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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is IPA the Most Popular Style?

Via the Beeronomist, an article from The Economist detailing the rising popularity of IPA.  And then comes this claim:
The beer that craft brewers like making the most is IPA. Artisan beermakers in America adopted old recipes from Britain for their IPAs but gradually began to adapt the brews to their own tastes. The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours. Some parts of America, like Britain, have an excellent climate for growing top-quality hops. The bold flavours and high alcohol content create a beer that has a distinct style and bold taste, yet can come in many shades. The passion for hops in American craft beers has taken on the characteristics of an arms race, as brewers try to outdo each other in hoppiness. - See more at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/05/economist-explains-6?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ee/howindiapalealeconqueredworld#sthash.8dzgWZVS.dpuf
The beer that craft brewers like making the most is IPA. Artisan beermakers in America adopted old recipes from Britain for their IPAs but gradually began to adapt the brews to their own tastes. The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours. Some parts of America, like Britain, have an excellent climate for growing top-quality hops. The bold flavours and high alcohol content create a beer that has a distinct style and bold taste, yet can come in many shades. The passion for hops in American craft beers has taken on the characteristics of an arms race, as brewers try to outdo each other in hoppiness. - See more at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/05/economist-explains-6?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ee/howindiapalealeconqueredworld#sthash.8dzgWZVS.dpuf
The beer that craft brewers like making the most is IPA. Artisan beermakers in America adopted old recipes from Britain for their IPAs but gradually began to adapt the brews to their own tastes. The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours. Some parts of America, like Britain, have an excellent climate for growing top-quality hops. The bold flavours and high alcohol content create a beer that has a distinct style and bold taste, yet can come in many shades. The passion for hops in American craft beers has taken on the characteristics of an arms race, as brewers try to outdo each other in hoppiness.
It's a careful and accurate article (no mention of Hodgson!), and even the claim about IPA's popularity is situated with the brewer, not the consumer.  So no big quibbles.  But the real if unspoken point is that IPAs are the most popular style in American craft brewing, one I think most even casual Oregonians would endorse.  And I do, too!  I'd go further and say that the modern IPA is the ur-American beer, with all the hallmarks of the American tradition (hops, caramel malt, octane). 

But is it the most popular?  Even in our massively data-driven world, we lack the numbers to tell.  On the west coast, IPAs surely outnumber other styles, and many are best-sellers.  But people drink a lot of light wheaty ales, too.  More pointedly, the West Coast is not America and the drinkers who haunt Saraveza are not representative of all craft beer drinkers.  It seems improbable that IPA won't become America's favorite craft beer (and quite possibly its favorite beer), but I do wonder if we're there yet. 

Something to consider as I sit in the shade today, possibly with a hoppy American ale.
The beer that craft brewers like making the most is IPA. Artisan beermakers in America adopted old recipes from Britain for their IPAs but gradually began to adapt the brews to their own tastes. The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours. Some parts of America, like Britain, have an excellent climate for growing top-quality hops. The bold flavours and high alcohol content create a beer that has a distinct style and bold taste, yet can come in many shades. The passion for hops in American craft beers has taken on the characteristics of an arms race, as brewers try to outdo each other in hoppiness. - See more at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/05/economist-explains-6?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ee/howindiapalealeconqueredworld#sthash.8dzgWZVS.dpuf

16 comments:

Pete Dunlop said...

As you know, draft beer stats are woefully underrepresented in the data we do see...because draft is very tough to track. But I think IPAs and other hoppy ales are the most popular style in America. I don't know where the demarcation line is between hoppy pales, IPAs, CDAs, White IPAs, hoppy reds, Belgian IPAs, wheat IPAs, etc. But all those styles together represent a huge chunk of what is being consumed.

Out here in paradise, the Kauai Beer Company opened last September with a terrific set of lagers. I tasted them when I was here in October. To me, that's the perfect beer out here...low ABV so you can down a few of them, yet lots of flavor. I figured they would continue to focus on lagers...and officially, that was their plan. But it isn't holding true. Customers (tourists and locals) have hounded them to brew hoppy pales and IPAs. And they're listening....brewing some hoppy ales and lagers now. I think It's a nice example of how brewers are sometimes pushed to join the hops arms race, even if that wasn't their plan. Customers demand it.

The Beer Nut said...

No mention of Hodgson, but "a hefty dose of alcohol for added robustness" is enough for it to flunk history.

Patrick J Ryan said...

I suppose I'd make an argument for pale ales, but that's a very general category. I agree that IPAs dominate the market; my local bottle shop's stock is 75% IPAs/Imperials/DIPAs. I don't homebrew, so my opinion is solely that of a blogger/consumer.

Jeff Alworth said...

Nut, that's what I mean about careful writing. I don't think this is really wrong: What is clear is that hops, which act as a preservative as well as a flavouring, combined with a hefty dose of alcohol for added robustness, ensured that the beer survived the long sea journey to India. Hops and alcohol do act as a preservative. He didn't say they were necessary or that other low-alcohol, low-hop beer didn't arrive there safely. (Though we know that many did not, even if some did.) I am not a black belt in IPA history, but that seems pretty careful to me. Based on the narrative, it's hard to imagine the writer didn't spend some quality time with Cornell and Pattinson before he wrote the piece.

