Category Archives: Industry Musings

Still Hoppy After All These Years

Part of my day job at a brewery is to give tours of our production facilities and surrounding campus. I often hear a lot of great questions from folks but one in particular kept rattling around in my head. “Why are IPAs so popular?” Given that we can’t go out and twist the arm of consumer preferences, it’s a challenging question to answer without inserting my own personal bias. Even for my own menu choices when going into a bar with multiple style options (and being a lover of every style of beer I’ve had in some way) I gravitate towards the hoppy beers. There are a lot of breweries out there making not only tasty IPAs but amazing versions of helles lager, oatmeal stouts and barrel aged sours. So why then do IPAs continue their growth in popularity?

There’s Nothing Quite Like It
Much like the potency of cilantro, the big resinous bouquet of an IPA is often polarizing, but for those of us who enjoy these characteristics it’s an olfactory experience only really available from hop-forward beers. Hops have aroma with weight. While many Belgian beers have delightful fragrance or imperial
stouts have a mighty palate presence thanks to roasted malts and often high finishing gravity, IPA has managed both pungent aroma and body while still being fairly refreshing. The ability to be both boisterous and approachable is a conundrum and one solved by IPA. What makes this characteristic even more exciting is the hops geared toward IPA are constantly evolving, meaning even the biggest hater of a polarizing herb like cilantro and a previous IPA skeptic just might just find a beer in that category they now love.

Ever Evolving
While the fundamental process of brewing is thousands of years old, the great part about styles and the individual ingredients of beer is there are always new ones developing. IPA variants such as Red IPAs, Black IPA, New England IPA, and Citrus IPA have all popped up in recent years. We’ve seen so many amazing new hop varieties come out in the last decade that have made IPA vastly more approachable to new consumers. What was known for being “piney, dank and bitter” is now more often described as “tropical, citrusy, and complex.” People are more frequently looking at how gypsum or chloride in water affects body and hop expression. Hop processing tech has removed green matter from hops and made them far more potent and less vegetal. All these reasons are why IPA continues to be “new” in the eyes of the consumer and pushes the flavor contributions for a complex product often simply dubbed “IPA.”

The Rebel With A Cause
The modern-day IPA has always been a beer that pushed limits. Whether it was the original hop-forwardness of Pale Ales starting in the ‘80’s, new hop varieties showcasing unique flavors, or the general acceptance of more bitterness over the years, IPA has always been unapologetic for what it is and honest: it’s about the hops. It has never been about the bottom line, never been about dumbing down to reach a wider audience, and despite what large breweries might tell you, it’s never been easy to make. It’s also why IPA within the “craft” category is still the largest growing segment. Smaller breweries are pushing these limits and larger breweries are struggling to figure out how to brew these hop-forward beasts on their massive systems intended for watery fizzers. In other words, it will always be owned and “Totally Dominated” to borrow the phrase, by independent craft brewers. As this industry has now reached 6,000 of these breweries and growing it’s also why IPA as a style has continued to be more popular as well.

This is by no means a plea to start drinking IPA if you don’t like them, but as I just covered, there are a lot of reasons so many of us do! As I’ve talked about previously with NE IPA, some of these beers are juicy and irresistible, so as far as I’m concerned there’s never been a better time to try an IPA than right now.

More Musings

Part of the reason for my absence in writing for awhile was because I was writing for work. A lot of the content I write about for work and here on my own site is driven by my interactions giving tours and talking with the public about beer. Someday I may seek permission to re-post these and take the time to collect more of my own photo content, but for now here’s some links to those articles.

Dissecting 3 Favorite Hop Varieties – This came about after hearing a lot of folks say that “all IPA tastes the same.” Much of my writing at work revolves around IPA and hoppy beers because that’s about 80% of what we produce, but if it weren’t apparent by my own personal writings, I friggin’ love the stuff.

Demystifying Hops and Bitterness aka “What Does Hoppy Really Mean?”  – More hop breakdown explored here. As above, these type of questions come up a lot, even more often when I’m behind the bar. It’s fun to break things down in different ways, and was cool to see how we approach answering them differently than other breweries.

Summer Drinking: How to Keep Your Beer Fresh – A positive, somewhat lighthearted look at something I’m usually swearing about – not baking your beer.

Why We Still Homebrew – This is probably a topic I’ll revisit again in way more depth on this site, but was a fun chance to get some feedback from our brewers.

