Critical Drinking

What We Talk About When We Talk About IPA

There’s an old adage among brewers, said so many times to so many people that it’s become a received-wisdom platitude of sorts.

“I brew what I like…” is how it always starts, ending with some slight variation of “...and hope others like to drink it.”

It makes perfect sense, even if it increasingly comes off like a marketing myth. Each person blending together their ideal combination of barley, hops, water, and yeast is stamping their own thumbprint on a creation. In a sea of thousands of breweries, using individual tastes to influence recipes is a brewer’s lighthouse, guiding drinkers toward liquid artistic expression. 

And of course it means that every brewer in the world loves IPA.

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How else would you account for the juggernaut of the American craft beer scene, a style dominating sales and volume coast-to-coast? Is this hop-focused style all brewers think about if they brew what they like? Certainly not. But then what’s going on?

“IPAs are what people want from me, you kind of have to give them what they want,” Steve Luke told Sip Northwest Magazine when he was readying to open Seattle’s Cloudburst Brewing in January 2016. In the year and change since, there have been lots of piney, citrusy, and juicy Cloudburst IPAs, but Luke’s company has also produced Saisons, Stouts and other styles, too. Reflecting on that passage of time, he realizes what pays the bills.

“We know when we make an IPA that has Citra or Mosaic, the heavy majority of people are going to enjoy drinking that beer, but that can get boring for us,” Luke says. “At the same time, I know it’s safe for the consumer.”

In all fairness, Luke really does like IPA, noting it’s his favorite style. In Seattle, he earned a following for being the brewer behind many such creations during his time at Elysian Brewing, where he created hoppy beers like the now-national Space Dust IPA, a beer Elysian is now using as its front-facing brand under the guidance of AB InBev.

We get to have an ordinary bitter on tap because of our IPA.
— Marc Schulz, Prison City Pub and Brewery

“I wanted to be the ‘IPA Guy,’” Luke says, thinking back to early expectations for Cloudburst. “We consistently sell so many kegs of IPA a week that’s what gives us room to fill our single-batch tanks with whatever we want.”

Looking across U.S. beer, the reality is that you can pretty easily extrapolate Luke’s experience to just about anywhere in the country. In stores tracked by market-research company IRI, IPA accounted for about 80% of craft dollar sales growth. Toward the end of the year, IRI reported that IPA was the cause for 95% of craft volume growth.

Consider this: one of four craft beers sold today is an India Pale Ale—and we’re not too far off from the moment when it becomes one in three. For a portion of the beer industry that grew out of opposition to the hegemony of adjunct Lager, American craft brewers and drinkers seem awfully comfortable leaning on one particular flavor profile. The reason why we spend so much time talking about and debating IPA and all its various sub-styles is because we can’t get enough of it. It’s today’s barrier to entry.

Just how popular is IPA? According to a 2016 study on Twitter use published in the JMIR Public Health and Surveillance Journal, “IPA” as a descriptive beer term was the fifth-most used word among a collection of 80 million geotagged tweets, beat only by “coffee,” “beer,” “pizza,” and “Starbucks.”

This makes sense when you consider that around 80% of Luke’s sales at Cloudburst are IPA, a figure that can be somewhat attributed to the brewery’s home in Seattle, Washington, the top hop-producing state in the U.S. in a region that grows roughly 97-98% of America’s hops. People in the Evergreen State love their hops.

“On one hand, it’s really exciting and encouraging to see that category grow as fast as it has in a country that historically was always about light Lagers,” Luke says. “It means a lot more people are becoming familiar with the style and broadening their palates. The negative side is that people tend to get comfortable with something and get complacent.”

In an imperfect way, data lends some credence to Luke’s concerns. For example, a June 2016 poll conducted by Nielsen (that’s behind a paywall on the Brewers Association website) shows that flavor (99%), freshness (95%), aroma (78%), ingredients (75%), and bitterness (68%) were the top-five most important attributes among participants for making a craft beer purchase. Each one showcases an important selling point of the IPA, from the consistent reminder we’re supposed to drink them as fresh as possible, to knowing what gives a beer flavor (how many people use “hoppy” as a descriptor now?), to bitterness itself, the most well-known attribute of what hops do to a beer.

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In a different poll released at the beginning of 2017, Nielsen reported that respondents who self-identified as “craft beer drinkers” claimed an average of 20 different brands as their “go-to” choices. This may be particularly relevant if we also consider how people drink. Since beer is an experiential good (which is to say: you can't know whether you like a beer until you've drank it), the psychology of choice can lead us to stay within the context of products we understand. Our choice of IPA may show variety from brand to brand, but we’re still not straying far from the styles we know and admire.

