The craft beer market has evolved quite a bit in the past decade but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Year after year, IPA (or India Pale Ale to the more formally minded) ranks as the, hands-down, most popular beer style.
But has its popularity gone to its head (pun intended)? To call IPAs ubiquitous would be a significant understatement.
Naturally, you’ve got to give guests what they want, and consumers certainly are mad for IPAs. Sometimes, though, it could be at the expense of other styles—especially when there’s a limited number of draft lines. It’s not uncommon for IPAs to occupy eight or nine of an establishment’s 12 taps. And that could be turning away variety seekers (or people who just aren’t that crazy about hoppy beers).
“So much has changed in the landscape recently,” observes Greg Engert, beer director and managing partner at Washington, D.C.–based Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose locations include ChurchKey, Birch & Barley, and the Belgian gastropub, Sovereign. “Fifteen years ago when I got into craft beer, flavor variety was much more in vogue. … In those days people would shift around more—they were seeking out new beers by shifting styles.”
One night, they might be having a hop-forward brew like an IPA, but the next they’d be drinking a roasty porter or a rich, caramel-like doppelbock.
“Now it seems like people want to stay within a style and flavor profile and shift within that,” Engert notes. He tries to provide as much balance and variety as possible across the 15-plus restaurants and pubs in Neighborhood’s portfolio. ChurchKey boasts 50 taps and around 500 bottles, so there’s quite a lot of opportunity for variety.
“I can have eight to a dozen hoppy beers on and still make sure to have plenty of room for stouts, porters, lagers, malty beers—things like that,” Engert notes. “When you get these 12-draft-line places or eight-draft-line places, it’s difficult to make a case for having a doppelbock on draft when people are looking for hoppy beer.”
To be fair, IPAs have evolved quite a bit in recent years, splintering to the point that it’s not really a unified style anymore.
“There’s basically a new kind of IPA every week,” says Courtney Strange, beer broker for Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden in Austin, Texas—the Lone Star State capital’s much-revered nirvana for lovers of good brews and encased meats.
Craft beer drinkers have become better versed in hop varieties, and many brewers have been experimenting with single-hop versions, those made with a particular variety of hop to showcase its nuances.
Double (and triple) IPAs, hazy “New England–style” IPA (a trend whose origins are credited to Heady Topper from Vermont’s the Alchemist), fruit IPA, wet-hopped IPA, black IPA, and the low-ABV “session IPA” (like Founders All Day IPA, Oskar Blues Pinner Throwback IPA and Firestone Walker’s Easy Jack) are just a few of the substyles that have emerged in the past handful of years.
At any given time, 15 of Banger’s 95 taps are pouring IPAs. Seven or eight of its taps designated for rotating selections—about twice as many as other rotating categories.
Many non-IPA beers tend not to benefit from the same stylistic flexibility that those under the hop-centric IPA umbrella do.
“A bit of the allure of IPA right now is that it’s such a broad category in terms of flavor profile,” notes Matt Sisk, owner/operator of the Lost Dog Café in Alexandria, Virginia, one of six locations of the Northern Virginia “gourmet pizza deli,” known not just for its eclectic pizzas and sandwiches, but also for its frequent brewery tap takeovers.
For instance, sometimes drinkers gravitate toward the citrusy characteristics of some hop varietals, or the piney, resiny qualities of others. Some like their IPAs “juicier,” while others prefer them with a more intense bitter bite. The range of flavor notes and aromas isn’t quite so wide within non-IPA-style families.
“When talking about pilsner, you’ve got German and so-called American-style. While there are different flavors for every brewery, they’re still very strict styles,” Sisk says. “If it’s significantly off from what it’s supposed to taste like, well, it’s not a pilsner—where the reverse is true for IPA.”
However, some argue that there’s a fine line between IPA being a “big tent” category, with a lot of intrastyle diversity, and just a convenient label whose definition constantly is being stretched for its marketing value. Sisk is not the biggest fan of the “session IPA” concept in particular.
“I personally hate that marketing line,” he acknowledges. “A lot of the session IPAs would have been called ‘pale ales’ before, but with such a marketing and sales emphasis on IPA, [brewers are saying] ‘we’re going to brew a pale ale and call it a session IPA’ because that’s what’ll work on the sales front.”
Despite that relatively minor criticism, Sisk doesn’t believe the market is anywhere close to reaching “peak IPA.”
“I personally don’t think we’re there,” he says. “And we’re not at ‘peak craft breweries’—people open up new ones day after day, and 90 percent of those breweries offer at least one IPA.”
And the market demands what the market demands. “With all the time and money that people spend on it,” Strange contends, “I think it’s deserving of a lot of the hype.”
That, Sisk cautions, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same old, same old.
“We’re definitely past the point where [a brewer] can get away with making just any IPA,” he notes. “You have to make a good one. But what a good IPA is in terms of quality versus flavor profiles is so different now than it was five, 10 years ago.”
While we may not be approaching IPA oversaturation, there is a risk of the flavor pendulum swinging back toward homogeneity. Just a couple of decades ago, consumers didn’t have much choice; there essentially was one type of beer, the macro, quasi-pilsner-style lager. The craft brewing movement emerged as a sort of protest against such commoditization, introducing American consumers to international styles that most U.S. drinkers had never encountered.
“The whole reason for this was the demand for alternative flavors and really giving attention to the flavor possibilities of beer that had been available throughout the world, but not in America,” Engert asserts. “Bars and restaurants had five or six variations on macro-American lagers, which were replaced with IPAs, porters, stouts, and barley wines. Now they’re replacing all those flavor differentials again with variations on an American-style beer.”
That’s also been an unintended consequence of the “buy local” movement, Engert adds. Restaurants like to tout their selection of beers from local brewers, but often they’re just selecting the best-selling beer from each hometown or home-state brewery and putting that on draft. And, more often than not, that best-seller is—you guessed it—an IPA.
One of the biggest downsides to that, Engert worries, is all of the lost food-pairing opportunities. “Imagine going in a place that only serves wine,” he says, “and they only have white wine.”