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Monday, July 07, 2014

A Hoppy Ale to Rule Them All

A couple-three weeks back, Zymurgy magazine released its annual poll of readers' favorite commercial beers.  Homebrewers do not in any way represent the average beer drinker, but they have been, since the 1970s, on the cutting edge of American brewing.  They were the first to use American hops, it was from their ranks that the first craft brewers emerged, and they have long been the leading practitioners of techniques now standard in professional brewing.  (I mentioned their latest innovation recently.) 

Where beer culture emerges, it does so buoyed by the enthusiasm of the most avid fans.  Look to their preferences if you want to see the state of the country.  The following list will therefore in no way surprise you.  It contains a surfeit of hoppy ales, a few dark ales, and a very thin smattering of outliers.  (Depending on how you classify things, 35 of the fifty listed beers were hoppy ales; another nine were dark ales.  Five were flavored, four were barrel-aged.  The first beer that is not either a hoppy or dark ale comes in at 25--Boulevard Tank 7.)  The top ten:

1. Russian River Pliny the Elder (hoppy ale)
2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (hoppy ale)
3. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (hoppy ale)
4. Bell’s Hopslam (hoppy ale)
5. The Alchemist Heady Topper (hoppy ale)
6. Lagunitas Sucks (hoppy ale)
7. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (hoppy ale)
8. Stone Enjoy By IPA (hoppy ale)
9. Founders Breakfast Stout (dark ale) (flavored)
10. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (dark ale) (barrel-aged)

I wondered how this stacked up to past years as a way to chart the changing preferences among the uber geeks.  Zymurgy has only been doing this for 11 years, unfortunately enough, yet even that span of time is instructive.  The American Homebrewers Association director, Gary Glass, sent me the 2003 list--actually a top-12.  Have a look:
1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (hoppy ale)
2. Anchor Steam (steam beer)
3. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (hoppy ale)
4. Anchor Liberty Ale (hoppy ale)
5. Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale (hoppy ale)
6. Alaskan Smoked Porter (dark ale) (flavored)
7. Brewery Ommegang Abbey Ale (dubbel) (flavored)
8. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (hoppy ale)
9T. Anchor Old Foghorn (hoppy ale)
9T. Great Lakes Edmond Fitzgerald Porter (dark ale)
9T. New Belgium Fat Tire (amber ale)
9T. Samuel Adams Boston Lager (Vienna lager)
Only half of those beers are hoppy ales.  It includes six different styles, including a lager and lager-like beer (there are no lagers on the current list of 50).  Vestiges of the early days of craft brewing--one is an amber ale and two are old-school barley wines--have now fallen out of favor (zippo of both on 2014's top-50 charts).  Eight--two-thirds--of those beers no longer make the homebrewers' top fifty (Anchor Steam, Anchor Liberty, Alaskan Smoked Porter, Ommegang Abbey, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Old Foghorn, New Belgium Fat Tire, and Boston Lager).

Eleven years doesn't seem like a long time in the scope of things, but we can see the distant past reflected in 2003's list.  It was still loaded with beers from the founders--half came from Anchor and Sierra Nevada, and throw in Sam Adams for good measure.  Even Fat Tire, which didn't go back to the beginning, represented one of the founding styles (amber ale).  What's really shocking is that there's only one IPA (though it's smuggled in under a different name).  You could slide Anchor Liberty uneasily into that camp, but it's no one's version of a modern IPA, no matter what the old-timers try to tell you.  Sierra Celebration, at 6.8% and 62 IBUs of c-hops, definitely is. It's America's first American IPA, and still loved by beer drinkers--it's number 15 on the 2014 list.

Pliny the Elder has won the reader poll six years running, which shows how hops came to dominate craft beer.  There's a way in which it seems like we've always loved hoppy beers, but the 2003 list is proof that hops are a fairly recent phenomenon.  What convinces me that this isn't another trend destined to be replaced is the overwhelming dominance that vein of styles has in the beer geek's imagination.  When you look at the 2003 list, you can see different camps represented.  There are the homebrewers who liked balanced session beers.  There are those who liked exotic flavored beers.  And there are those who liked hops.  When you look at the current list, you see homebrewers who like hops and stouts, full stop.  They're not evolving toward diversity--they're coming to agreement on what good beer is.  Just like the English, Irish, Belgian, German, and Czech drinkers have done. 

If I had to bet on what the list will look like in 11 more years, I'd put all my money on hops.  It has become our national tradition.


  1. Not sure how this factors in. But AHA membership was 8,400 in 2000, having decreased during the 1990s. I don't think it was much more than 10,000 in 2003. Today it is 43,000.

  2. I don't think hoppy will fade very fast, but if you want to bet the longshot horse, I'd put my money on Saisons as a not-yet-visible category that will have a significant presence in a decade.

    Many of the more restrained ones that aren't too funky or too sour end up presenting themselves as very viable entry points for converts away from the American majors and from things like heineken and stella. I bet a large portion of the growth of the craft beer market will come from that style and by extension, will capture a lot of the attention of homebrewers who want to tinker with things their friends like.

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  4. Another factor could be availability and distribution. The 2003 list is comprised of larger regional legacy breweries readily available to the spectrum of voters across the country. The voters went with what they could purchase. The recent list still includes breweries with established and growing distribution channels, but there's a tiny splash of limited supply beers that are only available to a wider audience through beer trading. There's a lot of overlap between contemporary homebrewers and beer traders, both parties influencing the cult of personality some of these specialty beers have developed (i.e. Heady Topper). I'd wager home brewers in 2003 weren't actively trading local, small batch beers for those not available to them.

    Beyond this, breweries are most often entering markets with their IPA or other assertively flavored beer. Distributors use less effort to sell them since there's well established market familiarity, resulting in a larger supply hitting more shelf and tap space. This seems to be the trend even in less traditional craft markets. Yes, IPA is really popular, people are craving hops, but there could also be a bit of force-feeding going on.

  5. We're running out of Mild fast down here. And the Best Bitter is almost on the outs. Heading for the brewery...