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Monday, September 16, 2013

Thing or Nothing: White IPA

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their early IPA, Harpoon has released something highly modern and 21st-century--White IPA.  Their version has a fair dose of coriander and 45 BUs of peppery hopping but it's more wit than IPA and is marked by a soapiness that illustrates how hard it is to thread this style's particular needle.  But whatever: white IPA is having its moment.  In the churn that defines the current moment in the craft segment, coming up with the hot new style counts for a lot of sales--even if the styles don't last long.

Source: Beer of Tomorrow
Expect more of this.  The craft beer segment thrives on novelty.  If you cast your glance backward in time, you'll see a pretty impressive churn of styles that have come and gone.  Many of them are American inventions, but a few are rediscoveries.  American wheat ales and caramelly amber ales started things off, and we passed through pumpkin ales, fruit ales (both of which have come back around), wits, the many permutations of IPAs (the various coasts, rye, red, black, double, triple, and who knows what's next) and so on.  

White IPA is an invention (and a particularly clever one, given that the two most popular styles in the craft segment are IPAs and wits), so it's definitionally new, but to the average drinker a few of the recent trendy beers--gose and gratzer spring to mind--probably seemed pretty new, too.  In a country with 2,600 breweries making something like forty thousand beers, no style is ever truly extinct (even helles!).  But the promise of some of these new styles as the next big thing (inevitably called the "new IPA") was often a mirage.  Some, like saisons, have managed to become a thing, if not a big thing.  Others, like gose, had their moments and then faded to almost nothing.  So it got me thinking--thing or nothing, that sounds like a fun game!  Here's a sample.
Style ... Thing or Nothing
Wild ale  ... thing
Gose ... nothing
Gratzer ... nothing
Black IPA ... nothing
White IPA ... ???
You can play this game at home, of course.  The list is by no means exhaustive, and your mileage may vary.  (I expect black IPA/CDA partisans to offer rebuttals.)

White IPAs are an interesting case.  It seems like they're a little hard to make--striking that balance between spice and hop isn't a cakewalk.  When done well, as with Deschutes Chainbreaker (which is by no definition remotely an IPA), they're sublime.  A near miss and you enter that uncanny valley of Frankenbeer.  The difficulty of pulling off the trick may doom White IPAs, but with a few hits, who can say? 

So let's play the game.  White IPA, thing or nothing?  You be the judge.


  1. Hmm, what constitutes "thingness?" A BJCP style entry?
    I see plenty of black IPAs around. There's a critical mass of breweries that make one. To me, that makes it a thing.

    White IPA... we'll see, I guess. Is Deschutes keeping Chainbreaker in its rotation?

  2. Maybe "nothing" is too harsh?

    A favorite baseball writer of mine (humorously) describes prospects in two ways:
    (1) a "GUY," someone who has a legit shot at being a good player and deserves attention, and
    (2) a "guy," a player who may make some noise momentarily but can be ignored.

    For many breweries, a gose may simply be a "thing." But South Carolina's Westbrook makes a gose that is fantastic and I would classify as a "THING."

    White IPA? I'd say it's a fad and more "thing," but Deschutes may make a White IPA that's a "THING."

    Maybe it's more of a case-by-case scenario thanks to the diversity of quality.

  3. I don't think Gose has had its moment in the sun, nor has Gratzer. You're imprinting your Oregonian perspective on this one -- most people outside of Oregon have NEVER heard of either. And the few large-scale commercial examples of Gose, the SA Verloren and the Widmer Marionberry Hibiscus Gose, didn't even begin to approximate the style -- they weren't tart at all.

    I think both Gose and Berliner Weisse could do a lot better than they do today, but only if they ever make it into six-pack rotation. If they remain in bombers and in super-fancy bottles over with the traditional German imports like Hacker-Pschorr and Franziskaner, they won't attract enough attention to be a "thing". Today too many bottle and price it up there with the big wild ales (i.e. The Bruery Hottenroth for $8.99/750mL despite the fact that a BW is not barrel-aged nor aged for a significant amount of time at all, and their Salt of the Earth which was a limited-release -- and expensive -- Provisions series). Gose should be an alternative on the shelf to hefeweizen, but it's put price and market-segment-wise as an alternative to Belgian Tripel and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout. A 4% lightly-tart salty wheat ale won't compete at those price points.

    But if a large and legitimately respected craft brewery (someone like Stone, Firestone Walker, Bell's, Founders, or even New Belgium) really made even a modest push and put a good Gose in six-packs, then we'd see if it will be a thing or not a thing.

  4. Jacob,

    Ah, you have the mind of a philosopher. I would call "thingness" as a style of enough individuality and character that it survives its initial moment of trendiness to live on as a legitimate style, not just a brand in the portfolio of a brewery or two.


    You, too, raise a philosophical point. Your thing versus THING dichotomy divides beers by quality or virtuosity. My (perhaps lesser) interest was more in whether we're seeing a style emerge or a riffle on the surface of the great lake of beer.


    It's true, I approach this from the Oregon viewpoint. In this way, thingness is always regional. Helles beers are not a thing here, but they are a thing. If there's any benefit in my perspective, it's that styles often get their first liftoff here, so I can report how long they stayed in the air.

    Btw, on Berliner weisses, I'm prepared to go "thing." They never really had a moment of trendiness, but their numbers continue to grow and proliferate. They will never be a big thing, but I'm beginning to think that, like saisons, they may well reach thingness.

  5. Since I live in warm latitudes (namely, Barcelona) I was hoping for brewers to produce some White IPAs. Then I learned about the difficulty of pulling out a decent one.

    I guess White IPAs could be the next nothing. Still, its particularly refreshing character fits the needs of drinkers from harsh hot climates, so there's an opportunity for, at least, some-thing.


  6. White IPA? The most clever thing about them is the accepted co-opting of the IPA name to generate interest in something that really should have a distinct name (category?) - and would probably not being doing as well had "they" done so. Is it a thing? No. No more than Black IPAs, which many (not me) would prefer be called a hoppy (read bitter) porter. I love black IPAs, but they are definitely on the decline, production wise, based on my observations (and marked by Deschutes' choice to replace Hop in the Dark with Fresh Squeezed).

    Off-topic, but perhaps no more true a line can be written than "[t]he craft beer segment thrives on novelty." Which is why I cringe every time I hear an industry person complain that frequently rotating taps (i.e the inability to build "brands") and the exploding number of breweries is harmful to craft beer growth. Definitely a topic worth continued exploration another day.

  7. I'd say thing, because it's a good taste, the combo works very well. U.S. hops are often citric to begin with which ties into the coriander or other orangey/lemon flavouring a lot of wit has.

    But Black IPA is definitely a thing! It's everywhere, and for some years. It needs a careful hand though - too often it is way too hopped. It needs medium hopping with a good malty/roast character behind it, without being a porter such. I think U.S. porter as a style is still different to Black IPA in other words.