Coney Island has released a “New York IPA” … but what, if anything, does that mean? The beer presents a philosophical problem for stylistic purists.
Merman NY IPA
Credit: Taylor Burton

As American craft breweries struggle to differentiate themselves in a tense marketplace crowded with roughly 6,000 American competitors and thousands of imports, they’re increasingly relying on novelty and geographic pride to sell beer.

By releasing Merman, a first-of-its-kind “New York India Pale Ale (NY IPA),” Coney Island Brewery is attempting to use both to its advantage.

“In the New York City area, there’s no real flagship IPA,” says the Brooklyn company’s new head brewer, Matt McCall, of the craft industry’s dominant beer style. “So we formulated a combination of all things IPA – the bitterness of West Coast IPA with the strong malt backbone of East Coast IPA and the haze and juice of New England IPA – to mimic the melting pot that is that is New York City.”

By selecting hop varieties and brewing procedures that produce intense bitterness, a solid malt structure, tropical and citrus flavors and a cloudy appearance, Merman (5.8% ABV) represents the three dominant (and often controversial) subcategories of American IPA. After six stabs at developing a recipe they liked, Coney Island brewers finally found what they were looking for: an ale profile bold enough to provide a counterpoint to their flagship pale lager, Mermaid Pilsner.

“It’s bold and eye-opening for an IPA, but not enough to steer people who don’t like IPAs away from it,” says McCall.

According to McCall and his co-workers, this is all it takes to make – and label – the inaugural "NY IPA," a term no one’s formally used before. With no organization to legally regulate beer styles, technically, they’re not wrong.

Brooklyn-based Joshua Bernstein, who wrote Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer, notes, “The style is in the eye of the beholder, so we’re kind of making up rules as we go along and the only rule is there are no rules.”

Ultimately, “It remains at a brewer’s discretion what to call their beer,” agrees Chris Swersey, competition director for the Brewers Association (BA), which annually writes non-binding style guidelines for commercial brewers who want to enter beers into the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition.

Bernstein says that in a world where ingredient supply has gone global, it’s important for Coney Island, which only three years ago built its own brewery, to resonate with New York-area drinkers and tourists in ways that extend beyond quality.

“They’re trying to find ways to connect with the local beer community,” he says. “It’s not enough to make great beer anymore.”

Some brewers, including many at New York’s legally designated “farm breweries,” are also marketing locale but by growing or foraging for ingredients and playing up the unique aspects of their terroir. However, associating with the soil isn’t an option for everyone. Sometimes, as with Merman, which isn’t necessarily using in-state ingredients, it’s all in a name.

A few craft brewers have rediscovered the historic Kentucky Common style, which the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has codified as an historical beer in its style guidelines for homebrewers, though the BA hasn’t done the same in its latest version. California, too, boasts its own beer, the California Common, an historic style so-named because former Anchor Brewing owner Fritz Maytag trademarked its original name and sued those who used it. Just ask what happened to the founders of California Steam Beer Brewing, who closed their fledgling brewery in 1981, the same year Anchor filed its claim on the name “Steam.”

Since its recent release across Coney Island’s New York and New Jersey distribution footprint, Merman threatens to present a philosophical problem for stylistic purists. The whole cloth invention of New York IPA leads to the question of whether Coney Island’s new nomenclature serves as little more than a cry for attention.

“Commercial beers can be prone to marketing gimmicks and oddball names in order to sell beer," says BJCP communications director Dennis Mitchell. "Without sampling this beer in question, the description sounds like the beer would likely be situated somewhere in the American IPA spectrum. Many brewers make subtle manipulations to IPAs to try to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, but often they are still making a beer that falls within current style guidelines."

So what of West Coast, East Coast and New England IPAs, which have provoked territorial battles for years, if not decades, over everything from who deserves credit for inventing them to whether they’re an indication of a lazy brewer? As passionately as San Diegans may fight with Portlandians over claims of rightful ownership of the West Coast IPA title, for example, the BA, whose styles come closest to anything approximating “official” global guidelines, doesn’t recognize them either. At least, not yet.

Swersey says, “We’ve watched the IPA category for a few years and there’s significant disagreement over range of alcohol, colors, you name it. That’s a difficult challenge because if we’re going to create a guideline that’s all over the map where does that leave the drinker?”

So what would it take for New York IPA – or any other, for that matter – to become a recognized style? Swersey says BA founder Charlie Papazian asks for input from GABF judges, brewers, writers and experts and examines competition entries to see if a certain type of beer shows up repeatedly in a catch-all category, like the year judges fielded hoppy Belgian ales and IPAs brewed with Belgian yeast across various categories. Within a few months, the BA added the American-Belgo-Style Ale category.

But that doesn’t happen often. Swersey estimates Papazian adds a new category less than once a year. The BJCP updates every few years by studying suggestions from the public. Usually a lot of people have to make a lot of noise for any new style to appear.

“The idea is to keep that document relevant and updated and reflecting what’s in the marketplace,” Swersey says. “It comes from a collective understanding.”

Bernstein suggests New York brewers would have to coalesce around the NY IPA idea by brewing enough of their own – similar – interpretations to reach a critical mass, something that surely won’t come to fruition this year or next.

So what will happen to the style, and more immediately, the beer?

“It’ll get people’s attention,” he says, “And their taste buds will tell them if they want another one.”