The India pale ale, or IPA, is without a doubt craft beer’s most popular style.
Identified by the signature bitterness imparted by hops, the IPA derives from the pale ale, which was hopped in the early 1800s as a means of preservation on the long voyage to India.
Though some believe the days of IPAs are over, the numbers indicate otherwise. In 2014, sales of session IPAs — that is, drinkable, low alcohol-by-volume IPAs — were up 450% over the year before. More than 100 new IPA brands were introduced to stores, and now imperial (high alcohol) IPAs are more plentiful than amber ales.
Given the IPA’s bitterness, sometimes combined with a high alcohol content, the popularity of the style is a bit surprising, but many “hop heads” are obsessed with the beer — and it’s not just about the taste.
IPAs are buzzy
The popularity of IPAs has allowed for a growing trendiness. Craft brewers are increasingly making IPAs a staple of their selection, and bars are increasingly making them a staple of their rotation.
Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver told Business Insider that bars and restaurants without IPAs would almost be at a disadvantage because so many people come in wanting them. The buzz around IPAs is so powerful that it has people calling anything with hops and a strong flavour an IPA.
“Now people are making black IPAs, which doesn’t make any sense because the ‘P’ means ‘pale,'” Oliver said. “The thing is that because people know that a lot of people like IPAs these days, putting the word ‘IPA’ on something that is not an IPA can automatically confer easier marketing.”
And it’s working, especially for those still unfamiliar with the variety of beers available in the craft world, according to Kyle Hurst, co-founder of Long Island City, New York’s Big Alice Brewing Company.
“For people new to craft beer, they start with IPAs because that’s where the buzz is,” Hurst said. “For the last three years people have been predicting that IPAs are going out and that sour beers are coming in, but that hasn’t happened yet. Every year someone predicts a new trend, but it’s always IPAs.”
Our taste buds are changing
The popularity of bitter, hoppy IPAs could be linked to a larger movement: the changing of taste buds in America.
Americans are growing increasingly fond of bitter tastes, beer included. Mitch Steele, the brewmaster of Stone Brewing Company in San Diego, gave a simple example to explain how taste buds can change.
“It’s a lot like coffee, I think,” Steele explained. “If you don’t like coffee, which most people don’t the first time they try it, you get used to it. It becomes an acquired taste, and then you start enjoying some of the bitter components and things that you find.”
Now, after all these years, people’s taste for beer has evolved.
“As people continued to drink craft beer, I think they acclimated to the point where the bitterness wasn’t a problem,” Steele continued. “And now, what I get from it, is people in the past couple of years are much more focused on the flavours in the beer as opposed to the bitterness.”
Oliver’s not entirely surprised by the popularity of IPAs, given that their flavour is one of the most prominent and identifiable.
“Since craft beer was, to some extent, a reaction to bland mass-market beer,” he said, “it’s only natural, I guess, that a very flavorful style would be one of the main things to jump out.”
There’s a machismo in drinking IPAs
“There’s a natural sense of competition” when it comes to IPAs, says beer sommelier Joanna Carpenter, “Like, how much hops can they handle?” It’s similar to the way people compete in hot wing-eating contests.
Oliver said, “Here and there you see brewers who are out there who say ‘our beer has this level of bitterness or that level of bitterness,’ and they’re using it almost as a boast.”
To Oliver, hop intensity does not equate to beer quality, noting that he doesn’t think it’s a sensible way of thinking.
But above the masochistic competitiveness people feel over their ability to handle spiciness, there’s an additional curiosity when it comes to the bitterness and other flavours found in IPAs.
“There’s definitely still an exploratory sense to it,” Carpenter added, and now, more than ever, “people want to push their palates to the limit.”
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