Anyone who was old enough to drink in the late ’80s in Boulder might remember an ad campaign for Boulder Beer that was at once creative and hilariously misguided. Since the beers were unfiltered and therefore cloudy, Boulder Beer called itself “The Ugly Brew” and gave out tiny paper bags to cover up the bottles.
At the time, Boulder beer, which was founded in 1979, was still the state’s only microbrewery, and it was trying to educate drinkers about bigger flavors and unusual-looking beers. Americans had mostly been sucking down clear, German-style mass-market lagers for the past 130 years or so, so unfiltered ales were a shock.
The campaign was meant to be funny, but it failed pretty miserably. “I got here in 1990 and saw the aftermath of that,” says Boulder Beer brewmaster and co-owner David Zuckerman. “Upstairs in the marketing department were all sorts of little bags. When you ordered an ugly brew at the bar, you were supposed to take the cap off the bottle and put the bag on it. By today’s standards, that would be an unacceptable idea. They were trying to explain why the beer wasn’t bright. It was supposed to resonate with people, but it didn’t.”
Oh, how times have changed.
Over the past three years, “ugly” beers like hazy, often turbid New England-style IPAs have become one of the most sought-after styles in craft-beer taprooms around the country. Although the style, which the Brewers Association only made official earlier this year, gets its chops from bursting tropical or citrusy flavors and aromas accompanied by very low bitterness, it is mostly recognized by its cloudy appearance.
While a mix of old-school brewers, purists and curmudgeons can’t stand the aesthetics of the style — especially the overtly sludgy-looking versions — the public has been clamoring for the flavor profile. And many younger, more open-minded drinkers don’t mind the way the beers look. In fact, some people prefer that haze.
“It’s a totally different dynamic than it was thirty years ago,” Zuckerman says. “Consumers today are saying, ‘Blow my mind. There is nothing too weird for me.’ I find super-hazy beers to be unattractive from an aesthetic standpoint. But I am more old-school. Ultimately, I think it's great. Consumer acceptance has freed brewers to experiment with whatever they want. The beer consumer is so smitten with what breweries are coming up with, and there there is a real relationship of love and trust between the two.”
This week, Boulder Beer will introduce Due East, its own entry into the New England-style IPA category. The cloudy 7 percent ABV IPA will be sold on tap and in cans in all of Boulder Beer’s distribution footprint.
The irony isn’t lost on Zuckerman. “I don’t know if its ironic or just satisfying, or a little of both,” he says.
The brewery has been tinkering with the beer for nearly a year at its Boulder Beer on Walnut location — formerly the Walnut Brewery — which serves as both a brewpub and an R & D lab for Boulder Beer.
“There is a lot of momentum behind the hazy style. Typically, we don’t respond to style shifts like that, but in this case, we felt like it had enough legitimacy and legs that we wanted to participate in it,” Zuckerman says.
The difference between the haze of old and the haze of new is big, though, he points out.
“Brewers are clearly looking at the process from a very different viewpoint. There used to be a traditional way to make beer. But this has been a launching pad for questioning how hops relate to beer,” Zuckerman says. “It’s a whole new relationship between how and when you add hop additions, the hop flavors and aroma, and clarity. There is a lot to learn about this through experimentation."
After the Ugly Brew debacle faded away, Boulder Beer, which celebrates its 39th anniversary this month, began packaging bright beers, but it did bring back some unfiltered beers on draft in the taproom. That eventually led to Hazed and Infused, an unfiltered IPA that became a big seller in bottles and cans. That beer has been discontinued, but it was replaced recently by Hazed Hoppy Session Ale.
And although the beer looks hazy, its flavor profile is very different from the New England-style brews that people are seeking today. "That word," Zuckerman says. "It's taken on a whole different meaning."
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