IPA is doomed (well, sort of)

It may have crushed all comers in the past few years, but its dominance of beer growth can’t last forever.   Structural weakness means IPA is doomed.  Well, sort of.

IPA is doomed

A pint of Breakside Brewery’s Wanderlust, one of the best IPAs in the world

Sorry about the clickbaity-lookin’ post.  But an IPA piece has been brewing in the mash tun of my mind for a while.  This is how it came out.

(Yeah, okay, brewing doesn’t technically occur in the mash tun, but “brew kettle of my mind” doesn’t have much of a ring to it.)

I’ve really been going for IPAs lately.  Like, over the last few years, a lot.  It’s usually my first choice, and when I “feel like a beer” I find myself pining for that super-charged American hop taste (pun intended) that only IPA can deliver.  But the gnawing addiction to lupulin that comes with a little too much IPA brings with it a few problems.  The more I get into IPA, the more I feel like I’m chasing the dragon, and, weirdly, the less satisfying they have become.

Lew Bryson sounded the horn a few weeks ago with this excellent piece bemoaning the hegemony of hoppy ale. In response, Jeff Alworth penned a trio of posts, which, in Jeff’s laconically incisive style, actually got me thinking even more critically about IPA.  Especially about where my near-daily jonesing for dank hopiness might be leading.

I started to look at IPA as a bit of a tease.  And I got to thinking that if IPA is teasing me, maybe it’s teasing the whole market.  Is IPA the future of beer, or a distracting side show in the grand scheme of things?

To top it off, we’re just weeks away from Josh Bernstein’s upcoming and definitive book about the style (if you’re in NYC on 9/20 you should absolutely head to Brooklyn Brewery for the launch party – Josh is a stellar guy, a very fine writer and Brooklyn serves some pretty bad-assed beer), so what the hey.

Here, then, are five reasons I think IPA is staring down the barrel of oblivion. (Or, at least, no longer being the fastest growing beer style in the world.)

Freedom from hop-hankering hell may be in sight my fellow IPAddicts!

(If you read on I must warn you about several amateur attempts to photograph good looking pints on an iPhone and a ton of subjective opinion backed up by minimal research and no meaningful data. This is train-of-thought stuff.)

Let's start off with what King Henry VIII called a "wicked and pernicious weed" - the devious hop, or Humulus lupulus to use her alter ego

What King Henry VIII called a “wicked and pernicious weed” – the devious hop, or Humulus lupulus to use her sinister-sounding alter ego

IPAs are faddish, and fads fade

IPA has gone from zero to hero in the past 10 years.  The style has been gangbusters in the past five or six, to the extent that  IPA has even been heralded as the worthy successor to the mighty Pilsner.  As the Brewers Association wrote last year, the answer to the question, “What’s the next IPA?” is IPA.

But claims IPA will outshine Pilsner remind me of Liam Gallagher saying Oasis would be bigger than the Beatles.  Of course he said this when Oasis were in their pompous prime, but how foolish he seems with hindsight.

Trends come and go, and there’s just no accounting for a sudden sea-change in taste.  Take, for example, the case of poor old Porter.  When London brewers figured out that barrel-aging their dark, smoky ales smoothed them out they set the stage for Porters to explode.  (I may have chosen a bad verb there, given what happened in 1814.) Porter – rich, dark and alcoholic – was by far the most popular beer style in the world during the 1800s.  Who would have foreseen that a combination of German and Czech brewing ingenuity would turn the world’s palate toward light, crisp lagers with the invention of Pilsner?

IPAs have dominated the conversation in the craft world lately, and maybe bullied other styles out of the spotlight.  But as frustrated brewers name IPAs Hopligation, Superf*kingyawnInsert [Hop Pun] Here and the like, perhaps the seeds of rebellion are subtly being sown.

All right, I said no data, but maybe just this one chart. Courtesy of www.brewersassociation.org

All right, I said no data, but maybe just this one chart. Courtesy of www.brewersassociation.org

Ironically, IPAs no longer travel

The true story of IPA may be a little more complex than the popular urban myth, but the essence is the same.  British brewers were sending lighter ales off to far-flung colonies (like India and West India, aka the Caribbean) and they weren’t arriving in very good shape, especially if they were sailed over the equator.  So they added a load more hops, and found this retarded the beer’s spoilage – they made a pale ale for India.  IPA was designed to age gracefully, starting life in the brewery as an aggressively bitter, pungent beer and reaching its destination in a mellow state of soft drinkability.

However, these days IPA packaging screams, “Drink fresh! Keep Chilled!”.  The modern IPA is so loaded with delicate hop oils it can barely go a few weeks without losing its complex, dank, citrussy aroma – maybe less if it’s a real hop bomb. (Last year I snared a fresh four pack of Heady Topper and drank a can every weekend for four weeks.  There was a marked, super noticeable drop off in aroma and impact with each one.)