Pete, the customer is always right. It's why they drink helles in Munich and bitter in London. And IPA on the West Coast (Hawaii inclusive).

The Beer Nut said...

Surely you can see the writer's assumption that IPA is a stronger beer than non-export beer? This assumption is based in late-twentieth-century American homebrewers' analysis of contemporary British brewing and nothing to do with what was actually happening in nineteenth century British breweries, where IPA was often the weakest beer in their portfolio.

You'd have to believe that IPA was some sort of enhanced form of domestic British pale ale or bitter to accept this writing as "careful". It wasn't: English bitter is derived from IPA, not the other way round.

Mr Pattinson even has a t-shirt you can buy.

Come to that, even spending as little time as a I have with Mr Cornell, I know that there's no evidence that IPAs had extra hops in them, even though it's likely.

Jeff Alworth said...

You may read assumptions into others' writing, but I have too often made mistakes when I do. I have found reading their words is safer instead.

Ed said...

Isn't Sam Adam's Boston lager the biggest selling craft beer? Or am I just assuming that because they had to raise the ceiling to keep it 'craft'?

Stan Hieronymus said...

Ed - In the last numbers I saw, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the best selling "craft" (as defined by the Brewers Association) beer, outselling Boston Lager. Its sales do not match Blue Moon White.

Alan said...

(i) "high alcohol" means high alcohol. (ii) "The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours" leaving me scratching my head about the meaning of blending as it seems to avoid a common understanding of balance. "Coping" might be the word the author struggles for. (iii) Most interesting is the avoidance of the understanding that IPA has been abandoned as a descriptor of anything that could be corralled into a "style" in favour of something between a set of styles and a brand. But as a brand it is successful and likely more recognizable in the "I want that" sense to consumers than even "craft" in the USA. It is a victory of usage as much because it trips off the tongue. Even if Taunton was the first global ale in any real sense... forgetting the 1400s holds filled with the beers of the Hanseatic League.

Tim said...

The most popular style is still pale lager. Everyone is so caught up in craft even though its less than 10% of the market.

Jeff Alworth said...

Ed, you point to the difficulty (impossibility, really) in the numbers. Even to the extent we know how much single brands sell--and usually the figures come from incomplete data like IRI--it doesn't get to style. There are 1500 brewpubs selling little oddball IPAs that go undetected by our data industrial complex. In some ways, looking at the best-selling beers like SN Pale and Boston Lager is misleading because they fail to capture so much of what is happening.

Alan, another good point--but one that hints at the actual truth the Economist is pointing to. So many beers try to describe themselves as IPAs (black, white, Belgian, wheat, session, double, triple) that the term is meaningless except in illustrating what a powerful lure it is to customers.

Tim, that's why I said "most popular in American craft brewing." But even here, statistics fail us.

Zach Beckwith said...

What's really happening is that IPA has become synonymous with "craft beer". Whereas there once was a time where someone would walk up to the bar and say "give me a beer" the assumption was it would be some sort of light lager. What we see today is people come into our bar and say "I'll have an IPA" without noting that at times we may have 3 of them on tap. We're seeing a schism where there once was beer and craft beer there is now light lager and IPA. New craft beer drinkers aren't always interested in educating themselves about classic styles or brewing techniques or looking for subtlety. As you have noted before Jeff, niche breweries catering to beer geeks are still relatively small while the breweries seeing astronomical growth are for the most part brewing hoppy beers for the masses. In a lot of ways the growth of craft beer mirrors the trajectory of big beer, whereas we see a number of large breweries producing similar beers differentiated by marketing. What is the difference between say ABI producing Budweiser, Bud Lite, Bud Dry and Bud Ice and a craft brewery having an ipa, double ipa, white ipa and session ipa?

Dann Cutter said...

As long as somebody is still making those light wheat ales and the fruit stuff (I was a surprising fan of the Pyramid Strawberry Blonde Saison), I will be happy. Though I now love a good Porter or Stout, I have not yet developed a like for Hoppy IPAs.

Jeff Alworth said...

Zach, that's an interesting point. I hadn't thought of it before.

Ian Harper said...

I used to work as a beer distributor and generally the best sellers for any given brewery were IPA (or double IPA, depending on the brewery). That was true for off premise and on premise accounts. For better or worse IPA seems to be the style that consumers base their opinion of the brewery.

I've seen people walk up to the bar at Chuckanut Brewery (many many awards for German lagers) and order an IPA without looking at what else was offered (they do not continuously produce IPA). Three other breweries in town sell more IPA than any other style by a large margin. Bellingham is definitely an IPA town but I don't think the market here is just an outlier, I think it's predicting where the market at large is heading.

Anonymous said...

What American Beer would you recommend to someone I don't know but is retiring USCoast Guard officer....and might be a reminder of autumn and middle of the road...Anchor Porter or?

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