Beyond the IPA

Unfiltered by | Jul 2014 | Issue #90

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

We are unquestionably in the Age of IPA. Once seen as the ultimate expression of beer geekery, with highly hopped beers only pleasing the wonkiest of drinkers, India Pale Ales have been at the vanguard of a communal palate shift, resulting in the wholesale embrace of all things hop. It’s becoming increasingly rare for a new brewery to release anything other than an IPA as their flagship or first offering. Even the most militaristically self-promoting “farmhouse brewery” will inevitably find a place in their lineup for this category favorite.

As a very loosely defined style (whatever happened to Pale Ales?), IPA continues to provide the superfuel used to turbo boost the American craft industry. Just look at the big American craft brewers. Lagunitas built a second brewery because of IPA. Boston Beer’s various IPA projects are increasingly making appearances in place of their older, stodgier Boston Lager brother. At New Belgium, sales of flagship Fat Tire have dropped from about 70 to just over 50 percent of the brewery’s output, with Ranger and Rampant IPAs continuing to gobble up in-house production share. The same can be seen over at Sierra Nevada, with the explosive growth of Torpedo, a product so perniciously popular that Sierra’s distributors are talking about how to slow its growth so it doesn’t overtake the brewery’s iconic flagship.

While I love IPAs and all their aromatic, flavorful and bitter goodness, I have concerns about the style’s continued stratospheric growth. At the outset, when it comes to IPA, the conversation is largely a one-sided affair, defined by big, bold West Coast examples fueled by a cocktail of super hops, from Amarillo to Warrior. The craft beer industry doesn’t see many new entrants playing in the British, Belgian or maltier ends of the IPAs spectrum, let alone with less aromatically obvious hop varieties.

As IPA continues its unparalleled growth, there is some hazard in letting a single style define craft beer so completely. So as the industry grows, there may come a point where a new generation of consumers only knows IPA to the detriment of other styles. We’ve already seen this in the dip in support for other styles of beer, both classic and more modern. And with breweries focused on producing one or more house IPA, the level of share of mind given to other styles necessarily declines.

Another substantial issue in pushing IPA is its serious shelf-life challenge. The rise in IPA’s popularity in part relates to the use of new, aromatic hop varieties whose aromatics experience a terribly short lifespan. With delays in the distribution pipeline leading to detrimental extremes in terms of temperature and care during cross-country transportation, many subtle hop contributions die long before consumers experience them anywhere near their peak. Despite how often brewers tout it on tours and in promotional materials, dry hopping often seems like a laughable enterprise under such conditions. In a nod to the old tale of IPA and India, this favors the creation of overly bold, even brutal hop profiles simply to maintain some form of character following their tumultuous travels. For craft brewers, the nightmare scenario is providing customers with bad experiences—or worse yet, losing them altogether—due to IPA’s inherent limitations.

While it remains difficult to say whether consumers have developed a true hop fixation or whether the inflated interest is due to the near obsession with Citra, Simcoe and the like, brewers should take advantage of this opportunity to push the boundaries of our hop imagination. Introducing consumers to genuine and exciting hop experiences in beers ranging from Ambers to Porters would diversify brewers’ portfolios and help promote a wider range of beer styles. The strength of IPA is undeniable. What brewers choose to do with that power is the next question.