How IPAs Conquered America

Type in #IPAday on Twitter and you'll find scads of tweets.  This is the second year Ashley has promoted the idea through social media--though goosing a meme seems to be the end itself.  But nevermind, let's use the occasion to think a little about IPAs.

In the world of craft beer--the world beyond light lagers--IPA is king.  There may be slight regional variation; IPAs have definitely conquered the West Coast and with over 3000 examples listed on BeerAdvocate, it's the most popular style brewed in the world.  Ranger and Torpedo are spreading like wildfire, and tentpole brands like Harpoon and Bell's have been converting locals across the country. 

For long-time watchers of craft beer, styles have come and gone.  Hefeweizens were king for a time, ambers and browns had their moment, and pale ales have had the most enduring popularity of any craft style.  But all of those have waned.  IPAs started getting popular in the mid-1990s and they've only picked up strength.  I have waited and waited to see a plateau, but we're still climbing.  Oregon presents a pretty stark case.  Not only is it commercial suicide to skip the IPA (breweries like Pfriem and Solera, keen on making Belgian-inflected lineups, brew IPAs), many breweries have two or three. 

From time to time you hear someone make an argument that the latest darling of craft brewers is "the new IPA."   Sour ales and saisons leap to mind.  Indeed, for years I was one of the people who wondered what the next great thing would be.  Time to quit thinking like that.  The next great thing will be an IPA.  And the great thing after that.

Americans are in their fourth decade of experimental brewing.  Every extant style of beer in the world is brewed in the United States.  When you're brewing small amounts for customers who are also in experimental modes of drinking (a decent definition of a beer geek), you can roll out kvass and gose.  If you look at the long history of beer, this is totally anomalous--different styles are favored by different people one country or even city to the next.  Styles change, but slowly.

And true to form, as the market matures and regular American drinkers begin to locate joy in robust beers, they are settling on a style.  Although I'm a beer nerd, most of my friends and acquaintances are not.  I spend far more time talking to non-beer people than beer people.  Of those who have come over to good beer, the vast majority like IPA.  They don't really know what it is or which brands they like--to them it's akin to Earl Gray tea, a type.

When you go to London, you have a pint of cask bitter.*  When you go to Koln, a Kolsch.  It used to be that walking into a good beer bar in the US would leave a drinker bewildered by variety.  But no more.  There's always at least one reliable pick on the board--an IPA.  And this cycle will reinforce itself, as more people find IPAs at their local pubs, more people will drink IPAs, and they in turn will look for yet more IPAs.  In the good beer world, at least, IPAs have won the game, set and match.  We are an IPA country now, like it or not.

(I mostly do.)