First, you notice the packaging. Where’s the ombré rainbow I remember from the old Northern Lights IPA bottle? But that’s not the biggest change Starr Hill made to its IPA when it relaunched the beer in June. The new recipe makes a host of tweaks to the original, which debuted in 2007: new hop bursting (that’s adding hops in late stages) and dry hopping techniques enhance the aroma; additional hops including Falconer’s Flight, Simcoe and Centennial join the original Cascade and Columbus; and, most perceptibly, a new malt bill better balances and cushions the beer’s bitterness.
When we tasted the old and new versions of Northern Lights side by side, it was this last change that was most noticeable. The new malt profile adds complexity and counters some of the harsher lemon aromas we detected in the original. Flavor-wise, the bitterness level is similar, but again, that malt bill makes the whole sip must more drinkable. Starr Hill marketing manager Jack Goodall called the original Northern Lights a “hop bomb with bite” that appealed to our IBU cravings during the mid-2000s. He refers to the new recipe as a “modern IPA,” which we’ll interpret as a flavorful, still bitter beer that’s better balanced and rounded. So, the short version? We think it’s an upgrade.
But what of the other IPA updates? New Holland redesigned the packaging and retooled the recipe for its iconic Mad Hatter IPA this spring, and even venerable Stone Ruination got a revamp around the same time, returning as Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0. The latter now features hops including Citra, Simcoe and Azacca that weren’t as front-and-center on brewers’ radars in 2002 when Stone first brewed Ruination. But Stone also acknowledges this is a response to changing consumer palates, which, 13 years ago, hadn’t yet “been turned up to 11.”
Changing beer drinker attitudes, new techniques for extracting hop and aroma and flavor, and of course, myriad new and trendy hop varieties all seemed to converge this year. As new hop varieties continue to pop up (and as climate change alters which hops are available), don’t expect these remixed IPA recipes to be just a 2015 phenomenon.