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Monday, September 12, 2016

Yup, It's an IPA

The beer is 5% ABV and it has 15 IBUs. Existential question: is it an IPA?

The answer doesn't really matter (and wouldn't be definitive in any case). But whatever you think of this trend in nomenclature, it's pretty good evidence that "IPA's" new meaning is settling into place. It's been just a couple of years since I first made the case that, at least to customers, "IPA" doesn't have anything at all to do with beers shipped from Burton to India.
To the average drinker, slapping the word "India" on a label communicates a very specific, easily-understandable meaning.  It's shorthand for "saturated in the flavors and aromas of American hops."  Gigantic IPL, for all the ways it wasn't an IPA, instantly met the expectations I'd had--it was decadently perfumed and soaked in Simcoe and Citra hops.
The beer in question is brewed by pFriem, and I've written about it before. Over the weekend, I stopped into the brewery on a trip out the Gorge and was delighted to find it on tap again. It definitely fits the bill of "saturated in the flavors and aromas of American hops." In this case, if I had any problem with the name, it's the "sour." It's lightly acidified via kettle souring, and this gives it a tartness akin to citrus fruit. Add the fruity hops on top, and it really has the effect of making it more fruit-like. Many fruits have an element of acidity, but we don't think of them as "sour" because they're balanced by sweetness. In this case, it's the hops that sell the fruitiness, adding their flavors and aromas to that snappy tartness. It's like a scoop of mandarin-melon sorbet.

The IPA part--that's wholly defensible. The one thing I didn't mention so much back in 2014 was how IPAs have been decoupled from bitterness. IPAs have become so flavor-and-aroma-centered that people have become habituated to relatively low-IBU IPAs that nevertheless have deeply saturated hop flavors. pFriem's IPA has all that flavor, and it's actually accentuated by the acidity. The "sour" part of the title may scare some people away, but I doubt few people complain that it fails to meet their expectations for an IPA.

When I wrote that post back in 2014, the comments were not entirely supportive of the thesis. I become ever more convinced that it's happening in front of us, and this is a good case in point.


  1. What was the price point? I'm wondering because we've had discussions about lower ABV IPAs. With the amount of hops getting crammed into beer these days, IPAs cost considerably more to make than Pale Ales, so their cost increases. But are folks willing to pay more for their IPA if the ABV only hovers around 5%?

  2. I am likely a minority here, but I find IPAs stripped of their bitterness decidedly one dimensional and not worth the hype.

  3. Anon, I bought it on draft at the brewery, and it was the same price as regular draft beer. (At pFriem, many are in the 5% range.)

    Alistair, I understand and respect that view. I don't share it, but I get it. I do think the "tart IPA" (more properly, the kettle-soured late-hop American ale) rectifies the problem with acidity. The bitterness adds spine to hoppy beers; so does acidity.

  4. Interesting premise, although I also tend to believe the same as Alistair. That being said, it would be intriguing to try.

  5. I agree with the point of view that bitterness is overvalued in IPAs, along with ABV.

    I suspect that part of the drive for high ABV IPAs was that it's easier to make a reasonably balanced IPA with a ton of malt and a ton of hops, but when brewers shoot for lower values of each, it's a lot easier to get out of balance. And I think as brewers get more experienced it becomes clearer how to turn out IPAs closer to the session side in the consistent and high volume manner that keeps a brewery humming.

    I also suspect that pushing hop flavor and aroma rather than IBUs makes bottled and canned beer viable longer on the shelf. With high IBU beers, when hop flavor fades a bit the bitterness takes over, but when the IBU is lower to begin with, a bottle of IPA can lose a bit of its hop flavor without becoming the kind of beer casual drinkers refer to as battery acid.

    I realize some people would take this as an argument that brewers should only ship bottles at the height of their taste and they should be sold quickly or pulled from the shelves, but brewers can't control the market that way, and they have to turn out a product that can still taste good given the decisions of distributors and retailers.