Once you get attuned not only to how lip-smackingly tasty fresh IPA is, but also to how flaccidly disappointing old IPA can be, you become the Marie-Antoinette of beer snobs.  I now routinely check bottled-on dates before buying a sixer of IPA, and discard anything more than five weeks old.  I live in Southern California – the home of bracingly piney Cascade, Citra and Simcoe monsters – and I ain’t gonna tolerate subpar IPA when there’s so much fresh hoppy goodness out there.

It’s a remarkable irony that the style created to help British beer conquer the world is perhaps the Achilles heel of any ambition American beer has to travel overseas.  I mean, will West Coast IPAs shipped to craft-hungry Australia arrive “as the brewer intended” after a three-month confinement in a cargo ship?

Ew, gross...

Ew, gross…

Old IPA is gross

I recently had an outstandingly bad experience at Ballast Point, drinking old Sculpin, that still makes me shudder.  The thing is, when the distinctive aroma and bitter bite ebb out of an IPA, they don’t leave behind a perfectly acceptable pale ale.  What’s left is a drab, metallic-tasting mess.

If you drink an old-ish but well structured, not-outrageous IPA, like Stone’s IPA or Green Flash’s West Coast IPA, you’ll find a strong enough malt base and enough well-isomerized alpha acids that it won’t be horrible.  How old is old-ish?  Well, to quote Mitch Steele, one of the foremost IPA brewers on this planet:

“Many assign 6 month to one year code dates on their beers… [but] I can tell you, beer with any hop character is going to lose the hops within a couple of months, and will be harsh, grainy and undrinkable very soon after that.”

That’s only the robust, old-skool ones that have the temerity to claim a six month shelf life.

As Jeff Alworth explores here, the classic, bitter, malty IPA is being overtaken by highly aromatic, “juicy” IPAs that have less body, less baked-in alpha acid bitterness, and way more unstable hop oil.  These beers, like my pint of Sculpin, taste pretty freaking disgusting when they oxidize.  A sip will fill your mouth and nose with wet cardboard, rough grains, a tang like rusted iron and even, if the hops were a bit iffy, the cheesy-foot flavor of isovaleric acid.

Mmmmm, dee-lishus.

Why is this bad for IPA “the brand”?  Because millions of curious craft newbies will not venture to a local brewery to try their first sip of IPA but will instead pick up a pack from a liquor store.  A store that is over-run with an onslaught of fancy new beers, has been asked to carry way too much inventory, and has been keeping its excess stock at room temperature for months.

If many people’s first taste of IPA is gag-reflex-bad, word on Main Street will soon be that IPAs taste like that puddle of water that somehow collects under every dumpster.

(Not that I actually know how that tastes.)

Troegs Nimble Giant

Okay, I’m kinda proud of this pic. It’s a little rough ‘cos I edited it on my phone, but THAT is a pool beer.

IPA is hard to make (and even harder to make profitable) at scale

If you read Oregon State University Professor of Economics Patrick Emerson’s musings on beer – and you should – you will be familiar with the concept of economy of scale and how it applies to beer.  If not, it goes like this: breweries don’t make much if any profit until they can churn beer out cheaply, at scale.  The only way some tiny breweries make profits is by charging astronomical prices for their product; but most breweries out there are operating at a loss because they’re hoping to get big, and their investors are keeping them afloat until they do.

IPA is not the ticket to scale brewing and a lifetime of profits, because it costs an incredible amount to make.  The processes and techniques brewers now use to create ever-more-pungent IPAs are very labor-intensive, use a boat-load of hops (some brewers now boast of using five or more pounds of hops per barrel) and have the potential to jam up tanks and pipes.  A brewery has to charge north of $10 a six pack to make the kind of margins on IPA that they could on cheaper styles.  For the hop-head beer geek, that’s an affordable luxury.  For Johnny Miller Time, it’s just not an option.

Would you want to sell a group of rational, cold-blooded investors on a beer that costs more, is harder to make and has a shorter life than pretty much anything else on the market?  Objectively, it doesn’t hang together very well.  There’s a reason the global juggernauts of beer grew to behemoth status brewing light lager.

Which brings me nicely to my fifth and final argument…

Bissell Bros

Bissell Bros of Portland, Maine don’t mess around when it comes to IPA. Their flagship, The Substance, is on the right.

Other styles make so much more sense

Have you tried Allagash White or Avery’s White Rascal fresh?  By the gods, they’re gorgeous.  How about after a few months?  Yup, still lovely.  They’re bottled conditioned, you see, and rely on the cheapest of all ingredients – yeast by-products – for their complexity.  And if Blue Moon is anything to go by, there’s a market for them.

So how about a super-malty Doppelbock or Stout that has made a lengthy journey to American shores?  Or a year-old Lambic; or Trappist Trippel, or even a gose or delicate-seeming Berlinner Weisse?  Okay, you get my point.  Almost all other styles can cope with age better than IPAs can.  Some even improve.  (Yeah, yeah, including some so-called Imperial IPAs like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute, but that’s a different ball game.)

