July 8, 2013

The Session #77: What's the Big Deal with IPA?

Ballast Point Sculpin. Bell’s Two Hearted. Weyerbacher Double Simcoe. Russian River Pliny the Elder...Russian River Blind Pig.

Just typing those words has Pavlovially created a shaker glass’s worth of saliva thinking about all that delectable, hoppy elixir. The reason is so simple. I, like most beer lovers who predominantly patron the smallest 99.8% of the brewing industry when and where I buy beer, enjoy hop-forward beers in much the same way oenophiles take pleasure in fruit-forward (grapey) wines. Hops are beer’s domain. Plenty of other drinks contain malt or have flavors nuanced by yeast, but only beer genuflects at the altar of hops. So it’s quite natural that the hoppiest of the hoppy—IPAs and Double or Imperial IPAs—get the shiniest pedestal.

But Justin Mann over at Justin’s Brew Review, who is a confessed IPA drinker yet has noticed a splintering in the craft beer world by some like Adrienne So who deem today’s craft beers “just way too hoppy,” asks for the July installment of The Session and in his best Jerry Seinfeld blog-voice, What’s the big deal with IPAs?

It’s a subject I’ve spent time thinking, discussing, and writing about, most recently over at The New School wherein I facetiously proclaim IPA is Dead.

Obviously, it’s anything but. In fact, here in hop heaven Oregon, the IPA category accounts for 25.2% of the Oregon beer market. More than 1 out of every 4 beers bought and drank in the Beaver State—total, not just among craft beers—is an India Pale Ale. Nationally, at the GABF, American IPA has been the most-entered category for a dozen years. No. 2? Imperial IPA. 4th? American-style Strong Pale Ale, which is scarcely different that IPA. And rounding out the top 5 is American-style Pale Ale, which, let’s admit it, is still more IPAesque than a British IPA.

Clearly, the IPA category is the behemoth of the craft beer industry, and is only picking up speed. Just as the three rules of real estate are location, location, location, it’s fair to say the three rules of craft beer are IPA, IPA, and IPA. For the sake of variety, maybe you could say IPA, Double IPA, and Imperial IPA. See, drinkers are hop-silly for IPA and as such, brewers make more and more of them. Maybe it’s due to the blessings of living in Beervana, but it’s not uncommon to enter a brewpub that has multiple iterations on tap, or walk into a beer bar and find out that it’s IPA tap takeover week where well over a dozen handles are devoted to IPAs. For serious.

To hop breeders, this is music to their beers. Despite dozens of existing magnificent flowers on the market ranging from classics such as Goldings, Saaz, and Cascade along with fresh new aromatic faces including Citra, Mosaic, and perhaps my favorite Simcoe, dozens if not hundreds more will become available and the result will be that hop-forward beers like IPAs will remain fresh. God bless all the single-hoppped IPAs that allow brewers to showcase the breeders' work and give consumers the chance to drink something educational and, ideally, tasty.

On the flip side, I wonder if the oft-hybridized style won’t sound its own death knell if too many producers obfuscate what IPA even means. I’m sure the BIPA (Bacon IPA) is in someone’s fermenter as we speak. But between that other BIPA (Black IPA) and White IPA and Smoked IPA and Coffee IPA and Apricot IPA and...it’s safe to say India Pale Ales can get out of hand.

But that’s to be determined in the future. In the now, IPA dominates the better beer biosphere. Every style says something different, be it stouts, saisons, or sour ales. (Stouts say “chocolate or coffee in beer is awesome.” Saisons say “sophistication.” Sours say “extreme in the way IPAs were years ago.”) And then there’s Pilsners, which say “easy-drinking refreshment.” Of course, Pilsner is also rapidly becoming the anti-IPA and I think its current surge in popularity (among craft brewers, not among global industrial breweries, mind you) is due both to newcomers to the craft beer table as well as wizened IPA drinkers who are ready to mellow out on over-hopped beers. But for now, and likely forever, IPAs say “hops! Because a world full of hopheads who love the citrusy, piney, fruity, earthy, resinous, and herbaceous flavors and aromas that are made possible through Humulus lupulus can’t be wrong.”