From There to Here: The Evolution of American IPA

IPAs have won. They've conquered not only the United States, but are beginning to encroach on major cities across Europe and Latin America. Asia is not far behind. If you require proof, how about these two news items that landed in my inbox yesterday: (1) The Bruery, that Belgian-inspired barrel-aging stalwart from Southern California, is releasing a new line of beer composed entirely of IPAs, and (2) The Commons, who has made farmhouse beers the quintessence of their approach, are releasing, with apparent sheepishness, Pay No Attention to this IPA. Both breweries were founded on a vision of offering an alternative to hops--at various points, formally or informally, both have said they'd never brew an IPA--so consider my case rested.

It was far from obvious, even as recently as the turn of the century, that this was our final destination. Craft breweries had been around twenty years before IPAs even became common, and it took another ten for these to develop into their current form. Except for small variations, however (hazier or brighter, sweeter or drier), IPAs have become a distinct, coherent style. They all feature the intense flavors and aromas of American hops, whether they're straw-colored or ruby, 4.5% or 9%, bitter or sweetish, caramelly, hazy, or fruited.

In retrospect, the line of causality is pretty obvious. It starts in the fields of Washington and Oregon, where the hops ripen into little grenades of explosive flavor. Brewers took their time discovering how to work with their potency, but once they began to unlock the terpenes, thiols, acids, and oils, they were able to create these intoxicating, perfumy potions that we all know and love.

Photo credit Adam Barhan

But here's a question a listener to the Beervana Podcast posed, and one we mean to tackle as the subject of a future episode: which landmark beers were instrumental in pushing the style along until it finally found itself in its final state?

(One challenge to this question is that there's not a single, national lineage to point to. Instead, certain beers had outsize influence in different regions. Here in Portland, BridgePort's IPA (1996) was a groundbreaking beer that put us far ahead of most other regions. It was at least a decade ahead of its time and still looks remarkably contemporary, showcasing huge aroma and a saturated hop flavor, but with only 50 IBUs and just 5.5% ABV. Many breweries spent the next decade making punishing titans of booze and bitterness before they found their way back to the contours of this beer. The effect BridgePort IPA had in states east of the Rockies? Zero. Similarly, East Coasters almost uniformly finger the Alchemist's Heady Topper as the watershed IPA, though basically no one from the west had ever tasted it. Region to region, different beers had outsized influence, but they were all headed in the same direction.)

So tell me, what were the most important and influential American IPAs?

I'd love your thoughts--if this blog has demonstrated anything, it's that hive mind is smarter than Jeff's mind. To get the ball rolling, I'm going to toss out some beers I think you have to include in that "pushed things forward" category. What am I missing? What would you add or subtract? In rare cases, a beer's appearance on list will be self-evident, but in most cases, you need to explain what its causal influence was. Without further ado, here's my list, with a focus on beers that had a more regional or national effect.

  • Sierra Nevada Celebration. It's hard to believe that this beer was brewed in 1981, because it has much of the character we consider "modern." For any brewer on the West Coast in the 80s and 90s, it remained a constant touchstone as they experimented with assertively hoppy ales.
  • Stone Arrogant Bastard. Craft brewing was having an identity crisis when Stone hit the scene in 1996. A big part of the industry was devoted to the devolution of beer toward what we'd now call flavored malt beverages. In the mid-1990s, IPAs emerged as a kind of punk-rock reclamation. They were loud, unpolished, and often unlovely. Stone might have called Arrogant Bastard "Punisher," and basically advertised it that way: "This is an aggressive beer. You probably won't like it." It attracted a certain drinker to danger of lupulin.
  • Russian River Blind Pig/Pliny the Elder. Blind Pig was something like an elegant version of Arrogant Bastard. It marks the pinnacle of the "bitter IPA" period, which sunsetted a few years after it was released in 2005. Pliny the Elder may be more important, because it indicates the direction things were headed. Pliny takes the mild piney flavors in Pig and magnifies them to forest-like proportions.
  • Alchemist Heady Topper (et al). The modern era began with the new wave of flavor/aroma-focused IPAs, of which Heady is the most famous. Beers like Sculpin (Ballast Point, 2006), Total Domination (Ninkasi, 2007), Jai Alai (Cigar City, 2008), and Head Hunter (Fat Head's, 2009), had similar effects in their regions.

That's just four, which ought to leave you some elbow room for inserting your must-haves. I did not progress deeply into the modern era, in part because the most buzzed-about beers from our current period are made in such a way that they don't really travel--and so none are particularly influential beyond a small catchment area. (And also, beware recentitis: not every trend lasts.)