Hop Creep

Unfiltered by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

IPA is on a legendary run. Beyond its insane sales numbers, its sphere of influence also continues to swell. But IPA’s growth is not without consequence or detraction. It’s caused Pale Ale sales to dim and suffer cannibalization under the name of Session IPA. Cascade hops now bore palates primed to crave juicy, plump hop sponges. Even Centennial and other once lauded hop varieties are seen as passé.

While IPA gets all of the attention, another noble if often maligned style is starting a quiet ascent. Long negatively associated with the larger breweries’ flavor-challenged versions, the grand Old World style of Pilsener continues to suffer craft consumer prejudice from that macro stigma. Those so-called Pilseners did a major disservice to the style’s noble history, one that has only recently started to fade. Sales of the style in the past year are up nearly triple digit rates, and brewers big and small are embracing this European classic.

Don’t expect IPA to go quietly though. Instead, we see IPA casting a long shadow over styles beyond its own decidedly American family, including Pilsener.

After a decade of semi-generic Brown, Amber and American Wheat Ales, brewers broke free from the training wheel styles and introduced a new age of extreme brewing, seeking to change the public perception of what beer was and could be. The end result of the Age of Extreme was to give rise to a generation of nano and experimental breweries that often decry classic beers. Style commingling followed, with the blurring of style lines and the creation of dozens of new hybrids.

The Age of IPA has signaled an end of creativity and experimentation. Based around a handful of hot, new hoppy styles with similar characteristics, we’re in a time of creeping homogeneity. Brewers jokingly refer to such juicy, fruity and often hazy IPAs as their Bandwagon IPA. There’s nothing wrong with these beers if you like their particular charms. Concern is raised, however, when their influence creeps into styles in which they have no place, such as Pilsener.

When Goose Island recently announced the release of a new year-round Pilsener, I was ecstatic. The brewer is entirely capable of producing a world-class beer and helping to re-establish the style. But when the company said it would be a new take on Pilsener with Meridian and Equinox hops, I cringed.

Experiment all you want, but let’s not rush to IPA-ify everything to a point where classic styles lose their identity. Let’s not stretch out Pilsener so that nothing fits anymore, or conversely everything does. Goose Island isn’t the first brewery to do so, but it’s big enough to substantially impact the public’s perception and understanding of what constitutes Pilsener. Big, citrusy New World hops have no place in a beer called Pils. Call it IPL. Call it whatever you want. But it’s not Pils.

To be sure, many American attempts are hardly recognizable as examples of the softer, subtler Czech and German classics. Victory Brewing’s much-heralded Prima Pils is a beautiful, delightfully zesty, herbal and hoppy beer. But it’s definitely an American take. Slightly exaggerated but not wild departures from core ingredients define many American Pilseners. And that’s OK. But Goose Island’s version creates a new style of beer, while expanding the boundaries of Pilsener to the point of debasing what makes it such a classic.

Pilseners only comprise 1 percent of craft brewing’s market, so there’s room for growth and an opportunity to help reintroduce the style to many drinkers who have previously foresworn it. Let’s just agree not to turn the European classic into an American caricature.