All this creates a perfect opportunity for IPA to succeed, especially in its many forms. IRI tracks eight different subcategories of the style, from fruited to Belgian to black.

“It’s kind of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation because you have to be making an IPA to survive,” Luke says. “There’s definitely a running joke among brewers that whatever a beer ends up being, just call it an IPA and it’ll sell better. Put IPA on the label and it’s good to go.”

Three Taverns Craft Brewery was supposed to be a Belgian-inspired brewery—technically, it still is. But for the Decatur, GA business, half their sales come from an American IPA.

“The craft consumer is, in a lot of ways, judging your perception by whether or not you can make a good IPA,” says Three Taverns founder Brian Purcell. “If you can make a good IPA that people pursue and look for and talk about, it actually enhances your reputation, which can help all your beers.”

When Purcell launched Three Taverns in the summer of 2013, his goal was to have a business that focused on Belgian beer, “but with an open-minded, American interpretation.” Alongside a Belgian-style Single, Purcell also released A Night in Brussels, “an American IPA on a Belgian roadtrip,” mixing techniques from both cultures—cane sugar, Belgian yeast, and a healthy dose of Citra hops. Not long after opening, a White IPA, White Hops, extended options for hop lovers while sticking to Three Taverns’ Belgian ideals.

The commitment to brewing European styles was true, and sales were strong, but there was a growing pull internally and from customers to think outside the Old World and monastic traditions on which Three Taverns was founded. It all clicked when brewmaster Joran Van Ginderachter decided to make a dry-hopped Pilsner to sell during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. 

“The success of that beer opened the door,” Purcell says of making more American styles. 

And so then he decided to kick the door wide open.

For a portion of the beer industry that grew out of opposition to the hegemony of adjunct Lager, American craft brewers and drinkers seem awfully comfortable leaning on one particular flavor profile.
— Bryan Roth

A Night on Ponce—named for the shenanigans that can occur along Ponce de Leon Avenue, a 15-mile street that stretches from downtown Atlanta all the way to Stone Mountain—was released in April 2015. By the end of that year, the more straightforward American IPA was Three Taverns’ best-selling beer, accounting for half the brewery’s sales, roughly equivalent to the combined sales of A Night in Brussels and White Hops at the time. A Night on Ponce was something of a close sibling to A Night in Brussels—the only difference in recipe was the use of American yeast. In the span of months, the Belgian-inspired brewery was best known for a truly Americanized style of beer.

“The influence that Belgian brewing philosophy and culture have on Three Taverns is very much a part of our identity and DNA,” Purcell says. “But at the same time, Belgian brewing is rooted in exploration and coloring outside the lines. They were anti-Reinheitsgebot. We want to preserve that heritage, but continue to explore, which I think is OK.”

At the start of 2017, Three Taverns’ three best-selling beers were their American IPA, A Night on Ponce, a kettle sour made with raspberry puree, and a Citra-hopped Pilsner. Less than 20% of Three Taverns’ sales now come from Belgian-specific brands. Not exactly what Purcell had in mind when he opened the brewery four years prior, but in both business and creative efforts, having some wiggle room can be a good thing. Purcell credits A Night on Ponce for not only helping his brewery grow 50% year-to-year, but providing cash flow that allows for more small batch and specialty beers that adhere closer to a Belgian ethos.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that an IPA would have unlocked new doors for our creative expression, but here we are,” he adds. “I’m glad we didn’t launch with Ponce because that would have been more defining of who we are. We could have grown faster and we’d be selling more barrels, of that I’m certain, but we’d also be a very different brewery.”

Accepting and adapting to the serendipitous success of A Night on Ponce turned out to be a wise choice for Three Taverns. But what about breweries that need to embrace IPA out of necessity as much as interest?

In the 10 years between 2007 and 2016, eight IPAs were the top-selling new craft beer brand in IRI tracked stores. That includes 2014’s Samuel Adams Rebel IPA, the highest-selling new release in craft beer history. In an industry where “new” can be used to capitalize on drinkers’ insatiable need for variety, it only feels natural that IPA is leading the way.

Part of this dominance is because, as the country’s biggest craft breweries enter the Great IPA Race, their production levels and distribution networks make it easy to flood the market—everything from gas stations to specialty bottle shops have myriad IPAs on their shelves. Businesses like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes have joined Sam Adams at the top of best-selling new releases, which increasingly are filled with hop-forward products.

