, where if it’s not hazy they don’t want it.”

Garage Project's Fuzz Box is the perfect example of an Instagrammable hazy IPA.

Garage Project’s Fuzz Box is the perfect example of an Instagrammable hazy IPA. Photo: Garage Project