 

 

 

Haze – The Final Descriptor

The “Haze Craze” has been totally upon us now for a few years. IPAs seeking out tropical aromas, low IBUs and a whole host of additions like oats and heavy hopping creating a turbulent appearance with many brewers taking it to the level of subcategories like “Milkshake IPA.” While my opinion on whether adding blueberries and lactose to a New England Style IPA is a good idea or not is irrelevant, the one big hangup I have is hearing people ask about “hazy IPAs” and thinking they’re missing the point. Haze should not be the most noteworthy aspect of this style of beer. I keep hearing stories about one local brewer who often has their amazingly aromatic, juicy IPA kegs rejected by bars because they’re “not hazy enough.” I cannot tell you how much that sentence makes me laugh out loud. But that’s where we’re at these days. So if not haze, what then should the “New England/Hazy IPA” Style be defined by?

THE FRUITS.
Peach rings. Apricot. Straight up POG juice.  And sure, while “dankness” is often achieved alongside all this, this style of beer offers insane levels of fruitiness that go unparalleled to any IPA I’ve had previously. What do we have to thank for this? Hop varieties like Mosaic, Citra and Ekuanot that explode with tropical and citrus characteristics. Southern Hemisphere hops like Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy and Motueka that showcase winey, exotic fruits with a waxy mouthfeel that doesn’t exist in our US hops. To me, the crux of where these fruit-bombs come together is in using yeasts that actually have a flavor and aroma impact. For years west coast brewers fell into line using clean, low-ester producing yeasts letting the hops shine. But given that these new hops showcase fruit, let those formerly shunned British yeasts do their thing! The fruit-forward esters are clearly playing a part in the overall olfactory experience that intermingles wonderfully with contemporary hops. And it’s not just the ingredients that make things click in NE IPA, it’s how they go in.

THE TECHNIQUE
There are a lot of common brewing practices out there with the goal in mind to make “clean, clear beer” and if we all started following them rigorously we sure as hell wouldn’t have things like New England IPA. We’d also not be experiencing the unique hop flavors and aromas they provide. So ignoring the “rules” turns out to be a great idea. Take dry-hopping for example – it’s common practice to dry hop once fermentation has slowed down significantly. Part of this is practical (nobody wants to launch expensive hops and with it the liquid right out of the blow-off tube), but the other part is the worry that vigorous fermentation is going to also blow away a lot of aroma you could have kept if you waited. While people have been studying biotransformation of hops for years, I’d only heard of it within the last couple or so and NE IPA is a wonderful style that takes advantage of the fact that yeast help turn certain hop compounds into other wonderfully aromatic ones. Something that would not-likely occur if you waited for fermentation to arrest. A focus on hop aroma and flavor in these beers means adding more hops late in the process which also promotes haze.  Knowing freshness is key often means less conditioning time and combined with less flocculant yeasts means more haze. Adding oatmeal to obtain body means more protein which means more haze (you see where I’m going with this). So by looking at aroma and flavor as the end product, you really have no choice to break the other common convention and that is clarity of the beer. So while haze is a by-product of a lot combined factors, what do I think is arguably the most important aspect of NE IPA?

THE JUICINESS.
Breweries keep adding the word “juicy” into descriptions for certain IPAs and for good reason. The plethora of fruits produced by the hops and yeast alone would probably be accurate, but when you focus on drinkability it takes the framework of IPA to another level. Lowering IBUs in a beer that has an already more approachable hop aroma character than your classic west coast IPA is a great way to introduce new comers to the style. The addition of oatmeal is helping to round out mouthfeel and fatten up lower abv beers. Throw in chloride water adjustments and suddenly you’ve got tropical, juicy goodness coming out the ears. If you want to dive deeper here, people like Scott Janish have done a much better/more intellectual job than I ever would of explaining this, but the point is we’re talking a much different water quality than the “put some gypsum in there” adjustments of typical west coast IPA. And as a result you get a beer completely unlike anything we’ve seen in a while.

Years ago while working as a full time bartender hops like Mosaic came into use and it helped open up patrons of mine who were completely anti-IPA to a whole new aroma and flavor profile in IPA. If I had styles like NE IPA then I feel like I could have converted IPA nay sayers left and right. As a twenty-something who grew up drinking grapefruity, pine resiny, cannabis-aroma laden IPAs on the west coast, I embrace the NE IPA style and what it’s helping create in new beers to its fullest. Some of my favorite beers last year were things from Great Notion, Claim 52 and luckily Trillium thanks to a tour guest at work. And while truthfully I wish people would leave the lactose and fruit out of IPA, I understand where they’re coming from in trying to create super round, fruit-forward IPA that is appealing. So though I highly encourage folks to get out there and taste the loveliness that is NE IPA, don’t forget that haze is the by-product of the juiciest IPA you may have ever had.

