Cold side oxidation is said to be the biggest killer of brewing New England IPAs. A once beautifully golden IPA is now a muddy and unappetizing flat brown color with sometimes a purplish tint. It’s an amazing phenomenon considering how careless you can treat other beers and not have any real adverse effects. Sure, all beers suffer from oxidation, but with the NEIPA, they become ugly, lose their popping hop flavor, and taste stale or like wet cardboard. Not to mention an incredible waste of expensive hops.
Why Do NEIPAs Oxidize So Easily?
I am not a scientist but many theories point to the high protein grain bills and heavy cold side hopping. Once oxygen sets in, it’s a ticking time bomb until your batch is ruined. New England IPAs gain so much of their character from heavy dry hopping. These flavors are very delicate and will fade and turn for the worse when exposed to oxygen. It’s true for any IPA to be honest, the effects are just amplified in intensely hop-forward beers with neutral grain bills. High protein malts such as wheat and flaked oats are also said to be a major culprit in the darkening of NEIPAs post oxidation.
Can You Bottle New England IPAs?
The short answer is yes, but it’s very difficult to do and results will greatly vary. The picture above was actually the first time I attempted bottling a NEIPA. I’ve been kegging for several years and have adopted a completely closed system to fight oxidation. Needless to say, my bottled NEIPA experiment was the first time I experienced oxidation. To add insult to injury, I thought I was being incredibly careful, so I was a little blown away that my beer fully oxidized after about two weeks in the bottle.
I knew oxidation was a big risk with bottling this style. I only did it for a 5 yeast experiment in which I had little choice but to bottle the beers. My process consisted of fermenting in a glass carboy, cold crashing overnight after sealing the carboy, and bottling directly from the primary carboy via auto-siphon and bottling wand. I did not purge the bottles with C02 before filling, but I’m guessing most homebrewers willing to go this far would likely just invest in a kegging system?
Some homebrewers have had incredible success bottling NEIPAs. The trick seems to be fermenting in a bottling bucket and bottling right from the primary fermenter. Which to be honest, this is basically what I did…so I’m a little perplexed with what may have been different in my case.
Kegging Is the Best Solution
Whether it be keg fermenting or simply executing a closed transfer from the primary fermenter to a keg, my beer never sees the light of day. My NEIPAs are exposed to a negligible amount of oxygen and remain golden, hazy, and full of rich flavor for months in the keg. I always fully purge my serving kegs using the Star San method (fill keg with water/sanitizer and push out with C02) to ensure there is very minimal oxygen pickup. I use C02 to transfer my beer from my fermenter to the serving keg through the liquid post on my keg.
Keg fermenting actually makes this process incredibly easy. You can see as briefly outlined below or read about my keg fermenting process in-depth here.
Transferring from fermenting keg to serving keg is really easy using a jumper line. This is a piece of tubing with a liquid quick disconnect on each end. This allows you to transfer beer OUT from the liquid tube in your fermenting keg into the liquid OUT of your serving keg. Kegs are of course highly pressurizable so pressure transfers are incredibly easy to pull off. Not to mention you can dry hop under pressure to lock in volatile hop aroma.
My beer is only exposed to open air for about 10 seconds when I add my dry hop charge. Thanks to a natural blanket of C02 over freshly fermented beer, I haven’t had any issues with this.
New England IPAs benefit from cold conditioning for two reasons. One, it helps to prolong shelf life, and two, it helps for hops and yeast to drop out of suspension and reveal juicy characteristics. This is harder to do with bottling because they need to naturally carbonate for a few weeks at room temperature. This is two weeks post-fermentation that your beer will be more susceptible to suboptimal conditions. This is why breweries store their beers in large cold rooms prior to distribution. Kegging and force carbonation is a major advantage in this regard.
I also think this is a huge reason why so many top NEIPA producers don’t distribute their beers. They can’t guarantee quality control once it leaves the brewery and they don’t want their beer sitting on a warm shelf for 2 months in a liquor store. This of course hurts brand reputation.
If you do bottle your NEIPAs, I would brew smaller batches and ferment in a bottling bucket to avoid any sort of transfers and may even skip cold crashing as to not introduce more external variables or oxygen suckback. If you can devise a way to purge your bottles individually before packaging, this would greatly improve your chances of stability!