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.
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.