 

Edit – After writing this I came upon a blog from Josh Hare at Hops and Grain in Austin essentially hitting on similar thoughts. Neat that other people are thinking about this. You can read his article here

 

Anger Among the Blinded

As you may have read on the internet recently 10 Barrel Brewing of Bend, Boise and soon to be Portland, sold their brewing company to AB InBev. The gut reaction of many consumers to this kind of thing is somewhere between indifference and vitriol. Some are angry about it being conglomerated, some are worried about quality decrease, and I think many others are under the impression that AB and other breweries buying up craft brewers is a very recent thing. I think it’s important to understand just how many “indie” breweries out there have “major label” ties and that time may be healing wounds after the initial blow back, along with inevitable new growth in a market less tapped into the sources of criticism.

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The Goose Island sale was probably the most anger driven in recent years. It was sold outright to AB InBev in 2011, but nobody on social media seemed to really cry foul until they had to wait in long lines for Bourbon County Brand Stout in new distribution territory at the end of 2013! The irony here is they signed a deal back in 2006 that would have west coast distribution through the Craft Brewers Alliance (made up of Redhook, Kona and Widmer and invested in by Anheuser Busch.) and nobody majorly blew up. The Chicago Tribune wasn’t surprised when they sold in 2011 , so why were so many consumers? It certainly didn’t seem to matter to CA consumers when my former place of work held an inaugural Bourbon County night earlier this year. It was one of the busiest events we’d ever hosted.

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Just last year Boulevard Brewing of Kansas City announced it would be selling a majority share to Duvel Moortgat.  The initial online reaction was mixed, but ultimately I think the fact that Duvel Moortgat’s biggest exports (Duvel, Maredsous, La Chouffe, etc) are associated with “craft beer” and didn’t produce the hate you see with an AB InBev purchase.  A year later you haven’t seen anyone spitefully drain-pouring Saison-Brett, mostly because it’s delicious.

Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY has had major label ties since day one, but that never really gets talked about. By the time us West Coasters had regular access to their beer they had already been fully absorbed into Duvel Moortgat in 2003. And just to further play devil’s advocate, in the last year they’ve had a run of co-branded beers with tv series Game of Thrones and I haven’t heard much rumbling about that other than people clamboring for bottles before the next episode.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you already know this information and just maybe, you forgave it. Maybe you already know Magic Hat and Pyramid are under someone else’s roof.  And you also know that Shock Top and Stella Artois are AB InBev products and Blue Moon is an SAB Miller product despite the claim that it’s “Craft Beer” right on the label . A cursory #craftbeer check at sites like Instagram demonstrates that many consumers haven’t bothered to read very far. Even now I’m sometimes surprised when I realize the product I’m drinking came from somewhere I didn’t think it should (remember when Firestone Walker owned/brewed Nectar Ales or the Mission St Trader Joe’s beers?). I’m sure there are countless more investments and ownerships that are under the radar and it’s only a matter of time before the next big “scandal” hits the internet. The fact is, it’s a small group of people who vitriolically carry the flag talking about these takeovers. Perhaps they feel the rug was pulled out from underneath their idea that every brewery was started by a “scrappy young artist gone brewer”. You only need to glance at the wine industry to realize money often begets success in these areas. The rest of the consumers not “in-the-know” are going to have access to a new product in their distribution territory that is delicious and they’re not reading labels or doing research anyway! And let’s be honest, if a consumer drinks a Bud Light the money is going to AB and that’s probably all they’re going to drink anyway. If they see a brand new beer called “10 Barrel Swill” and like it, they might just look into it and discover some awesome sour beers brewed by independent brewers they didn’t know about.

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The rub of all this information is not excusing the sale of breweries to AB InBev or other larger operations. Though I think everyone is entitled to make their dollar, at the end of the day I do my best to read labels and do my research and often look elsewhere when it comes to spending money that’s just going straight to a major corporation. Drinking local is extremely important, but I refuse to fall on the sword for a terribly brewed beer. However that’s another discussion entirely. What I’m really trying to drive home here is that you might need to do more research than you think to be certain you’re drinking local and independent. On top of that a lot of independently owned breweries still have private investors and are strictly motivated by profit, or at least it would seem sometimes. We need to pull the blinders off and realize that nothing is sacred. And if all else fails, let’s take some advice from Charlie Papazian and “relax and have a homebrew”. At least we can still brew our own.