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Thursday, August 02, 2012

How IPAs Conquered America

Type in #IPAday on Twitter and you'll find scads of tweets.  This is the second year Ashley has promoted the idea through social media--though goosing a meme seems to be the end itself.  But nevermind, let's use the occasion to think a little about IPAs.

In the world of craft beer--the world beyond light lagers--IPA is king.  There may be slight regional variation; IPAs have definitely conquered the West Coast and with over 3000 examples listed on BeerAdvocate, it's the most popular style brewed in the world.  Ranger and Torpedo are spreading like wildfire, and tentpole brands like Harpoon and Bell's have been converting locals across the country. 

For long-time watchers of craft beer, styles have come and gone.  Hefeweizens were king for a time, ambers and browns had their moment, and pale ales have had the most enduring popularity of any craft style.  But all of those have waned.  IPAs started getting popular in the mid-1990s and they've only picked up strength.  I have waited and waited to see a plateau, but we're still climbing.  Oregon presents a pretty stark case.  Not only is it commercial suicide to skip the IPA (breweries like Pfriem and Solera, keen on making Belgian-inflected lineups, brew IPAs), many breweries have two or three. 

From time to time you hear someone make an argument that the latest darling of craft brewers is "the new IPA."   Sour ales and saisons leap to mind.  Indeed, for years I was one of the people who wondered what the next great thing would be.  Time to quit thinking like that.  The next great thing will be an IPA.  And the great thing after that.

Americans are in their fourth decade of experimental brewing.  Every extant style of beer in the world is brewed in the United States.  When you're brewing small amounts for customers who are also in experimental modes of drinking (a decent definition of a beer geek), you can roll out kvass and gose.  If you look at the long history of beer, this is totally anomalous--different styles are favored by different people one country or even city to the next.  Styles change, but slowly.

And true to form, as the market matures and regular American drinkers begin to locate joy in robust beers, they are settling on a style.  Although I'm a beer nerd, most of my friends and acquaintances are not.  I spend far more time talking to non-beer people than beer people.  Of those who have come over to good beer, the vast majority like IPA.  They don't really know what it is or which brands they like--to them it's akin to Earl Gray tea, a type.

When you go to London, you have a pint of cask bitter.*  When you go to Koln, a Kolsch.  It used to be that walking into a good beer bar in the US would leave a drinker bewildered by variety.  But no more.  There's always at least one reliable pick on the board--an IPA.  And this cycle will reinforce itself, as more people find IPAs at their local pubs, more people will drink IPAs, and they in turn will look for yet more IPAs.  In the good beer world, at least, IPAs have won the game, set and match.  We are an IPA country now, like it or not.

(I mostly do.)


  1. I think the first IPAs I ever experienced were Ballantine IPA (bottled) and Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (draught).

  2. I dunno, seems like false advertising - have you answered your question, 'how'?

    I get it that they have but I was expecting your usual bloviating - er - erudite analysis of why IPA is especially right for American palates.

    What is it about the IPA and the American Experience that makes them so simpatico?

  3. Good post. IPAs has won the day among American craft beer drinkers.

    @slight regional variation
    I partition IPAs into British- and West Coast-style.
    British-style being earthy herbal perhaps with hints of pine and/or floral aromas/taste. Eg., Elysian-'The Immortal' IPA.
    West Coast-style being citrusy and/or piney often with floral aromas/taste. Eg., Green Flash-West Coast IPA.
    I wanted my local to always have at least one of each on tap.

    @commercial suicide to skip the IPA
    Lager-only craft breweries are few and far between in the USA. A sad fact to me.
    I have had beers from 04. I hope to add 02 more this fall; perhaps, I will make it a pilgrimage. 07 are listed below.
    Baron Brewing - Seattle, Wash.
    Bayern Brewing Co. - Missoula Mont.
    Bohemian Brewery - Midvale, Utah
    Bull Jagger Brewing Co. - Portland, Maine.
    Heather Allen Brewing Co. - McMinnville, Ore.
    Jack’s Abby Brewing - Framingham, Mass.
    Live Oak Brewing Co. - Austin, Tex.

  4. The popularity of IPA is an interesting phenomenon, which makes for an interesting post. All of my (non-geek) craft beer drinking friends understand the language of IPA. Start talking to them about Belgians or sours and they start to doze off. They are bent on finding the next great IPA.

    You talk about it being suicide for breweries to exclude IPA, the same is increasingly true for pubs and taverns. You better have several IPAs or you risk losing customers. I was up at McPeets on Fremont yesterday. Of their 14 taps, six are occupied by IPAs...Boneyard, Double Mountain, Fort George, Firestone Walker, HUB, Ninkasi. Crazy! IPA is king for now.

  5. A non-mouse,
    I'm not sure what I would call Celebration, but it may have been my first IPA, too--if we call it one. The funny thing is, I don't really recall my first. I was brewing them in the early 90s, so apparently I had heard of them.

