The Game Changer

Unfiltered by | Jun 2013 | Issue #77

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

IPA wasn’t always a thing. During the early days of the Great American Beer Festival, the event’s much-lauded tasting competition didn’t even include the style. Brewers didn’t make it and probably didn’t even know what it was. They were just starting to court Pale Ale, without knowing it had a pretty intriguing sibling. Today, IPA is everywhere. And things will never be the same.

From no representation to the single largest GABF style in one generation of drinkers, the rise of IPA is striking if not improbable. In the beginning, there was Amber. Whether it be in the form of ale or lager, the beer was mildly sweet, heavily influenced by malt, with only a slight balancing kiss of hops, and entirely approachable. Pale Ales existed, most notably in the form of the classic from Sierra Nevada, but Amber was the style that defined the early days of craft brewing. Nearly every brewery offered one, and they were often as uninspired as they were ubiquitous.

As Americans began developing a greater familiarity with craft beer, a very gradual acceptance of hops, in the form of aromatics and eventually even bitterness, followed. This slow transition to hoppier offerings shifted into a higher gear with the advent of extreme brewing. Instead of baby-stepping from malty Red Ales to a dozen more IBU, craft brewers punished palates with tongue-blistering concoctions. Often wildly unbalanced and certainly far from sessionable, these beers rejected the practice of hand-holding consumers in favor of a full-frontal assault. And it worked.

It’s easy to see the fruits of that approach in today’s beer market. Nearly every new brewery now believes it must try its hand at adding something to the existing overstock of bitter beers with another IPA offering. IPA now begets IPA and the sales trends show anything with the style listed on its label sells like crazy. The Germans are now even brewing American-style IPAs … the horror of it all.

Whether intended or by accident, the rise of IPA has also led to a slow death spiral for malt-forward beers and even perhaps the supplanting of malt as anything other than a bit role, a supporting player. Malty beers have fallen far from fashion, largely replaced by hops of one style or another. Similarly, the base malts underlying one brewery’s IPA recipe these days don’t usually deviate much from that of a neighboring brewer or competitor across the state or country. Malt is largely absent from the discussion of IPAs, hoppy beers and craft beers in general now.

The collective palate shift of the craft drinker has also led to the slow decline of classic flagship brands, whether it be Fat Tire at the hands of upstart sibling Ranger IPA, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale by Torpedo. Trying these old beers in the modern world of hop-forward ales and lagers is like taking a step back in time. More often, it’s akin to watching television in black and white—and with the sound turned off. The classic Pale Ale style also seems lost in this hop shift, either having been subject to elevating hop and alcohol levels or cast into outright banishment.

As IPA sales continue to grow and the moniker gains increased value in the market, consumers can expect to see some disturbing trends. As with the rise of vodka in the last two decades, IPA brand extensions will become common. From light and session versions to the next era of extreme—in the form of chocolate, vanilla, coconut and cherry flavored IPAs—IPA may risk becoming a mere caricature of itself.

For now, it’s IPA’s world. We just live in it. At some point, maybe some upstart brewer will read about the ancient Amber Ale, marvel at its novelty, and brew one for fun.