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Monday, June 20, 2016

And the Next IPA is . . . ?

Each year the homebrewing magazine Zymurgy polls its readers about their favorite beers. The results are in most ways no more interesting than the average Thrillist article. What do you care if a bunch of people you don't know say Bell's Hopslam is better than Lagunitas IPA? What is notable is how thoroughly IPAs dominate the list. Here's the top ten (of the list's top fifty):
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder
2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
3. The Alchemist Heady Topper
4. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
5. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
6. Founders Breakfast Stout
7. Three Floyds Zombie Dust
8. Bell’s Hopslam Ale
9. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
T10. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
T10. Stone Enjoy By IPA
Humans are generally blind to their own culture. But if you want a mirror in which to examine your own weird ways, Americans, I give you this list. It's true that homebrewers are just one group among beer fans, and if you polled the American public, you wouldn't come up with this list. But as beer fans go, homebrewers are a great subgroup. They're not just avid fans, they're avid fans who know a lot about different styles of beer. Polls many times reflect the ignorance of the respondents. Ask a thousand Americans about how to handle, say, the Yazidi crisis, and you'll come up with a majority who select one answer category. That doesn't mean more than four of them have ever heard of the Yazidis. Homebrewers are a reflection of the most knowledgeable group of beer drinkers in America. If you were looking for a new trend in brewing that might refute the dominance of IPAs, it would be among this group. Gose? Zero beers in the top 50. Saisons? One. Wild Ales? Two. Hoppy American ales? 37. (Big black ales are a majority of the non-IPAs.)

I noted this trend a couple years ago, and tracked down a list from the first poll Zymurgy ever did back in 2003. Only half the top ten were hoppy ales then, and just two of what we'd call IPA or IPA-adjacent beers today (Sierra Nevada Celebration and Stone Arrogant Bastard).

If you're looking at these lists and still can't understand what I'm talking about, imagine if this were a German homebrewing magazine. Would you expect to see 82% of the top beers represented by IPA? Of course you wouldn't. Once you chuck light lagers out of the equation, the passion among beer drinkers is starkly clear. For anyone who's spent time looking at the development of beer styles, this makes complete sense, too. In other beer-drinking countries, the national or regional palate narrows and gets more specific, whether it's světlý ležák or abbey ale or kölsch. When we look in the mirror of this poll, our developing culture is staring right back at us.


  1. From Bart Watson earlier this year.

    Can Homebrewers Predict the Future in Beer?

  2. It does my old heart good to see that #1 and #2 are "old-school" US IPAs, focusing more on bitterness than the fruit flavors you've been writing about as coming to define the style! #8 as well (to my taste buds).

    FWIW, Zombie Dust is an APA, not an IPA. And Zymurgy's readers, knowledgeable as they may be, don't seem to think highly of "session IPAs" even as they do really well in the market.

  3. Stan, thanks for the quick, data-based backup.

    Bill, in my 2014 edition, I used the phrase "hoppy American-style ale," and considered doing it again. But I shorthanded it to IPA. The point stands either way.

  4. I wonder if you asked a bunch of knowledgeable beer people for a list of the top most overrated beers, if Pliny the Elder would be #1, too. A lot of the 'beer geeks' that I know scoff at Pliny as being way way way overrated, and they can list 20 better beers of a similar style.