    Jack, your comment, though supportive, does point out how absolutist my "commercial suicide" comment was. I would probably write "near commercial suicide" if I had a second chance.

    Pete, excellent point! In fact, this, more than what breweries are compelled to do, is what really worries me. I hate to walk into a pub and see half the taps devoted to the style. (Though I often order an IPA anyway because I'm a damned homer myself.)

    Patrick, it's a good point. When I wrote that title, I intended to mention something along those lines. I will use your comment as a way to pad the blog with an extra post on the subject tomorrow. Remember, reputable brewers say this blog has "some merit!"

  6. Reputable brewers even describe your blog "actually worth reading" if memory serves!

  7. Intrigued by Mr. Dunlop's comment, I checked Salem.Taplister for my when-in-Salem local.
    07 of 24 taps are IPA; to wit:
    Alameda Yellow Wolf Imperial IPA
    Elysian Prometheus Stolen Fire IPA
    Fire Mountain Tanline Summer IPA
    Full Sail IPA Cask
    Hopworks Ace of Spades Imperial IPA
    Ninkasi Tricerahops Double IPA
    Oakshire Watershed IPA Cask

    Impressive; albeit, the taplist may be skewed by IPA Day
    Then again, maybe no.

    btw: I do not take except to "commercial suicide". Nevertheless, in this vast nation there is a little room for flavorful diversity.

  8. A craft beer bar in town (which I will leave nameless for the fun of it) once experimented with their taplist. Rather than listing what brewery and brand of IPA they had on tap, they simply just had "IPA" on their taplist. Meanwhile all other handles featured both the brewery and name of the beer.

    4 out of 5 people came in and just ordered the IPA without asking who produced it, what's the strength, hop variates, etc. etc...

  9. @Jeff -- while Sierra Nevada doesn't explicitly label Celebration Ale as an IPA, it has won awards as such, and fits the profile. When I first experienced it, circa 1984, I can't think of any American breweries that were producing anything specifically called an IPA other than Ballantine. Anchor's Liberty Ale, first brewed in 1975, also comes close to fitting the profile, and I've seen it refered to as the first modern American IPA. although as far as I known Anchor has never called it one.

  10. I'm telling you, the taverns and pubs are loading up on IPAs. They're pouring what people are asking for. The owner up at McPeets told me Boneyard RPM is outselling the macros he has on tap. Enough said.

  11. I like "good beer." I might even be a craft beer aficionado. Maybe even a beer geek. I, however, do not favor IPA. Though, admittedly it was my gateway beer back in the mid- to late-90s when I started drinking "good beer."

  12. I won't comment on your main point, but I would say a couple of your comments seem well off the mark to me.

    "...with over 3000 examples listed on BeerAdvocate, it's the most popular style brewed in the world." What about lager/pilsener type beers? I would guess there are far more examples if you are talking about "the world".

    "Every extant style of beer in the world is brewed in the United States." A brewery slapping a label on a beer calling it a type xyz, is not what I would consider proof of this claim. To use your Gose example, it is questionable whether a receipe for the beer still exists even in Germany. Yes, it contains salt and corriander, but I don't think knowing only that is quite enough to recreate the beer. Many of the "Belgian"-type beers I've drunk in the US have little to no no relation with the beers I've drunk in Belgium.

  13. I can't argue that IPA is the most popular style within craft beer. I do think, however, that distilling the entire country down to a single style is a disservice to US brewers--despite its popularity. Koln has Kolsch, but what style would you declare for all of Germany? There are no other regional styles domestically even close to that of West Coast IPAs, but I think its beginning to change as more of those folks who only think of IPA as a type are branching out, and looking past nationally available beers like Torpedo and Ranger to their local breweries.It's not in everyone's glass, but the number of Berliner Weisse brewed in Florida is pretty astounding. The style makes perfect since in the state's climate, and it seems the style's popularity is only growing in the region.

    I also think the popularity of IPAs has both fed and benefited from the labeling of nearly any hopped-up style as an IPA. Black, White, Red, Brown, Belgian, Wild, and anything else with an extra dash of hops now get those three letters slapped onto them. The count of 3000 IPAs on BeerAdvocate probably doesn't include these, but to consumers the umbrella of IPA has exploded in size due to these questionably-named beers. It's quite likely, at the same time, that the term IPA has been used to describe them chiefly because of the style's popularity and wide appeal.

  14. Jeff, it almost sounds like you're making the case for dropping the modifier "American-Style" and just calling our presumptive national craft beer an APA. I guess we've had custody for quite a while now...

  15. On the west coast, you have very few options. IPA, Imperial IPA, Double IPA, Triple IPA, Black IPA, White IPA, and on and on. IPA's are the most contrast to what the options were 30 years ago with Industrial beer after another as the options. If the Northwest really wants to know as the best beer region in the world, we need to offer more variety at the tap.

  16. As someone who, despite multiple attempts to tolerate it, does not and will not ever like IPA, I have definitely noticed this trend, and I pretty much consider it a tragedy.