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Friday, August 03, 2012

IPAs Have Conquered America, But Why?

In response to yesterday's IPAs in America post, one beeronomist (there are others) noted:

I dunno, seems like false advertising - have you answered your question, 'how'?  I get it that they have [conquered America] 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?  (My bold)

The purpose of this image will become evident in due course.
Well, I'm glad you asked, Patrick, if only because it allows me to stretch the discussion out--bloviate--over two posts.  In fact, I do have a theory, and it's built, like all great blogging theories, on a single anecdote that I garnish with actual data and a bit of fairly accurate history to create my wholesome meal of an answer.

The Anecdote
Way back in the waning days of the last century, I worked on a fantastic research project at Portland State University.   We were attempting a massive effort to interview parents and children and their social workers in the state child welfare system.  We worked like fiends and grew quite close.  At a certain point, our very cool boss started arranging post-work happy hour get-togethers where we could chat about work and blow off steam.  I had just begun writing about beer on the side, and so was regarded as the local expert.  The waitress came, ran through the tap list, and the Very Cool Boss asked which beer to order.  I asked what kind of beer she liked.  She said: "I don't like bitter beer.  I like IPAs." 

The Data
We are all well aware that industrial lager producers have been trying to make their beers as inoffensive as possible for the better part of a century.  Products made for mass audiences must have no sharp edges or challenging dimensions.  Humans crave sweetness and so food companies sweeten foods like pasta sauce that have no business being sweetened.  Over the years, the beer companies have done the same thing by steadily removing hops.  They now fall below the human threshold for flavor.

The History
Craft brewing arose as a reaction to the homogenization and boring-ification of mass market lagers.  It was sparked by people who existed way out in the tail on the beer-styles bell curve, people who loved intense, rich flavors.  For a long time, craft brewers thought they had to create bridges between their beer and Hamm's, so they dabbled in Vienna lagers, wheat beers, and fruit ales.  This buoyed craft brewing through the 80s, but by the 90s, people were losing interest in tame craft beers (and also bad beers, of which there were a growing number).  The market stumbled and took several years to recover.  When it did, it was on the strength of beers like IPAs that were sharply different from mass market lagers.

So here's my theory.  In the age before craft (BC), we had a lot of ideas about beer.  We believed "less filling" was a higher state of beer.  We feared "bitter beer face."  We had never heard of ales, never mind "styles," and considered Heineken impossibly strong and exotic.  Also, beer tasted bad.  There was a hollow tinniness to it, and the aftertaste was slightly unpleasant.  (I have no data to back this claim, but make it I shall: I suspect beer in the 70s was pretty bad, never mind how many hops it had, and that the technical quality and consistency of macro lager is very high today by comparison.)  You muscled your way through a beer to get to the next one and, if you persevered, the fourth one down the line.

We were ignorant.  On the one hand, we were told bitter was bad--seemed logical enough--but on the other, beer companies had essentially made it impossible for us to know what hops tasted like.  We never associated the two.  Now we enter the period after craft (AC) and for the first time taste hoppy flavors like grapefruit, lavender, and marmalade in our beers. They're not bad!  In some very abstract way, we can see how they might be called bitter, but it's not nasty bitter, tin bitter; it's single-estate-Ethiopian-dark-roast-with-notes-of-blueberry-and-black-pepper bitter.

Those who came to craft beer were a self-selected sample of people who didn't like mass market lagers.  Axiomatically, they were looking for something different, and along each dimension, IPAs offered a contrast: they were strong, they were fruity and ale-y, and of course, they were intensely-flavored.  There was a reason even very hoppy pilsners didn't take off--they were too familiar.  It had to be more than just hoppy.  The fullness and fruitiness of ales were a revelation.  But hops were key, and American hops, absolutely unfamiliar and even a little bit bizarre, were a big part of things.  Bolted to the chassis of a nice, full ale, they created flavors that seemed unrelated to beer from the land of sky-blue waters.  We were thrilled.

The rise of IPAs is similar both in pattern and kind to what was happening in artisanal food and beverage segments elsewhere.  When pursuing coffee, cheese, whisk(e)y, and wine, people went for the intense; they offered the best contrast to the bland, mass-market products they had grown up with.  In cuisine, "ethnic" foods (which are of course "foods" to people in different countries) have led a renaissance since the 70s and 80s, and we're forever looking for the next great flavor around the corner.

Looking back, it seems inevitable that a strongly-flavored beer was going to become king.  That it was IPA and not, say, tripels, is a little dicier to explain.  We are left to speculate.  American hops, once derided in other countries, have won the test of time.  Everyone now agrees: they're awesome.  So saturated IPAs are objectively tasty.  I also wouldn't underestimate the value of their being local.  I haven't figured out why this matters, but country after country, region after region, it seems to.  And finally, trends build on themselves.  IPAs may have won out partly because they started to get popular before people were exposed to Belgian styles and sour ales.

And that brings us to the end of my tale of Why IPAs Conquered America.  Surely you have your own theories and refutations, and as always, I welcome them in comments--


  1. (which are of course "foods" to people in different countries)

    Reminds of of the Simpsons episode where they go to Rio and Homer complains his bladder is the size of a Brazil nut. To which a Brazilian replies, "here, we just call them nuts."

  2. Let's be clear - those "others" are johnny-come-latleys that have decided to ride my coattails and infringe on my trademark. My lawyers have advised me to say nothing further.

