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What Is the IPA in 2014? Where Is It Headed?

Consider the India Pale Ale, a generously hopped beer fermented at warmer temperatures that originated in England and became popular by the middle of the nineteenth century.

At some point in the last decade or so, hops became synonymous with "flavor," thus they, and interestingly, not malt, are the main way that craft beer differentiates itself from macro brewers. Many people who can now rattle off several hop varieties would be hard-pressed to do the same for barley.

“Right now, IPA has become a sub-industry in itself,” according to Jim Koch, president and founder of Samuel Adams. As of last year, IPA was by far the most popular style of beer made by craft breweries, according to the Brewers Association. With over 250 entries, American-style IPA was the most-entered category at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, and IPAs were the fastest-growing category for off-premise sales for craft brewers in both 2012 and 2013. Oh, and the second most-entered category at GABF? Imperial IPA, with 149 entries.

And yet, what is the IPA in 2014? We are now at the point that when someone describes an IPA, the two modifiers "India" and "pale" are not enough. In fact, they may even be misleading. IPA is now a marketing term that means "hops," and so when inquiring about this style it is now necessary to ask "what kind" of IPA one is getting. From California to Vermont, breweries that once put multiple styles in variety packs are doing the same with IPAs. A 12-pack box now contains some American-style, some white, some black, some session-y, some brewed with Belgian yeast strains, and more.

Two breweries known for hops can barely keep up with demand. Witness Vermont’s The Alchemist, which had to rework how its beer is distributed and sold because of the appeal of Heady Topper. On the other coast, Russian River ran out of bottled beer earlier last summer.

"When a consumer sees IPA, they know it means hoppy…. It’s easier to communicate. IPA has replaced hoppy as a descriptor,” says Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing. "If you are going to have a hop-forward beer and you want to let people know about it, you have to put IPA on the label,” notes Matt Brophy of Flying Dog, who recently rechristened their Double Dog Double Pale Ale to an imperial IPA. (Both quotes as reported by Brewbound.)

On the television show Mad Men, advertising executive Don Draper suggests that Lucky Strike sell cigarettes with the tag line "It's toasted!," knowing full well that all tobacco in cigarettes is toasted. Last year, Stone did something very similar with freshness, turning the name of a series of IPAs into their "drink by" dates. Other breweries are relabeling existing beers as IPAs, or turning them into doubles. The following is a non-exhaustive look at where IPA is and where it’s headed.

The ABV

In 2013, Flying Dog rebranded their Double Dog Double Pale Ale to a double IPA. Similarly, Stone took Ruination from an American IPA to a double by boosting the gravity. The uptick in alcohol by volume pushed the beer from an American IPA to an Imperial, according to Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines.

Just south of Stone, Green Flash amped up their West Coast IPA and Hop Head Red. Both are now double IPAs.

On the other hand, breweries are also pushing the ABV down, creating session IPAs, or as they were called for decades, bitters. These, too, are all the rage in craft beer.

Founders All Day IPA now makes up almost thirty percent of their output, but perhaps the most extreme example is Evil Twin’s Bikini Beer, essentially a lite beer that’s been dry hopped to the point where one cannot tell what’s more unbalanced, a double IPA or a session one. Now if you want balance in an IPA, you often need to look at red, white, and black…

The Colors

The misnomered black IPA has been with us for some time, and now it is joined by two additional colors, red and white. Founder's Red Rye IPA and Lagunitas Lucky 13 are early examples, and the combination of "red" and "IPA" has spread. Odell Red Ale is now Red Runoff IPA. Sierra Nevada boasts Flipside Red IPA, while Samuel Adams offers a Tasmanian Red IPA. One enterprising brewery relabeled an ESB a Red IPA.

Hoppy wheat beers, like Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin Sumpin, and 3 Floyds Gumball Head? They could be called white IPAs soon, too, joining Deschutes Chainbreaker, Boulevard Reboot White IPA and locally, 3 Stars Samsquanch.

Dogfish Head has made an Indian Brown Ale for over a decade now, and it seems they were ahead of the curve. Harpoon has a brown IPA, and Lagunitas’ Wilco Tango Foxtrot fits comfortably in this category, too.

