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Thursday, August 04, 2016

An American Story

Lew Bryson is tired of IPAs:
Speaking as a guy who’s been preaching the beer gospel for over 30 years, I’m feeling short-changed. Damn it, I didn’t put up with the abuse of my co-workers and relatives, or spend thousands of dollars on questionable beers from brewers with six months’ experience during the buildup, just to get the opportunity to drink hoppy, hoppier and hoppiest, no matter how good those hops are! I’ve been at beer bars where over three-quarters of the taps were pouring some variation on an IPA, or at least something that called itself an IPA. There are a lot more taps at bars now than there were back in my salad days, but I happily recall places with only five taps that had more variety. 
I think this case is overstated--barroom variety isn't as monochrome as all that--but it's true that IPAs have conquered America. But to Lew, who seems to take a slightly proprietary approach to the development of beer in the US ("We did this for you. Don’t squander it."), I would rejoin: what did you expect?

When countries develop their beer culture well enough to begin to introduce their own styles, it inevitably leads to a narrowing in the marketplace. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more people in a region grow to love beer, the less they love diversity. It's not like German brewers can't make abbey ales. They can't sell them. The same thing is happening in the US: breweries make IPAs because Americans love love love them.

And this is a good thing! The beers Lew describes are the slow adaptation to American tastes. We started out trying to make the styles popular elsewhere. By tiny increments, the beers began to drift. US breweries were using these strangely potent (and initially derided) local hop varieties, and instead of trying to conceal them, they started to make them the focus. They adapted further by figuring out new ways of brewing with them, and further still by changing the water, grist, and yeasts to showcase them. All of this went hand in hand with the public's embrace of these evolving hoppy ales. If you go back and look at the way German, Belgian, Czech, and British beer styles develop, you see parallel evolutions. In any country that embraces beer, you should expect to see both the creation of new styles, and a local preference for them.

Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable to think that the US would be the most dynamic brewing country in the world, author of a whole new chapter in beer history. We would not be able to conceive that these American inventions would be brewed in London, Prague, and Berlin. And yet here we are.

Lew's complaint is not new, and it is often framed as a sad form of degeneration. But you almost never hear the same people complaining that the beer culture in Bamberg or Bruges or České Budějovice is bad because the choices are too few. They are routinely hailed, correctly, as paragons of beer culture. As the politicos would say, the prevalence of IPAs is a feature, not a bug.

Enjoy it--


  1. Who was deriding those strange new hops back then?

  2. "What did you expect"? Well, obviously, he expected wider variety. Not to trade finding nothing but different brands of pale adjunct lagers with nothing but different brands of pale hoppy ales. The promise of craft beer in the US wasn't to copy that of Bamberg, Bruges, etc. -- it was to offer choice. I don't get why you would think a "narrowing of the marketplace" would be inevitable and a good thing, and am having a hard time reconciling your argument with you bemoaning the decline of porter in the marketplace a few months back.

  3. Nick, Europeans were slow to embrace them.

    Bill, I don't know that anyone was making any "promises," just as I don't know anyone's letting Lew down now. If he wanted to be mad at anyone, it should be his fellow drinkers. They're the ones buying all the IPAs and apparently ignoring the kinds of beers he'd like to see.

    I am sometimes inconsistent in my arguments, though, I do admit that!

  4. Who was deriding those strange new hops back then?

  5. I need to gently push back here, Jeff, and I hope my poor writing doesn't make me sound snotty or mean. You say that you don't think anyone was making promises w/r/t beer in the US. I used "promise" in the sense of "promise of a new day," not in the sense of "somebody promised to give us flying cars." I think you'd understand that the growth of craft beer back when that term made sense arose in part as a reaction to the lack of choices offered by the large brewers. The good beer bars of five years ago had a range of styles on tap. And they do, today, too... but many many more bars have replaced many light lager taps with IPAs, so the situation Lew describes is very easy to find. You talk about the US as an emerging beer culture and say folks don't complain that cities with established beer cultures have few choices. But comparing cities with a few hundred thousand people to a country with 350 million people doesn't make sense -- you don't want a nation to settle on a couple of styles. I mean, you posted a few days ago tha Americans were going to change German beer, and the implication was strong that things had gotten staid and boring in the larger country of Germany, beer culture of Bamberg and other cities notwithstanding.

    You don't want a narrowing of diversity at the large scale. You don't want that to be inevitable. Because if it is, it makes it likely that growth will plateau, and consolidations will happen, and breweries will start leaving. We don't need 4,500 breweries all doing the same thing. Maybe the taste shift you've been writing about this past year is going to continue, maybe it won't. There's nothing wrong with brewing what folks want to drink. But you shouldn't want things to calcify. You have your manifesto on drinking local and on tap -- that's not going to work if all you have are variants on hoppy ales.

    Again, I recognize that we obviously still have tons and tons of choices in styles, and the sky isn't falling yet, and Lew obviously can find places with variety too... but IPA variants becoming the new light beer shouldn't be inevitable, and shouldn't be hailed as therefore a good thing if it means a true dearth of variety for the drinker down the road.