  3. I wonder how regional the popularity of IPA actually is. I'd love to see sales numbers...the data must be out there. I suspect the numbers are skewed somewhat by the wild popularity of the style in some areas while it sells barely at all in others. Of course, there is the odd chance I'm wrong about this. It does happen.

    Why IPA? I suspect hoppy ale was first because adding extra hops was an easy way to create a distinctive beer. Once the style gained a following, the hops arms race was on. It's actually reassuring to see so many modern IPAs where flavor and aroma take a front seat to bitterness. This and other efforts to tweak the style will likely extend the longevity of its popularity, I think.

  4. I'd draw your attention, too, to wine, and especially to the phenomenon of Zinfandel, ZAP, and the Ravenswood slogan "No wimpy wines."

    Perhaps like our love of muscle cars, Americans like muscular wines and muscular beers. Surely it has something to do with archetypes of the American West.

  5. So in reaction to the presence of inoffensive beers in the marketplace, the craft beer industry moved to produce and market the most offensive beers possible in order to define itself? I'd say that's about right.

    The irony is in the early days there was a lot of marketing of IPAs with clever names, offensive imagery, and meaningless big numbers attached (see published IBU numbers impossible to actually solubilize or even detect). Irony in that the craft beer industry tends to define itself as anti-marketing. My problem is that this domination of IPA is migrating outside the US's shores, for example, to my country (Japan). It's homogenizing the beer choice at my local drinking establishments, crowding out some of my favorites. I really can't wait to revert to the mean.

    Just an aside, what the hell food do you pair with these hop monsters? You're pretty much stuck with heavy and spicey foods, no? They sure don't pair with the local cuisine here.

  6. Could it also be because, and this is not a judgment, just an observation, americans are used to stronger industrial and fast food flavors? IPAs don't really find a market in continental europe where food cultures are a bit more discrete.

  7. Shouldn't you support this with some numbers? If craft in the US is maybe 6%, is IPA even 3% of all sales? Maybe. But that is hardly conquering anything. Is there more IPA sold than Blue Moon?

  8. @Alan 'Is there more IPA sold than Blue Moon?'
    Astute question [to me, since I tend to not realize the magnitude of Big Beer].

    The Brewers Association reported 'Craft brewers sold an estimated 11,468,152 barrels of beer in 2011'. Jeff Alworth* reported, Blue Moon Belgium White Ale sold 1.4 million barrel of beer in 2011.

    If, the IPA percentage of craft beer sale is greater than 12.21% [more than 1 in 8 pints], then IPAs out sold Blue Moon Belgium White Ale in 2011. If not, not.

    IPAs sales routinely exceeded 30% of total craft beer sales at my then-Salem, Ore.,-local last summer. This suggest that IPA sales [even] exceeds the 3 million barrel 2011 beer sales of all Tenth and Blake Beer Co. brands [as reported by].

    *A Tenth and Blake Beer Co. staffer replied to my email inquiry 'Thanks for your inquiry. We actually don’t publish volume numbers, but I can share that in 2011, Blue Moon Brewing Company grew 22%.'

  9. Excellent data. My main reason for asking was my trip to Baltimore and back this week. I do not believe I saw one sign in a bar or one visible from the road that advertised IPA yet was very surprised how many small town bars had brewery supplied neon signs for Blue Moon. It is always a worry dealing with BA numbers given how they skew the numbers for policy reasons, including things like Twisted Tea because we like Mr. Koch but leave out Blue Moon because big is the evil empire.

    But if you 30% is correct and, I think it is fair to say, your region is more IPA focused than others, is it really that entrenched or just well loved? For me, "IPA" itself is the success - those three letters. The browner maltier beers of the late 80s and 90s had no such convenient tag line. A general class of beer will only do well if it is able to be described by the new purchaser. IPA is a shorthand that makes the decision for those who are not obsessed. It is will hard to displace the loyalty that such an easy connection provides.

  10. "American hops, once derided in other countries, have won the test of time. Everyone now agrees: they're awesome."

    "Everyone"? Don't get out much, do you?

  11. Alan,

    Numbers are hard to come by, but Jack summarized known data pretty well. (In the "evil empire" category we have Widmer and Redhook locally--shunned by BA but producers of quite a lot of beer and IPA.)

    I spent less time nuancing this post than the earlier one (trying to distinguish between craft beer and all beer, noting that the West Coast is more IPA-centered than the rest of the country). But all the caveats and hedges are lurking there.

    I think IPAs are definitely making a move in other regions, but perhaps it is hasty to declare "conquered." It's not hasty in Oregon. It's actually unbelievable how dominant the style is. I recommend looking at Matt DiTullo's comment on the earlier post as a good example.

  12. Good points. Additionally, isn't it most likely that your region is heavily taken by IPAs because it is near the major hops growing region? It may be one of the few examples of a local ingredient influencing a regional palate and maybe even culture. Quebec may be developing a similar thing with its beers but no where near what you are identifying with NW IPAs and it is based on taste and culture as opposed to regionally indigenous ingredients. It also does not export out into the rest of the market anywhere near as successfully as NW IPAs have.

  13. Is it possible that one reason is that strong hopping can cover up brewing flaws, and so even from not-so-good breweries, an IPA is something of a known quantity?

  14. In my humble opinion I think IPA is simply the hamburger of the beer world. At best or worst, it will always be strong, satisfying and easy to consume. You could branch out, but you know ol'reliable IPA is there. As much as I would like to poo poo IPA, it is, and always has been the fastest blowing kegs over the years.

  15. We had an overnight stay in Butte, Mt. which turned out to be Evil Knievel Days which apparently
    quite a deal for Butte.

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