The best colored IPA yet? Pink:

The Regions

A decade ago Harpoon’s IPA was one of the hallmarks of the style in the United States. A few years ago, it would have been considered obscenely hoppy in the United Kingdom. Now, Harpoon’s flagship is a “New England-style IPA,” which, at the time, seemed like the East Coast’s more balanced offerings ceding the style to the West. “Twenty years later, the forest has grown up around us…. It’s… really important now to start allowing people to know why one IPA might be different than another,” according to brewery co-founder Rich Doyle.

Yet cult favorites out of Vermont, like Lawson’s, Hill Farmstead, and The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, are spearheading an East Coast revival. Other IPAs, like Maine Brewing Company’s Lunch, and DIPAs like New England’s Gandhi Bot, and DC Brau’s On the Wings of Armageddon are redfining what it means to be an an IPA in the Eastern time zone.

“While these beers can be as bitter as their counterparts out west, they're generally less so, focusing on aromatics and perceived bitterness rather than actual pucker-factor. These brews are heavily dry-hopped and lighter on the palate, forgoing malt sweetness for levity in the quest for balance,” writes The Boston Globe’s Gary Dzen.

One factor Dzen leaves out is the water, in particular the kind used by the Vermont IPAs, that contributes a softness on the palate and supports the floral, stone fruit flavors of the hops. On the issue of balance, DCBeer contributor Matt Humbard notes:

But before we declare what we once knew as East Coast IPA dead, consider that Dogfish 60 Minute remains the same, as does Loose Cannon from Heavy Seas, Fordham Rams Head, and a bevy of others.

The Lager?

As long as there have been lagers, there have been hoppy lagers. Coney Island’s Sword Swallower and Victory's Prima Pils are the New World templates, both labeled Pilsner-style beers. However, India Pale Lagers are being made on both coasts. Green Flash and Devils Backbone collaborated on this style, calling it East West, and Founders, Jack’s Abbey, and locally, Atlas Brewing Company, offer double or imperial IPLs.

The Future

Here are some of predictions:

  • "Harvest IPA" is going to replace "Harvest Ale". There are already some breweries doing this, but since the harvest refers to hops, look for more.

  • Hop shortages, and they’re coming, will lead to Spiced IPAs: As securing hop contracts becomes harder due to new breweries and increased demand from existing ones (because as seen above, IPAs sell), adjuncts will take the place of some of the hop bill. See, in part, Lost Rhino's Hop Star, brewed with mango and Stone’s Stochasticity Project Grapefruit Slam IPA.
     
  • More “it” hops. Craft beer’s current infatuation with Galaxy, Mosaic, and Azacca, among other varieties, isn’t just because of flavor; it’s because of economics. Related to the above shortages, the hops that are available for purchase with what brewers deem good quality for the price without needing a hop contract are those that we’ll see on the shelves in 2015 and beyond. In addition, the use of experimental hops, often named nothing more than a row number, will increase as brewers seek a work-around.
     
  • DIY. Another response to hop shortages are to grow your own. West Coast stalwarts Rogue and Sierra Nevada have expanded their in-house operations, and locally Flying Dog, Burley Oak, and Stillpoint Farm are experimenting with this option. Test trialing both locally grown and experimental hops will result in many limited-release IPAs over the next few years.
  • Forage for them. Neomexicanus, a hop indigenous to the American southwest showed up twice at this year’s SAVOR, once in a salon thanks to Schlafly, the other at Crazy Mountain Brewing’s table. As this wild hop becomes domesticated, we’ll see more of it, and maybe brewers will use more once-dismissed  or unused varieties
  • Macro IPA will happen. It might be a Leinenkugels' or Shock Top, but macro IPA is coming, and it will do for this style (or styles, as demonstrated above), what Blue Moon and Shock Top have done for witbier.
     
  • A beer that is currently known as a pilsner-style lager will become an IPL. I have no idea whose, but it will happen. Anyone want to predict a brewery that will make the leap? Offer your other suggestions and predictions below.

So ultimately, what is IPA in 2014? It depends on who you ask and who is brewing it. Ultimately, IPA is selling, and brewers will find new combinations and permutations to wiggle those three letters into their portfolios.

 

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