New Belgium, in particular, has seen great success in this effort. In the last 10 years, they’ve released three new IPA brands (Ranger, Rampant, and Citradelic) that have taken the top spot among all of craft’s new releases in IRI-tracked data. A fourth, Slow Ride Session IPA, was the number three supermarket new release in 2015. There’s a good chance 2017 will again be kind to the brewery’s hoppy portfolio, with rebrandings and reformulations of its entire IPA and Pale Ale lineup, including a variant on last year’s top seller, Citradelic Lime Exotic Lime Ale.

There’s a running joke among brewers that whatever a beer ends up being, just call it an IPA and it’ll sell better. Put IPA on the label and it’s good to go.
— Steve Luke, Cloudburst Brewing

In 2009, distributed production of New Belgium IPAs was non-existent. But Ranger debuted in 2010 and changed everything. In 2017, the new Citradelic release and rebranded “Voodoo Ranger” IPAs have pushed the style to about a third of the company’s production with great success. Through the first quarter of 2017 compared to 2016, depletions of Voodoo Ranger IPA were up 36%, Voodoo Ranger 8 Hop Pale Ale (replacing Slow Ride) was up 37%, and Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA (which replaced Rampant) bumped up 65%. 

Meanwhile, all this upheaval comes at a time when New Belgium’s longtime flagship, Fat Tire, is looking kind of flat. Volume sales of the amber ale grew by just .3% in IRI grocery and convenience stores in 2016. New Belgium’s original inspiration for brands shows in the company’s name, but increasingly the brewery is known for its very American offerings.

“If we’re truly doing what we say we’re doing, being a craft brewery means constantly stepping up your game and finding new ways to do things,” says Ross Koenigs, who oversees new product research and design at New Belgium’s headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado. “You try not to take things too personally because things make sense within the context of the time and space they exist. Seeing things change is certainly painful, but you move on and stay resilient.”

In mid-2016, Koenigs and his colleagues began the first of 11 pilot batches to hone in on new recipes for Voodoo Ranger IPA, which went from using two hop varieties—mostly Cascade with some Simcoe—to a trendy combination that now includes Cascade alongside Simcoe, Amarillo, and Mosaic. 

To maximize citrus and tropical fruit flavor, New Belgium readjusted the balance of late-addition hops and utilization processes to optimize hop aroma in addition to a greater emphasis on dry hopping, all more commonly used methods among today’s brewers who have helped redefine IPA from a bitter, piney beer to a style constantly using “juicy” as a key descriptor, something taken literally with fruited IPAs from the Citradelic lineup.

For a brewery once founded on principles of Belgian brewing, these were all changes that had to take place as consumers moved on from beers and recipes that felt “old” after less than a decade on the market.

Robbie O’Cain can relate.

“We want to make beer that we like drinking, but if it’s clear a lot of people enjoy it, we’re not going to change the process,” says O’Cain, brewmaster at Crozet, Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery.

When O’Cain began overseeing recipe development and production of the nearly 20-year-old brewer in 2015, changes were in order. He started with their flagship India Pale Ale, Northern Lights. In the last two years, that beer has increased its grip on overall production from about 30 to 40% through a new recipe. Previously, IBUs sat near 100 and relied on Cascade, Willamette, and Columbus hops, but O’Cain cut the bitterness levels in half by switching to late-boil and whirlpool hop additions and using Falconer’s Flight, Simcoe, Centennial, Cascade, and Columbus.

Modernizing the brewery’s best-selling beer was a boon that led to even more creations. Last year, Starr Hill released a year-round Imperial IPA and seasonal Session IPA with grapefruit. In 2017, the lineup will feature a Coffee IPA, a Double IPA and a Farmhouse IPA.

“We spend an enormous amount of time developing IPAs,” O’Cain says. “We’re constantly worried about how we balance the desire to open people’s eyes to other styles with a desire to maintain a focus on IPAs because they’re 60% of our sales and we can’t ignore that.”

While there’s obviously more to what the brewery does (Starr Hill’s Jomo Vienna-style Lager is the best-selling brand for taproom sales, and the brewery’s Heavy Rotation series was created to specifically not include an IPA), there’s no questioning the style’s impact. 

For example, Starr Hill features an annual release of their Four Kings IPA variety pack, featuring variants of its King of the Hop IPA. This year’s includes orange, mango habanero, and coffee versions. It’s a move into an increasingly popular space. Variety packs—once a staple to showcase a company’s portfolio that the name explicitly applies—have now gone full hop head. Along with Starr Hill, breweries coast-to-coast are releasing IPA-only mix packs, from regional brands like Dark Horse to mainstream producers Sierra Nevada, Harpoon, Ballast Point, and Stone.