Most are cheaper to make into the bargain.  Obviously, despite the time needed to lager them, this includes Pilsners and light lagers.  But even nuanced, complex kettle sours and the currently trendy “craft Pilsner” are ounce-for-ounce significantly cheaper to brew.

In fact, only wood-aged and carefully blended beers are more expensive than IPA to make, and if you can make them at reasonable scale (like a Rodenbach or a Goose Island can) they can compete with many IPAs at retail.  They age forever, too, at room temperature, and have the potential to be shipped abroad.  From every angle, they are a better proposition, especially to the distribution and retail tiers of the industry.

(Who, take it from me, hate the complexity of storing and selling IPAs. “I need to build a 10,000 square foot fridge to keep your beer?  Awesome.”)

From every angle, that is, bar one: not being IPA.  (Go back to my first point.)

Can you see me now? Green Flash Jibe IPA at the brewery in San Diego, where they like 'em clear.

Can you see me now? Green Flash Jibe IPA at the brewery in San Diego, where they like ’em clear.

So what’s the future for IPA?

All right, IPA is not “doomed”.  Sue me for an intentionally contentious title.  But it cannot, in my view, keep growing like a weed.  Hordes of beer drinkers have developed a hankering addiction to beer that smells like hash, but that phenomenon is the only fuel for IPA’s fire.

If the demand of those hordes so much as slows – let alone collapses – it will cause serious problems for the entire industry.  If the folks who manage Walmart, Kroger and their ilk find out they have millions of shelf feet groaning under the weight of unsellable, short-dated beer they will not be happy.  IPA will become a three letter curse word in no time.

I love IPA.  I think it has a very rosy future as a beer drunk fresh from the brewery, or on a hyper-local scale.  I just don’t think it’s going to be the style that helps American craft brewers conquer the world, certainly not in the way Porter and Pilsner have done in the past.  If you’re reading this and you work at Stone, Lagunitas or Ballast Point, I counsel you to double-down on that barrel program and the Pivo Pils copycat you’re probably working on.

And if you’re knee-deep in a plan to open an IPA-focused brewery of your own…well, good luck to you.  Just maybe hold off on the down payment for that Lambo for a while.

Swamis

One of the places this madness all began. A pint of Swami’s IPA at Pizza Port, Solana Beach CA.

5 Comments on IPA is doomed (well, sort of)

  1. Three random comments spring to mind, some of which may be self-contradictory.

    1. If IPA has a run like porter did, there’s a bit more gas in the tank. Depending on how you define the style, porters were the world’s dominant beer style for nearly two centuries–a decent run, as fads go. Pilsners have been king for a century. I am not entirely convinced that dominant international styles should be described as fads. (I’m also not entirely convinced IPA is ever going to be a dominant international style, though it’s not entirely implausible.)

    2. Your freshness point is very well taken. This is the biggest challenge confronting IPA, but not an insurmountable one. Breweries will become adept at making IPAs that survive for 90 days fairly well intact. They may do this the way Goose Island has, by dialing back a lot of the evanescent qualities and selling at a value price point. Or they may do it the way I described Breakside’s approach, which is to engineer beers that may not have 100% possible juiciness at birth, but which can sustain something like 50% potential juiciness through 90 days.

    3. I’m reminded of my glorious week plus in Bavaria, when I made it a point of trying as many helleses as I could. Helles is the most popular style in Bavaria, and yet there is no dominant brand. People tend to drink helles locally, at the corner bier hall. We tend to imagine the future by constructing a model based on the past, and there’s nothing that would prepare us for a Bavaria-style pattern of consumption. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if IPAs continued to be wildly popular, and customers grew to realize that the very best ones–like English cask ale–have to be bought locally. You may grab a sixer of Torpedo for the fridge, but you’ll still be buying a lot of Breakside pints, too.

    The reason I resist the IPA-as-fad prediction is because the approach to making an IPA has become too firmly established by brewers and too big an expectation by drinkers. There does appear to be an American tradition now, and those are far more durable than any given style.

    • Three good points sir.

      Agree that “imminent demise” of IPA is extraordinarily unlikely. But I do, firmly, believe the kind of IPAs that are all the rage nowadays are inherently flawed for mass-market logistics and sales. Porters and Pilsners lasted centuries, but A) things move way faster these days, and trends come and go in a heartbeat (for example, will any musical act ever again sustain the kind of 10+ album success runs that the big bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s did?) and B) both those styles are robust and can last well. And by well, I’m thinking a 9-12 month shelf life. There’s no IPA in the world that can make a credible claim to taste as good after 12 months as it did after 2 weeks.

      And I think the German model (or indeed the British cask ale one) could be where we end up. Local beers, made fresh, in small batches.

      (Didn’t a wise man once say drink well, drink local and drink on draft…?)

  2. That rings a bell!

  3. What a great article! Really enjoyed reading it (just like all your others).
    I will still love IPA forever, but if someone can figure out how to make the awesome flavor of it last longer, I would love it even more.

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