I brew what I want to brew, but I also happen to brew what sells.
— Eric Mitchell, Heist Brewery

A variety of IPA brands might be enough for most businesses, but Starr Hill has doubled down, hosting an annual IPA JamBEERee—a festival focused solely on IPA—that, in May 2017, included 60 different IPAs from 25 Virginia breweries, cideries, and homebrewers, including more than a dozen from Starr Hill itself. The reason the brewery has no problem attracting about 2,000 people to attend every year is easy, O’Cain says. IPA now has enough different styles, interpretations, and variations that people can drink the style all day, but never have the same experience twice.

“Four years ago, if you said, ‘We’re going to make a grapefruit IPA,’ people would've said, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’" O’Cain says half-jokingly. “You couldn’t do a festival with 35 different styles of Helles Lager, but IPA is an enabler to to have a festival like this.”

These are some of the real-world implications of IPA. As a singular style, it has the ability to change sales patterns and projections, beer recipes and brewing schedules, and even what people want to drink over the course of an entire day. These kinds of behaviors were once saved solely for European celebrations like Oktoberfest, but here we are, proudly waving our stars and stripes at a style that has changed the trajectory of American craft beer.

And it’s definitely not done yet.

In 2014, three years after opening, Charlotte, North Carolina’s NoDa Brewing won gold in the IPA category at the World Beer Cup, beating out a then-record 224 other entrants. Hop Drop ‘n Roll IPA literally became an overnight sensation—the announcement came late Friday and, by 11 a.m. Saturday, a line was waiting outside NoDa’s door.

“When we opened at noon the next day, there were about 25 people waiting outside,” co-founder Suzie Ford told Charlotte Magazine. “There was no party scheduled. They just wanted to come drink it from the taps and buy cans to take home. And at the time, that day marked our second-biggest sales day in the taproom.”

Already a popular stop in North Carolina, NoDa suddenly had beer lovers from across the country seeking their beer and speaking about the brewery as The Next Big Thing. The interest generated by Hop Drop ‘n Roll helped increase production by about 3,000 barrels the year of the World Cup win and the brewery recently opened a new production facility, too.

Down the street from where lightning struck for NoDa, another Charlotte brewery is hoping it comes twice.

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“I was never a fan of IPA,” says Eric Mitchell, head brewer at Heist Brewery. “I didn’t like the bitterness associated with them and that you couldn’t drink more than a few of them in a sitting. But it went from a beer I’d have in a lineup to being my preferred drinking beer once I tried some of The Alchemist, and especially when I started dabbling in Tree House and Trillium, who pioneered the New England IPA style as we know it.”

When Heist opened in late 2012, it had a classic ‘90s brewpub lineup of beers to satisfy an array of customers, including a Lager, IPA, Red Ale, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale, and Oatmeal Stout. Rotating taps were set to be dedicated for Belgian-style and seasonal beers. It was a plan that worked great for a few years, sprinkling in more specialty and one-off beers like a Rye Saison and a Chocolate Pumpkin Ale.

Then Heist learned to embrace the haze.

After gaining an appreciation for the turbid IPAs coming out of New England, Mitchell began to experiment with different yeast and hop useage toward the end of 2015, leading up to Heist’s first New England IPA release in March 2016. Like other breweries before it, Heist’s creation of a NE IPA—CitraQuench’l, an all-Citra, murky orange juice bomb—quickly gained the attention of drinkers with the release.

“We made a big enough batch for it to be a 14- to 16-day beer,” Mitchell recalls. “It ended up lasting two or three days.”

Other NE IPAs followed: Blurred is the Word, Not From Concentrate, and Reformed. Even a dry-hopped Honey Blonde Ale took on a slightly turbid appearance. Heist brought in a mobile canning unit to package a run of CitraQuench’l and a line formed out the door—they ended up selling 115 cases in two hours. People started proposing trades in online forums for Trillium’s and Tree House’s NE IPAs.

“There’s life before and after CitraQuench’l,” Mitchtell says with a laugh. “We’ve probably seen a 40% increase in beer sales over the past six months, distributors started knocking on our door, and we’ve had bottle shops and accounts coming in, asking for our beer. We were around for four years and people weren’t trading for our beer prior to CitraQuench’l. Maybe people weren’t talking about us before it. The New England style has been good to us.”

Counting the dry-hopped Blonde Ales produced at Heist, about 75% of production is focused on hops. When customers flock to the taproom, they now expect their IPAs to have a thick, hazy look. Mitchell, once a drinker who focused on Belgian and German styles, is on board, too.

“I brew what I want to brew,” he says, “but I also happen to brew what sells.”

These kind of hoppy surprises can come from small places, even in Upstate New York, a region historically known for its wineries. Such is the power of IPA, putting the name of a brewpub making 300 barrels a year in the hushed tones of “who’s who” among up-and-coming breweries. 

In August 2016, Prison City Pub and Brewery ceased crowler fills of their own beers because there wouldn’t have been a way to keep their NE IPA, Mass Riot—and some others—on tap. In October, at the Great American Beer Festival, enthusiasts sporting Tired Hands and Trillium T-shirts stood in a line at Prison City’s table consistently at least a dozen people deep. In December, after considering locations to expand production, Prison City signed a lease for a space adjacent to the brewpub.

We made a big enough batch for it to be a 14- to 16-day beer. It ended up lasting two or three days.
— Eric Mitchell, Heist Brewery

“It was almost 100% due to Mass Riot,” says co-founder Marc Schulz. “We were talking about expanding before Mass Riot’s success, and I can’t say it lit a fire under us to move quicker on expanding, but we met with our business partners and thought, ‘we can’t wait to find a new facility.’ If someone asked me to put a dollar figure on what Mass Riot has done for our business, I honestly don’t know if I could do that. Sixty-five percent or more of our business comes from outside the immediate area.”

The hope is to triple production by the end of this year for a cost of around $250,000, built on the back of Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra, oats, and wheat. If the brewery wanted to, Schulz says, Prison City could go all in and ramp up Mass Riot’s production beyond the 25% it will represent after the completed expansion. But that would take away the brewery’s ability to diversify its portfolio and they “want to have a beer that’ll last more than five or six days on tap.”

There’s no denying what Mass Riot has provided to Prison City, outside of national recognition and an endless collection of thirsty drinkers. But the cachet of owning one of the industry’s most sought-after IPAs carries a lot of weight. 

“We often talk about it being a blessed curse,” Schulz sayd. “To have this success and get such notoriety is overwhelming and reaffirming. WIth 5,000 brewers, we’re very cognizant there are several Cinderellas that will come out in 2017, so we’re just lucky to be a part of the conversation.”

Whether statistical or anecdotal, the evidence continues to stack up like the mountain of hops that towers over the industry’s biggest trends: it’s a good time to be an IPA lover, whether you’re drinking or making the style.

“For many breweries, it’s a burden to know you have to make an IPA to stay on shelves,” Cloudburst’s Luke says. “That can cut into creativity and passion to make other styles.”

But there’s also no denying IPA’s place and purpose, often as the go-to option at a time when a growing number of drinkers give more credence to connecting with a style over brand affinity.

“There’s such a thirst for IPA in this country because it’s a delicious beer to drink,” says Three Taverns’ Purcell. “I’m curious what the future holds. It doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight to the strength of the IPA market.”

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New England IPAs are the darling of the moment, carving out a niche among nearly 10 other sub-styles, but breweries have plenty of opportunity to innovate past the classic West Coast version, the balanced East Coast option, or the haze of the Northeast. Regional and national brands are embracing the rotating IPA, made popular by breweries like Epic, Schlafly, Night Shift, Stone, Great Divide, and Firestone Walker, who all switch up aspects of each recipe with a new hop bill and tastes.

“If you look at data for beer styles, the number one style is IPA and the number two is variety,” Ray Goodrich, director of marketing for Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Foothills Brewing, told me last year. “People like trying new stuff, so that’s what we’re going to give them.”

The homogenization once feared from American adjunct Lager—in small ways—is creeping into craft. IPA is where conversations now start, but the style is as much a gateway for brewers as it is the light at the end of a tunnel, creating consumer interest and providing financial stability that brings to life barrel-aging and one-off programs.

“We get to have an ordinary bitter on tap because of our IPA,” Schulz says of the boon Prison City gets off Mass Riot and other hop-focused brews.

Maybe being ruled by King IPA isn’t so bad, the dominant style benevolently doling out opportunities to expand experiences and palates just as much as it may lock people into an increasingly American taste profile. There’s a give and take. The IPA is what we like to drink, after all—and we drink what we like. Until that’s not selling anymore and we’re drinking something else.

Words by Bryan Roth
Graphics by Andy Gregg